The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (conclusion)

In a recent public conversation about young educated people leaving West Virginia to find their fortunes elsewhere, I heard someone say, “Maybe someday they will appreciate the security of these mountains.” The word security struck me as strange, and so I asked the speaker what she meant. “That word you used, security, why did you choose that word? Because I don’t see this place that way. Help me understand.”

She never answered me, and while I thought several times about going back to prompt her again, I let it end there. I let the question linger in the air because that is its natural place. It is a place between mountains like echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

And so my heart returns to Charles Edward. I do not know very much about him at all, but in some ways I think I know enough. He was the father of 10 children. He had one devoted wife. He was a coal miner in West Virginia and he died at a young age. I imagine he gave his all to the people he loved, and that all probably meant very little of his true self left over for his own use. As a mother, in some ways I can relate to that. I imagine him drifting off at night to a hard-earned rest: Did he dream of his own boyhood, of what he thought the world would bring? Did he drift off to sleep in pleasant thoughts of life beyond the mines, or did he struggle with nightmares of never seeing light again? Though I don’t like to think of it, I worry that my great-grandfather was caught in the echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

Charles Edwards’ youngest son was my grandfather. He died this year, the last of the ten. He will be buried in Fayetteville earth with many of his brothers and sisters, though I don’t know in this moment where his father lies. He probably lies in the ground in Fayetteville with his family. His bones are melding with the land by now, a strange and lovely constitution of former miner, father, husband and mineral. There is poetry in the idea that a miner returns to the earth, lends his elements to reconstituting the very place from which he took value.

As I bury my own grandfather, I think of Charles Edward. I wish I could have been there, could have seen his body laid to rest, could have cried for him on the day he went into the ground for the last time. He hasn’t been much of anyone to me most of my life because he was literally cut out of the picture. He has been a ghost. It is not for me to judge why he has had no real presence with the living until now, but it is for me to call him up, now. It is for me, his great-granddaughter, to pull back the thin muslin curtains and call his name. It is for me to call out to my silent great-grandfather in my own moment of decision. I need him to talk to me.

What do you think I should do? Your great-great-granddaughter is here now. By the way, she’s gorgeous, I wish you could see her ride Lopaz, the wooden gliding horse you used to have for your own children on the porch in Fayetteville. Remember Lopaz? I wish I could know you knew Lopaz was making this generation of children happy. Did you make this horse? Buy it with the little non-scrip you had?

But I’m losing my place. What I want to know is what you think I should do right now. My husband has a calling to Vermont. It’s far away, but it’s mountains. Really nice mountains. And the work is all about helping people find good things to do that don’t compromise the life they want. He’ll be trying to help make fathers of ten children sleep easier at night. You’d like what we are doing. I think you would like it.

What was that you asked? Do we win, does your great-great-granddaughter win? I know why you ask that question, and I forgive you. I forgive myself for wanting to say yes. I think at the end of the long goodbye, my answer to you and to myself is that she one day will not recognize the question. She will live in such a way and in such a world that she tilts her head at the idea of winners and losers. There is very little, Charles Edward, that I can give you. You are gone in most definitions of a life, and yet here I am writing about you and feeling motivated by your spirit. I give you all I can around shaping the future.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

I say it is security because it does not change. I say that which does not change should be evaluated with a keen eye and unsentimental heart.

I say security is something to be challenged.

And I say letting go of this place hurts the heart, but only as the sunlight hurts one’s eyes when he walks out of the mine, and into his family’s future.

To Everything, Turn.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  – Ecclesiastes 3

My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.

My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.

So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”

Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.

These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10.  Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.

“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”

All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.

In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.

Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.

And now I turn.

(This piece first appeared on January 22, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)

 

Our Mothers, Farewells, and The Departed

Ada was the biological mother of three of my friends, but it was not until she died  recently that I truly knew she was my mother, too.

I spent most of my late adolescence in her world.  I attended 4-H club meetings in her basement, shared overnights with her daughter, rode in her panel van to Jackson’s Mill and Camp Virgil Tate, ate in her kitchen, played ball in her front yard, ran up and down the basketball court at her church, and even hid out in her new basement bathroom the night before I was married.

Ada was synonymous with comfort and a place called home.

She had incredibly good posture.  I wish even in my tallest, straightest moments I could stand like she did.  Her crystal blue eyes always stayed connected to mine when we spoke; in fact, at her memorial service I shared my belief that talking to her was like being in a tractor beam, and the comment received rolls of laughter in recognition.  Apparently I was not the only  person upon whom she focused her full attention when talking and listening.

Trying to pin down her most memorable trait, for me it was this utter focus in conversation.  While that may not sound particularly special at first, consider how many people in your life you can say always — always — give you their full attention when you are together.  She had a husband who was significantly older than she was, and who needed her towards the end of his life as much if not more than her three children needed her in their own growing up, yet she never seemed lacking in energy and interest in others.

