Thursday, October 31, 2013

No wonder they left. My parents, I mean.

That was the thought that kept running through my mind on my recent trip to West Virginia. No wonder they left. They had to.

Before I go any further, please know that I understand that WV has so much to offer: the farming- not easy on the side of a mountain. The mountains themselves have led to the skiing, hiking and tourist industry which has bolstered the state's economy. The coal that fuels so much of our nation originates here. But this has come at a price, and the toll has been taken from its people. I'm not sure where the revenue from these industries goes, but it is not evident in Mercer county. I am deeply moved by what I recently saw in this area and I know I can never think of these mountains the same way again. In order to explain this, some background is necessary.

My husband has been working on his family history for years. He has researched his ancestry back several generations and he encouraged me to look into mine as well. I was reluctant. Mine is painful. I have no one to interview, no one to sit with and to ask questions of. I'm sure there are stories to be told, but there is no one left to tell them. I began my research the same way many people do: with my mother's family Bible. Armed with three generations of family information provided by a mother who is now in the presence of God, I began to fill in the blanks.

A membership to Ancestry.com followed as did much tutoring by my patient husband. I learned about sites such as findagrave.com, and Google's search engine became my constant companion. Soon I was learning amazing things about my family, but I found that I had to take it all in small doses. I didn't want to be guilty of digging deeper and deeper and tossing names aside without remembering that these are people-- families who struggled and wept and worked so hard just to...live.

My father's side of the family began their American life in North Carolina after traveling from Germany. His mother's side worked to build and secure the WV territory (VA at that time). Apparently one group of them entered this country working off a criminal indenture; they were convicted thieves in England! I am not surprised. His family migrated from NC to WV in about 1910. All I can think is how angry their women must have been. Seriously. To move from the beautiful rolling hills of Wilkes County, NC to the harsh wilderness of Bluefield, I just have to wonder how bad it must have been.

There was much mystery surrounding my mother's people. So many links that could not be made. Searching census after census I realized that the stories of the many cultures and ethnicities that my mother told me were true- not that I had doubted her, but after almost 40 years, it's nice to see some validation. Italian, German, Hungarian, Greek. They came to these mountains to dig their income out of a mountain and went deep, deep into the earth in order to do so, emerging with little money and unhealthy lungs. My mother learned to cook from these people-- those were her best memories, she said. She told me stories of playing in the woods and making tiny tea sets out of acorns and dolls out of corn husks. These stories sounded so sweet and innocent. Until just a few days ago when the reality of seeing Appalachian poverty made me wonder...was she that poor? That thought shook me to my core. Was she like these people we drove past who lived in shacks? I knew some of it couldn't be true-- the trailers on the side of the road with the siding that had been stripped off and probably sold for scrap could not have been hers- they didn't have them back then. At least there was that. But then where did she live? I kept looking to the mountains. These are the same views she saw. I wanted so badly to know where she had walked--probably these very roads; there weren't many of them. I tried to imagine the horses that my grandfather raised. The big strong horses that pulled the mining carts along the tracks, winding and plodding along the beautiful, majestic mountains. It was a new pain I felt. A different kind of mourning that I wasn't expecting. I had wanted this area to flourish. I had wanted the place they had been and that their people helped to build to be thriving. When I discovered that it wasn't it was like a whole new area of their lives had been lost.

No wonder they left.

I had limited knowledge of where her people were buried when we arrived in Bluefield. A visit to the Tourist Information office proved fruitless. It is closed on weekends and holidays. That doesn't make sense to me. Isn't that when most people are vacationing and need information? That right there could be a glimpse into why this area is struggling. A quick drive through what must have been at one time a thriving little town further proved the point that this area is in need of saving. In so many ways. Business after business boarded up, papered over. Closed.

As another point of clarification I have to say that I had been to WV once before. I was about 5 years old and my father informed the family that we were going to WV the day after Christmas. I was allowed to bring my prized present: a pull-string Casper the Friendly Ghost doll. We arrived in the middle of the night and were quickly ushered out of the cold and into bed. Except Casper. He spent the night in the car and the next morning his magical voice box had frozen. For the rest of his little life, every time the string was pulled he would say, very, very slowly "Dooon't beeee afraaaaid" and "Iiiii'm a freeeeiindly ghooooost." The saddest one was "Iiii'mmmm cooooolllddd." There are some things you never get over in childhood. This was one of them.

When you look for cemeteries in rural counties of VA, NC, and TN, you have to be careful. The wildlife is the easiest thing to watch out for. These woods hold secrets and their people will do anything to keep them. They look upon newcomers with distrust and skepticism and I don't blame them. This is their territory and you have no right to it. Be ready to say the names of your ancestors and be prepared to know that there may be "bad blood." These are hard people and I say that with all respect. I have that blood.

The first cemetery was elusive. We knew we were close, though, so we decided to approach it from a different direction. This decision was one of those that walked the line of brave, adventurous, and categorically stupid. We did not find an ancestor; but we are alive and that counts for a lot. Out of respect for keeping the mountains' secrets in tact, we will stop at that.

