Crickets chirping. Fireflies glowing. Water rushing. Birds singing. Kids’ laughter. Screams of joy. Singing silly songs. Mammaw humming nonstop.

When these sounds reach my ears, I am transported to my childhood. My sister, Jessica, and I grew up in the same house my parents still call home in Knoxville, TN. When I go home to visit, I still sleep in my childhood bedroom, the one I picked out when I was three years old (it’s a little bit of a weird feeling). We were lucky enough to be those kids who had extended family close by. My mom’s parents (mammaw and pappaw) live in Oliver Springs, a microscopic town about 35 minutes from Knoxville. Its claim to fame? Oliver Springs sits literally right next to Oak Ridge–home of the A-bomb. 

In my head, my sister and I spent the majority of our childhood at my grandparents’ or listening to a teacher drone away at school. We were out of school beginning in mid-May and didn’t return until mid-August. Not only were my grandparents in Oliver Springs, but 2/3 of my mom’s siblings and their kids lived there too. Can you say lots of cousins? As luck would have it, all the cousins are within three years of each other and all girls (save one boy). This is bound to get confusing, so check out the Cox family tree here. We absolutely loved spending time with each other and would always find reasons to be together. My sister and I spent many nights at my grandparents’ house running back and forth in the middle of the night to one set of cousins who lived right next door. On our runs, we’d always end up dodging spiders, frogs, crickets, and other things that go bump in the night.

Many of my earliest memories are from family get-togethers at my grandparents’ or cousins’ house. We always celebrate the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas together. Follow me for a trip down memory lane, but don’t stay too long in one place…I think the future will be far more interesting than the past.

Pappaw has been admitted to the hospital for rotator cuff surgery. I remember going into his room after the surgery and talking to him. We only stayed for a few minutes and then my mom and mammaw took me out to a toy store nearby (probably Kmart?) where they bought me an amazing set of dolls! There were eight or ten of them all lined up in the box, and all characters from fairy tales. I remember Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood. When we returned to the hospital to see pappaw (he had been tired and took a nap), he had me explain each and every one of them to him. Only mammaws and pappaws love and smile through all the details that four-year olds give.

Summer 1992
First trip to the beach! We had a huge house at Myrtle Beach (before it was over-commercialized). The house was so big that it fit my family of four, my grandparents, two aunts, two uncles, and four cousins. We took long walks on the beach (though they were probably less than a mile) and on the way back as the tide came in, I would grab my dad’s hand and my uncle Steve’s while they pulled me up between them so I didn’t get “washed away.” I was so scared that I would get sucked into the ocean at any moment. Daddy also bought me a mini-float, perfect for five-year-old me. I was supposed to be learning how to ride the rough waves, but instead they ended up pulling me under and taught me how to swallow ocean water. I didn’t get back in the ocean much the rest of that trip and to this day I tend to steer clear of strong currents at the beach. My sister and my cousin, Hollie, invented “droopy castles” during this beach trip. We could  never perfect sand castles like you see in the movies, so we made our own. Think of a big cone of dry sand with wet sand splattered all over it in layers. You have now envisioned a droopy castle.

Halloween, 1995
Today is my Aunt Linda’s birthday. I was lucky enough to spend the night with Hollie (her daughter) and we decided to make her a birthday present. Both of us made these really loud orange jingle bell necklaces. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but after some type of altercation with Hollie, I was in tears. During the argument, somehow the necklace I had made for Linda was ruined. That night, trick-or-treating was cut short. I wasn’t even allowed to wear a scary costume like I’d been hoping. We trekked up and down the street and then went straight to bed with no time to enjoy the candy we succeeded in nabbing.

July 4, 1996
My cousins and I liked to sing silly songs growing up. Usually we would follow a soundtrack. In 1995, we created our own singing group, “The Candy Girls.” “The Candy Girls” performed their first, and only, show for the rest of the family on the Fourth of July. The Lion King took on new meaning that July 4. Jessica and I had the soundtrack, and all of us cousins loved singing and dancing around. What else would we do except create our own version of our favorite movie? The full performance included costume changes, character changes, eating gummy worms (to which my uncle heckled as I was half-choking on it, “Got a worm stuck in your throat?”), and playing around on fake instruments (Jessica was a perfect flutist). Much to the ire of audiences everywhere, Hollie even sand the descant during “In the Jungle,” though very off key. Kudos to our family for not laughing or plugging their ears.

Easter 2000
We welcome a new member to the family. My mom’s sister, Linda, finally married Chris. They’d been dating a while, and he even joined us for a beach trip the year before. I’ll never forget that trip because I thought he was so awesome for reading Dostoyevsky. He also got onto me for calling people “weird” all the time. I rarely call people weird now. We welcomed him to the family officially at my uncle Steve’s house. Chris and Linda said their vows on the front porch, with the reception was catered by my mother (who swore she was never hollowing out a pineapple or watermelon again, and to this day she hasn’t). Several years after their marriage, he adopted my cousin, Adam, loved on his sister, Hollie (who was over 18), and supported Linda in her crazy venture to open her own hair salon.

May 2011
Adam, the youngest of mammaw and pappaw’s grandkids, my only male cousin on my mom’s side, is deployed to Afghanistan. Chris wrote a Knoxville News Sentinel community column a few years earlier about his pride in knowing his son enlisted with the Army Reserves. Adam returned safe and sound on U.S. soil in May 2012, and married his high school sweetheart shortly thereafter.

In high school, when I would try to explain it to my friends, I always said, “Downtown Oliver Springs is so small if you blink you’ll miss it!” While the town itself may be tiny, the people in it are some of the most important people of my life. I learned the value of family and the love of cousins, aunts and uncles. I learned to embrace nature, even when you’re scared of it. They taught me that settling arguments with words always has a better outcome than hitting/punching/pinching/biting (that doesn’t mean I didn’t try it sometimes). Holidays are meant to be spent with family, in whatever form you can find it. Celebrating Christmas with loved ones makes my heart happy. I can’t imagine growing up outside of that bubble. I know 100% that I wouldn’t be the same person. I imagine I wouldn’t love holidays so much, I’d be more inclined to blow up at the smallest things, and I wouldn’t have so many happy memories to fall back on when times get tough.

Below are all the major players from this reminiscing (photos Christmas 2006).

Back: Steve, Pappaw, Stanley
Front: Mammaw, Mom (Vicki), Linda

Steve, Stanley, Vicki, Linda

Samantha, Steve, Marie, Melissa

Jessica, Dad, Mom, Me

Chris, Linda, Adam, Matthew (Hollie’s son), Hollie

Target audience: Families; maybe something in a family services brochure, adoption agency, etc. This story is for people who may not understand the significant part that extended family can play in a child’s life.

Abstract: This short story tells the positive effects that extended family can have on young children through calling out meaningful experiences in a girl’s memories.

Key words/tags: family, holidays, memories, nostalgia, cousins, sisters, Knoxvillle, TN, Oak Ridge, Oliver Springs, grandparents, aunts, uncles, stories