A day trip to 'The Star City of the South'

J. H. Osborne • Apr 19, 2019 at 3:06 PM

ROANOKE, Va. — Mom and I took a day trip up Interstate 81 two weeks ago to “The Star City of the South,” the nickname of Roanoke, Va. Our main destination: an 80th birthday party for her twin nieces, Ella Ree and Valla Ree. Our diversions were a wonderful, pre-party lunch at family-style restaurant The Homeplace, a post-party trek to the top of Mill Mountain to see the “world’s largest man-made star,” and a late-night snack stop at the famed Dip Dog Stand  at Marion on our way home.

Mom will be 86 in August, so she was a bit more than 5 and a half years old when the twins — daughters of her sister and brother-in-law Mr. and Mrs. Carson (Venus) Lawson — were born. Mom, the baby of 10 siblings, nine of whom reached adulthood and had children, has several nieces and nephews that are near her in age. My Aunt Venus named the twins, her firstborns, Ella Ree and Valla Ree. I was in my teens before I realized it wasn’t “Valerie and Ellerie.” And on top of that, I’d grown up hearing them called “Tootsie” and “Valla Ree.” They have lived life away from here as simply Valla and Ellla.

Headed north for the party, I asked Mom why Ella Ree had gotten a nickname and wondered if Valla Ree felt left out by not having had one. The answers were the older kids in Mom’s family had given Valla a nickname, too, but it made her cry and my “Popie” Null Wallen told them to stop calling her that.

The twins weren’t surprised to see their sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Jim (Brenda) Mays, of Bloomingdale, arrive at the party — held in an exquisite parlor at The Glebe, an upscale retirement community in Daleville, Va., where Valla has had an apartment for 14 years. But they were surprised by Mom (and her driver — me), as well as their paternal first cousin Patty Moore Osborne and her husband Ray, of Kingsport. Seeing the astonishment of the twins when each saw Mom and their joyful embraces of her made the whole trip worth the journey for me.

But if that was the cake, the icing was listening as each of the twins spoke about their lives, from birth and childhood on their paternal family farm — on the Lee County and Scott County line near Beech Grove in Southwest Virginia — to college life together at Radford University, and careers and families, and in recent years travel adventures with Brenda. Speaking of cake, there were three at the party, which also celebrated the 95th birthday of Valla’s friend Dan Janosko.

Valla talked at length about great memories of “life in the country.” Some of those included: their father taking them to school on either Maude or Patsy — the farm’s work horses; getting electricity, followed quickly by a refrigerator, when in the third grade; working alongside their mother to be self-sufficient (canning beans and other vegetables over an open fire all day, hoeing the crops, churning butter, raising and killing hogs, and more); the excitement of “going to town” (Gate City), the three sisters sitting between their parents in the farm truck’s only seat; a one-room school through the week; a one-room church on Sundays, followed by a lot of company for dinner (“Dinner was called supper and lunch was called dinner”); breakfasts most mornings of eggs, sausage, gravy, biscuits, and oatmeal; and after-school winter suppers of soup beans, cornbread, fried potatoes, and onions.

Ella followed up by talking about how much the three sisters have enjoyed going on trips together (with Valla’s son Mike leading the way) over the past 14 years. In all, they’ve gone on nine trips together to such destinations and New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C.; Baltimore, and Wisconsin.

Dan said the three sisters getting together epitomizes “happy.”

“When you  get those three sisters together in the kitchen and there is more laughter, carrying on, and happy talk than you’ve ever heard anywhere” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the definition of happy.”

The party was scheduled for 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. I went to early church service (8:30 a.m.) and had Mom in the car by 10 a.m. to start our trip. My goal was to arrive in Roanoke in time to take her for lunch at The Homeplace, which I’ve enjoyed before. It’s in Catawba, Va., about six miles off I-81 as you are getting into the south end of Roanoke. Located in an old two-story farmhouse, the restaurant serves “family style” meals featuring a choice of meats and all the sides your table wishes to order. The fried chicken is wonderful. So is the roast beef. I love their slaw and so did Mom, and we both have high standards for slaw. Everything was delicious and we both left there full as ticks. But she couldn’t resist getting a peach cobbler to go. We arrived at about 1 p.m., amid the after-church crowd, and had a 40-minute wait for a table for two. The service was excellent. We declined refills on food items and our glasses were kept full. The policy is you may carryout any leftovers from the initial round of food served to your table. But if you ask for more and don’t finish it, there is an additional charge for what you do carryout. Prices (including tax) are: $16 per adult for three meats, $15 for adults for two meats; $9 for children 3-11; and no charge for children under 3. Our bill, including $2 for cobbler: $34 (plus tip).

We left the party at about 5:45 p.m. and our next stop was the Roanoke Star. When I was a child, all Roanoke meant to me was “the star.” We’d pass through downtown Roanoke on our way to visit my paternal Uncle Paul and his family in Lynchburg, Va. From the backseat, we could see the star in the day. But the real fun was on the way home, after dark, when we’d be able to spot the star well before we passed it. I always wondered about the star. A few years ago I met friends for a weekend in Roanoke and we went up to visit it at night. I wanted to show Mom both the size of the star, up close, and the view of the valley from the observation platform at its base.

According to visitroanokeva.com: It is the largest, free-standing, man-made, illuminated star in the world; it was constructed in 1949 and meant to serve as a seasonal Christmas decoration for the holiday shopping season; the structure is actually three stars that are formed by 2,000 feet of neon tubing; it was first illuminated on November 23, 1949; the structure is 88.5 feet in height and the star weighs 10,000 pounds; it is visible from the air for 60 miles; it is primarily illuminated white, but on special days is can be lighted red, white and blue. It is on Mill Mountain in a park which includes the observation platform (viewable online via the “StarCam”).

Our last diversion came an hour and a half later as I finally, after decades of temptation, exited I-81 to sample the Dip Dog. For a Sunday evening, it was a busy place. Mom was overwhelmed by the choice of flavors for ice cream, sundaes and milkshakes. I just wanted a Dip Dog. She decided on a pineapple shake. I ordered that and one Dip Dog. The guy through the walk-up window asked, “Just one?” with such disdain that I immediately said, “No, make it two.” I didn’t regret it. Dig Dogs are wonderful. And Mom loved her shake, which I think was made with frozen custard. We enjoyed our treats as we headed on toward home. We made it by about 9:30. So, not a bad day’s activity for less than a 12-hour tour.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at josborne@timesnews.net.