Carol Highsmith remembers her Mom

My Mom, Ruth McKinney, recently passed away. After dealing with the sorrow, I begin to think about the fun times we had together and the influence she had on me. Like the time we played the ukelele together and she sang Oh Susanna with me and my friend while my Dad recorded the "performance" on his new super-8mm film camera. Check out this very brief film clip:

Without knowing it, Mom greatly influenced my decision to travel America. Every summer all of my young life, she, my older sister Sara, and I would pile into our new "old" car (Dad would buy a used car every year because the one he bought the year before had stopped running) and travel from our home in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to my Granny's home in Madison, North Carolina.

We loved the "road" South because Mom would always pack the car with "Surprise Bags." They were filled with comic books, popcorn, candy and other treats. We would be allowed to rip each one open if we found the answer to the quiz that she had written carefully on each bag. It would go like this: "If you see a solider along the road, and he is not standing next to a toad, you can open this bag because you have unlocked the code."

We would spent endless hours looking for the clue to open each bag. I think Mom spent a good while writing each poem, too.

Our new "antique" car was always so big that it was like a traveling living room. Each car had a unique odor, as if it had held many other young children -- and sundry pets -- bouncing on the fake-velvet seats. If only cars could talk.

Anyway, we would start out packed to the gills with surprise bags, loads of books and games and old suitcases filled with enough clothes to last the entire summer.

It would not be long before we would start to see the open road. It gave us such a feeling of freedom. We would sing along with country and gospel music on the radio, look for surprise-bag hits, and open the huge windows and just feel the breeze. There were no superhighways back then. It was narrow, two-lane highways and the long, slow road ahead. These roads went right through towns, remember. Usually by the time we got to West Virginia, about halfway to Carolina, the new "historic" car would begin sputter and clank and spout steam. Somehow it would make it to the next teeny town, and we would be at the mercy of the local mechanic. He would always need to order parts to replace the ones that were not working. Between the crippled cars and riding the backroads behind coal trucks and such, it would take us several days to Granny's house.

This sounds excruciating in today's fast-paced world. But to a kid, it opened a world of all sorts of small sights and sounds that I came to love -- and still love today.

Once we arrived at Granny's farm, happy times ensued. I looked forward to cornbread, buttermilk biscuits, fresh milk right from the cows, eggs gathered each morning, picking blackberries and helping to make cobbler that simmered slowly on the old wood stove, Sunday dinner with my 15 aunts and uncles -- Mom was the second-youngest of the brood -- and running around, barefoot and carefree, with all of my cousins . You can see from this photograph taken of me in the backyard of Granny's house when I was about 5 that spending the summer on her farm was a delight.

Every year since those warm, lighthearted days, I have attended the family reunion in Wentworth, North Carolina, at log cabins where my Grandfather and Great Grandfather were born. To this day, I have a great appreciation for historic America, to which I can directly connect through my own large family.

Every summer my Mom's family gathers at these historic cabins to celebrate our American heritage and remember our ancestors. Mom will certainly be greatly missed at the next one, since she was the last of her generation and the family matriarch.

I may not have surprise bags to open anymore as I travel across America. documenting the early 21st Century for my collection at the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/, but I carry fabulous memories of my childhood and those backroads and simple family adventures. I thank my Mom for the good times we had during my childhood, and for instilling in me a sense of wanderlust and appreciation for the simple places and pleasures of our wonderful nation. They will stay with me all of my life.

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