Editor’s note: This essay holds a special place in my heart, as I spent a lot of time in my own adolescent years with Christi and her family at this homeplace in Loudendale, West Virginia. I loved reading about the family history of the property, the incredibly funny descriptions of childhood antics, the portraits of Christi’s grandparents’ personalities and character, and the legacy of family ties that thrives in my old friend’s family today. I was a “South Hills” kid and Christi was my only true friend in the Loudendale community. I always felt that I had been granted a pass into special world when I would visit her home and her family, and so many years later I read her essay and realize that I was not imagining that. This is essay is a gift that puts some of my own memories into perspective.
I believe you will love this essay, which is divided into several parts this week. It surely had me recounting my own family blessings.
Christi grew up just outside the city limits of Charleston, West Virginia, in a middle class home with her parents and younger brother Bobby. She graduated George Washington High School, obtained a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Charleston and an MA in Special Education/Gifted from Marshall University.
She married Rob Somerville in 1994 and quickly began teaching as an Itinerant Gifted teacher at Midland Trail Elementary. Christi confesses, “ I didn’t know what ‘gifted’ was at the time but I accepted the job any way!” She taught Gifted for 6 years, serving 12 elementary schools from the eastern part of Kanawha County.
After a series of professional shifts within the education field to establish greater security for her growing family, she began teaching at Cross Lanes Elementary School (CLE) to be with her son when he started Kindergarten. She now teaches first grade at CLE and her husband is the principal at Anne Bailey Elementary in St. Albans, West Virginia. They live in Cross Lanes with son Brett who is in the 4th grade.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a deep responsibility to preserve my family’s past, present, and future. A self-proclaimed family keeper of memories, I dutifully planned and organized family reunions and kept meticulously detailed records of important family events, documenting each with lists of attendees and photographs. I spent many hours hand copying a rudimentary family tree with sprawling branches in every direction, past and present, like wild lilac bush left unchecked. However, my well-intentioned efforts all fell by the wayside when marriage, graduate school, my teaching career and a bouncing blue-eyed baby boy kept me from continuing my role as family historian. Life happens whether it’s recorded for posterity or not. Besides, the family tree, like the neglected lilac bush, kept growing and evolving wild as I lived my busy life as wife, mother, and teacher.
Not until just recently, a good friend introduced me to the world wide web of family tree research. Thinking this would be a great way to collect and organize all of my family collections, I jumped on the ancestry bandwagon, just to see what I had missed in those ten plus years of neglect. In order to gain some insight into my own life, growing closer every day to what some refer to as “middle age,” I once again found my spark of curiosity and duty to preserve my family’s past for my family’s future.
I’ve researched for hours upon end the long-lost names, birthdays, marriages, and dates of death of past relatives I’ve never met, living in places I’ve never visited, looking for a connection with something I’ve never experienced. I found myself wading knee-deep in scanned copies of birth certificates with strange yet poetic names, marriage certificates artfully hand-written in real ink, and death certificates stating causes of death I’ve never even heard of in this day and age. It’s a daunting task really. Trying to put it all in perspective—trying to match a name and face to my blood, seeing only hints of familiarity in foggy eyed photographs. But, as I see it, without my relatives, without the sacrifices they made, I would not have had the tremendous opportunities I have had growing up in West Virginia. In most of my research I discovered that once my relatives settled among the mountains, they never left. Generations of my family have lived here—on all sides of my family—since the beginning, even before West Virginia was a state, and some, even before the United States had fought for its independence. I feel somehow deep down in my soul that I owe them a debt of gratitude because, without my family, well, I simply wouldn’t be here now.
When I think of how I grew up as a generational West Virginian child, I can only imagine that my great grandparents never imagined the blessed life their great-granddaughter would be living. I think about my poor great grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Scragg, who worked all day long in the fields just to provide food for their seven children and a few others they had taken into their home to raise. I think of my great grandfather Salvatore Scalissi, who came from Italy and spoke no English, who landed in a foreign world to make a better life for his family by working in the coal mines of West Virginia, alongside sons, brothers, and cousins. These names and faces I see are so much more to me than just a wiggling leaf on my family tree. They are my driving force to make my life the best it can be.
I owe it to them.
(Essay continued, next post.)