The second cemetery was the most disturbing. It, too, was at the top of a hill. But it was awful. Stones were broken and overturned and graves were sunken in as though the mountain was reclaiming its dead. It was desolate and lonely and I am glad I didn't find any of my ancestors buried there.

The final stop that day was at the cemetery where my maternal grandmother was supposed to be, along with some uncles I never knew. I never knew any of these people, actually, and I was beginning to wonder if I have ever really, honestly, KNOWN my parents. For at every turn, at every curve, up and down switchbacks that give a new meaning to "hairpin curve" we discovered new levels of poverty and despair that was not just a recent development. 
Raw. Harsh. Desperate. Squalor. These are the words that describe my mother's land, my father's land.

No wonder they left.

We found a few graves with names that fill in blanks on my family tree. My husband walked and brushed and scraped and cleaned countless markers looking for who are now OUR people. As the sun began to set we had to leave before the gates were locked. I was ready. But not as ready as I'm sure my parents must have been to leave in 1943.

A way out was provided for them, my strong, brave, courageous parents. 
For her it was marriage, for him it was WWII. Again, how bad must it have been? He lied about his age in order to join. She had a high-school education which, in that day, was more than most. Lives spent at sea, first one coast and then another, finally settling in this area, and staying put after the war ended. Another family from a few counties away did the same thing, so that 50 years later two people could climb a mountain looking for her connection to...something. When all the time, their connection was to each other.






Thursday, October 17, 2013

We live in the country. I have tried to deny it for years, but we do. There are woods in front of us, a field behind us, and when you drive to our house you pass horses and chickens and goats. It's the country.

Often people ask me how I like it "out here" and they comment on how peaceful and serene it is. "Oh, you must just love living out there! It's so calm and quiet." Apparently they have not spent actual TIME in the country. It may be quiet, but you can NEVER let your guard down. 

I am hesitant to go out after dark, particularly in open shoes, because I KNOW something is going to crawl on my foot. It is nothing to think that there is a twig hanging from under your car, only to find that it is a petrified frog. They get in the house, dragging their sticky selves along the floor and leaving slime residue on whatever they have touched. They end up in mouse traps or - the grossest thing of all--under foot! Deer thunder past us on their way to escape the hunters. Strange cries emerge from the woods from some previously undiscovered species, I am sure. On occasion birds (blackbirds, sparrows, hawks) crash into our house, sometimes getting trapped in our back porch. Often, nature takes care of itself in its own "circle of life." The skinks eat the bugs, the snakes eat the skinks, and the hawks take care of everything else. Except this morning. 

I was waving 'bye to my husband (think June Cleaver, no pearls, in PJs) and I opened the front door, coffee in hand. I was suddenly ambushed by the biggest, blackest, hairiest spider I have ever seen in person that was not behind glass in a zoo. I am surprised it didn't just reach up and ring the doorbell with one of its long, creepy, hairy legs. This spider was not a stranger to me; we had met over the weekend as I was assessing the pumpkin arrangement on the porch. I shooed him away then, thinking that I was invading his territory and that we would both live to fight another day. Today was the day.

Coffee went everywhere as I watched him seek immediate refuge under the hall table leg. I have to say, I gave him wide berth-- he was so big he cast a shadow. I stood for seconds in a sort-of crouching position, much like a cagey fighter figuring out my next move.  First left, then right, then left...I assessed what I had with me to use against him: no shoes, lukewarm coffee, and, well, that was it. Not nearly enough for Spiderzilla.  I ran to the kitchen for a minute to get the fly swatter but it is NEVER WHERE IT NEEDS TO BE WHEN I NEED IT! Besides, this thing would reach up (again with the creepy hairy leg) and snatch it away from me. I needed a Big Shoe or some heavy duty spray. I ran back to the hall and he was still there. I ran up the stairs and got the Wasp and Hornet spray that you have to have when you sign a contract to live "out here" and ran back downstairs. I was armed.

At this time I must interject that, when telling my sister about this today, she suggested that I use hair spray. I have resorted to that weapon in the most dire circumstance, but I am a Southern Christian woman and I try to NEVER waste good hair spray.

Caution: If you are one of those people who think that we should not kill  animals, read no further.


So, can in hand, I began to spray the living daylights out of this animal. I mean I sprayed until there was a puddle. He would shake it off and get up and come at me. I sprayed again and again and he would still try to get into the vent. Just when I would think I finally had him, one of those creepy hairy legs would rise up and reach out-- I had to keep repeating "God gave me domain, God gave me domain!" I finally succeeded. He had drowned in the poison.

Now the whole time I was doing this I must have had this contorted, agape, grimace on my face, because I am pretty sure I inhaled some of the spray myself. I have been somewhat loopy for a few hours. Small price.