To see Ada was to feel joy.  I remember hundreds of times I saw her.  Sometimes it was unexpected, like in the grocery store.  Other times it was entirely anticipated as she opened the front door to her home and her face lit up as she exclaimed, “Liz!  Come on in, it’s so good to see you!”  Whether at her front door or in the bread aisle, her presence was consistent and loving.  She was what I think everyone dreams of, sometimes even subconsciously, when they dream of a mother.  She was one of her parents’ eleven children.  As a middle arrival, maybe that is where she learned the skill of managing younger and older people equally well.

This past weekend I drove up to her house for the first time since her death.  It was all routine until my car reached the first familiar bend in the road that for thirty years led me to the place Ada raised her family, extended and otherwise.  My chest felt oddly hollow and I took a moment to make sure my heart was still beating.  I took the next turn, and the car rose up the hill which would crest in the homestead I sought.  There was that strange chest sensation again as I reached the driveway and my eyes rested on the place where Ada no longer was and never would be again.

The house is empty, save for a few remaining personal things, their destination and ultimate dispensation to be determined by Ada’s children.  It is a strange place to me now, this domestic structure that for decades held some of the happiest times in my life.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I think it was to feel some of Ada still in the house.  The truth is, I didn’t feel her there at all.  I felt very sad, and I began to process and manage some of the larger grief I feel beyond the acute pain from the event of her death.

When a person and the home they built disappears in a physical sense, it is a heavy thing.  Forced to deal with this passing, I had clarity about Ada and all that she shared with me as an anchor in my own psychic landscape.  I remember a similar feeling when my beloved Uncle Guy died, a physical feeling of loss, like a gaping wound was echoing a cold wind on aching walls.  The deep desire to put my hands on my lost mother, to feel her and see her and hear her again, is still intense.

I know from losing my uncle that the ache will diminish but never fully go away.  When Ada died, one mysterious term kept popping into my head: “The departed.”  While I am not Catholic, I am familiar with the concept of the departed from the prayer that reads,

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

The spiritual concept of a soul having escaped the limits of what we know is, for me, spooky and compelling.  Something about a person’s essence having made an exit with a sense of other-worldly destination rings true in Ada’s unexpected and heartbreaking death.  She departed.  She is somewhere else now.  I can’t see this place, or touch her there or hear her voice, but I feel strongly she is in a new home, where she is greeted — always — with complete love and focus.

As we like to say in Christian parlance, “The tomb is empty.”  That is a metaphor, but it is also reality.  I love you, Mrs. K.  Thank you for everything.  You shaped my life, and I will never forget you.

Image credit: Mary Cassatt

Campfires, Tattoos, and Blood Oaths: Rites of Passage in Adolescence

When I was living in North Carolina several years ago I attended a great training on helping youth navigate their transitions to adulthood by appreciating their need for ritual and rites of passage.  I may still have that material around here somewhere, but for now I “dig out” a lot of resources with Google.  Today I found this project that is very similar to the one I knew in Durham:  ROPE is Rite of Passage Experience.

Children and teens have a natural impulse to create or take part in rites of passage experiences to claim their place as adults. If this impulse is not acknowledged and channeled, it can result in them turning to destructive activities such as drinking, smoking, bullying, sex, delinquent acts, joining gangs, and the use of drugs to mark for themselves and their peer group their entry into adulthood.

I loved the training I attended, because it was open to exploring the opportunities around young people’s natural instincts.  It also helped me appreciate why I think the West Virginia 4-H Program at Jackson’s Mill had such a strong influence on so many adolescents in my community.  The program has taken some heat for borrowing too heavily and perhaps not always authentically from Native American traditions; that said, those traditions, campfires, chants, shared songs, peace pipes, tribal affiliations and spirit sticks grabbed hold of a tremendous amount of teen energy and kept it constructive, serious, and positive.

Adolescence is a time of growth, and change, and mystery.  It is a time of powerful transition and even spiritual evolution.  It fascinates me how primitive but important developmental “tasks” are fulfilled one way or another as kids grow up.  The picture I chose for this post is from the movie Dead Poets Society. Students of a particularly inspiring teacher take to secret meetings in the woods to read the works of dead poets, but also to bond with each other and explore amongst themselves thoughts, dreams, and goals they have never allowed themselves to consider before in the broad light of adult expectations and rules.  For those who are supported, it is freeing and resets their life course for the better.  For the one student whose new fire is abruptly extinguished by a disapproving parent, it is devastating.

Like adults, kids have a need to mark their dramatic transitions with ritual and rites of passage.  That process will happen one way or the other in the adolescent years.   Caring adults can help it happen with purpose and long-term benefits.

Image credit: The Students of Welton Academy