Historic Masonic Theatre. ?Chartwell Motors Co.? Nicely Funeral Home.? ?Red Lantern Inn.
Meadow scanned the signs on both sides of the main road coming into Clifton Forge.? Some were new, but she was surprised to discover how many represented images from her childhood.? Yet even in this community, so rooted in history, many small establishments had sprung up, with some carrying a small sign saying “Air B & B” reservations were possible.? The street was mostly bathed in late-Spring sunshine before some rapidly dashing clouds crossed by on their journey over the mountains, leaving a chilled shade in their wake.
She pulled the pickup into a service station, stopping next to a pump with a large-lettered sign saying:
“NO SELF-SERVE HERE.? WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN”
Meadow looked at the other three pumps; they all displayed the same wording.? A smallish, thin elderly man sporting a straw broad-brimmed hat didn’t even look at her, but lifted the handle out of the pump and placed it straightway into the Ford’s fuel tank.? He put the latch on automatic and went directly back into the station office, leaving it to pump away on its own.? She could see the flashing of lights from a television set playing over his seasoned face.
A few minutes later, Meadow pulled out onto the main road once more and began scouting for a place to stay.? She eventually circled back and secured a room on the second floor of the Red Lantern Inn.? It might cost slightly more, she reckoned, but having been a staple in the town for over 100 years – Meadow recalled it from her youth – she opted to book a room.?The town of Clifton Forge was nicely situated on the descending western edge of the Blue Ridge Mountain range and from her room she could see the vast valley spreading out into West Virginia – the border between the neighbouring states only a few miles away.
On the narrow desk, containing a flat screen television and a telephone, was one of those promotional glossy magazines boasting of the region’s attractions.? She smiled to see that it was dated the previous year.?Still, it effectively set Clifton Forge against the beautiful panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains – almost as if it was a gigantic ocean tidal wave rising in the background.? Sitting on the edge of the double bed, she began thumbing her way through its pages.
The photographs elicited touchstones from her childhood memories – the mountain hot springs, ski hills, Revolutionary War locations, the famous water mill now turned into a tourist shop, bubbling streams thriving with trout and grayling fish, and a photo of an old isolated church that James Madison, America’s fourth president, supposedly prayed in during the worst years of Britain’s occupation, when it looked like George Washington’s army had reached its last.
Her finger traced the rugged lines of the old church.? It was small and clearly run down, but the sight of it had sent a flutter through her stomach.? Meadow knew what caused it.? It carried faint similarities to the one-room building she had envisioned in her dream.?They had both been situated on top of what she now knew was a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains.? Both had been empty, light peering through the weathered boards from the other side.
She unpacked her bag and proceeded to walk down the sidewalks she had traversed as a child.?A few moments later, she stood at the front of the Jackson River Government School.? Meadow could still recount the names of all the teachers who had taught her through the primary level.? The school was still functioning, but modifications had been made to modernize it.
A short walk outside of town found her standing in front of a more imposing building.? She looked at the name carved in a sandstone block above the main door:
ALLEGHANY HIGH SCHOOL
When Clifton Forge’s own high school closed down at around the same time, students were re-directed to this spot and it was here that her gift for painting and drawing took flight.?Even now she felt emotional in thinking back to those days when the world seemed to be opening up for her in ways no one ever expected.
And then there was Mr. Koay – art teacher in the school and the person most responsible for her rapid development in the techniques and disciplines of artistry.? Middle-aged, thin, with jet black hair swept back, he had arrived in the United States from his native China.? His father had been a professor and lecturer.? Fearful of the oppressive subversion of the later years of the Cultural Revolution, he had silently arranged to have his family join him for a lecture he was giving in Helsinki, Finland and asked for asylum, which was granted.? Two years later, they emigrated to Richmond, Virginia, where the young man excelled under art instruction.? His talents mirrored those of Meadow and, like her, he had suddenly lost them through tragedy.? An undetected embolism had become implanted in his brain and, soon enough, he lost feeling in his arms and hands, and to a lesser degree his legs.? After what seemed like endless operations, the embolism had been carefully dissipated.? The hope was that feeling would return to his extremities, but it didn’t happen – at least not to the degree required for a fine artist.
Only two years before Meadow appeared for her first year of high school, Mr. Koay, who had acquired a teacher’s degree in Richmond, applied for the position of teacher of art at Alleghany.? The committee doing the hiring were initially dubious.? When he produced some of his earlier paintings, the mood in the room changed dramatically.? He explained how artistic ability ultimately resided in the brain and that his was in fine working order – a comment that produced smiles and an eventual invitation to join the faculty.
All the way back to the Red Lantern, Meadow’s thoughts focussed on her old teacher and just how much he had meant to her.? He would hover over her shoulder explaining how to move the brush or correctly mix the paint, since his own arms could offer little assistance.? Yet it was his words, his love of the magic of what brushes and charcoal could bring to life down to the finest detail, that drew her to him.
Meadow’s thoughts lingered on those days as she gradually fell asleep, well before ten o’clock.