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.