On to the rest of the day: a trip to City Hall and a subsequent trip to a satellite office for the city (who knew the Parks and Rec office is behind my dentist?) and then to the computer hospital to check out my computer because I have internet issues. While there, the technician, who kept rubbing his dandruffy greasy head and then touching my computer (notice I didn't call him a geek because I am sensitive like that) suggested that I use my old laptop to run a diagnostic on this one. I cringed but agreed, thinking that now I was going to have to go into the closet where the last spider I killed had lived. And I was going to have to wash frog slime off the old computer. It just never ends.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." Matthew 6:34


We have had over 4" of rain in the past three days in our area. Of course we have! My husband and I are chairing our church's annual Homecoming and Harvest Festival this year. This is the first year that we have taken two wonderful events and combined them. The Big Fall Outdoor Food Fun Festival. Banners up, flyers distributed, jumpy inflatable things ordered. Brunswick stew, grilling burgers and dogs, and obviously, it's the South, we gonna cook a pig!!

Thursday I braved the torrents (and really, it was just that) to go to the warehouse store to get some of the food. I wore my jeans, old tennis shoes (found in the deepest part of the closet and was concerned all day that they would go the way of my dry-rotted red shoes) and a sweater and my Yankees cap and a rain slicker. And socks. I tell you all this so that you will know that EVERY BIT OF IT was thoroughly soaked within an hour of leaving the house.
The stuff I got was as wet as if I has sprayed it with a hose once I got it in the car. There was a very small window of opportunity to get it to the church before the cardboard disintegrated. I just made it.


              Photo: In case you were
wondering, Harvest Festival at Alexander Baptist Church is STILL ON, rain or shine! Don't make me do all this shopping for nothing-- I'd better see you there Sunday the 13th! :)

Why is it that, when you are pushing a cart this size through the store, everyone rolls in front of you? 


But I was so "on mission" that I really didn't notice how wet I was until I started shivering. I even thought that the women in Office Max (yes, major events require trips to OM) were staring at me because they were looking at my Yankees cap and knowing that we had not made the post-season. I was sure they were Boston fans. Then I caught a glimpse of myself in a window streaked with rain. Oh. That's why they were staring. I was never more thankful for my hat than right then.



The phone has been blowing up with people wanting to know if we are still on! Of course we're still on! Am I worried? Not a bit. Not even a hint of a little bit. The One Who controls the weather has a plan and that is all I need to know. We have a rain plan and will leave it at that. (The company that I use for events was gracious enough to allow me to cancel the inflatables with no penalty, so that is a blessing.) It makes no sense to worry about the weather. For that matter, to worry about anything! God is in control--all the time.

I know, you are probably thinking that it's easy for me to say that because I have had some kind of cushy, easy life. You don't even know. Don't think that. Just don't. There are real reasons why "Great is Thy Faithfulness" is my favorite hymn.

Do I doubt God's abilities so much that I have the audacity to worry that He will not work things out for my best and for His glory? Am I so good at everything that I think that I have to work all this out instead of the Creator of the Universe? Not this girl. I KNOW God is in charge and I am way fine with that!
Life is hard and impossible and just like that storm yesterday. We are tossed and drenched and beaten. God is our refuge. How could we ever doubt that?

So Sunday we will celebrate our church's heritage together. We will praise God for the harvest and look toward the future. We will have our rain plan in hand and smiles on our faces. Come on in, out of the storm. It's nice and dry and warm in God's house.








Friday, October 4, 2013

The words seem so simple. Two words...really little ones. But they speak volumes and can change a day from bad to good, change a frown into a smile, and they can stay with you for a long, long time. To those of you who have taken the time over the recent days to say "thank you" to me and to those of you who have offered your help, I thank YOU. Going through the busy days running here and there and planning and praying and paying attention to every detail-- and then a simple "thank you" stops me in my tracks and bring me to my knees in gratitude. Please know, dear "thank you" givers and helpers: I thank God for you.

The Scriptures are full of examples of praising and thanking and remembering. Of course, we are to be eternally grateful to God for creating us, for sacrificing His only Son for us, so that we may enjoy everlasting life with Him. We thank Jesus for paying the price for our sins and for loving us even though we are, at best, sinners and no more. But we also look to Paul, who was never remiss in thanking the churches that helped him and also made him get just a little crazy. I mean that with all respect, considering that these churches had Paul, PAUL teaching and guiding them and they couldn't even be bothered to honor the Lord's supper elements and not eat all the food and drink all the wine. Honestly! But he thanked them anyway and he continued to guide them.

My substitute dad, Captain Kangaroo, always taught us to say the
"Magic Words:" Please and Thank You. He would stop and look directly at me as I ate my cereal and tell me to make sure I said that to the people who cared for me so that I would have good manners. Mixing education with corn flakes and Ping-Pong balls. Brilliant.

So if you are wondering if it would make a difference if you thanked someone today, the answer is a resounding YES! Make the call, write the note, send the e-mail. You will feel better and the person you thank may very well do a little dance in the kitchen and shed a tear of humility and gratitude that someone heeded the Captain's advice and said the
Magic Words.
                     

I'm in one of those seasons where I just want to retreat. Having the genetic makeup of generations of warriors, those seasons do not com...