• 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.)