My father’s day gift this year was a drive to West Virginia. My daughter is moving to Ireland and will be gone for a while. She wanted us to visit one of my favorite places together.
Our family’s roots go deep into mountain soil. Nothing touches a more primal place in our hearts than a visit to the Kanawha Valley.
Tiffany downloaded Country Roads Take Me Home and played it as we crossed the state line. We were looking at blue and green ridges scraping the bottoms of clouds as Denver reminded us that “life is old there; older than the trees.”
Our mountains are not as high as the Rockies or the Andes. Those far away mountains evoke awe and wonder. But they are not intimate like the Appalachians. In these mountains, you either want to run away or surrender. Ignoring your Mountain Mama is simply not an option.
People from West Virginia will tell you, ten minutes after you meet them, where they are from. If you show the slightest interest they will then give you their genealogy, like Bible characters.
“I am Dan, the son of Daniel, the son of John, the son of James, the son of Richard, the son of John” (I can go back further if you like.) I actually know who these people were, where they lived and where they are buried. I even know many of their living descendants.
By the time Tiffany and I entered the Kanawha Valley, relatives were waiting to take us up Slaughter’s Creek. We went miles back into the woods and after a while, we ran out of pavement. So we left our car and climbed into the back of the truck. Then we kept on driving.
They were taking us up Scott Mountain, where Richard and Rebeca Scott lived and are buried. My ancestors made their home up there decades before the civil war. After a while, they sent for their parents who had been living on the other side of the Appalachians. Rebecca’s father was Bales Cooper. The people who drove us up the mountain are his great-great-great grandchildren. They took us up the mountain because my uncle was busy on the tugboat. He couldn’t take us, so he asked the Coopers to take us. Makes all sorts of sense.
“I don’t think we have met,” I had said to Richard Cooper. “But you seem familiar.”
“Well, I ought to be familiar, “he replied. “Scotts and Coopers are the same family. Just got different names.”
“How’s that?” I asked
‘Well, there wasn’t anybody else up there on the mountain for a hundred years or so. By now, Coopers and Scotts are pretty much the same people, if you know what I mean.”
At Scott mountain, they showed us the graves and told us how we were related to each person buried there. Then they took us to the Cooper cemetery and told us how we were related to those folk.
When we got down off the mountain, we went to my uncle John’s house.
“Lets go get something to eat,” he said, as he walked toward the river.
We got into his boat and headed toward Scott Island. As we circled it, as I rehearsed a thousand memories about my grandparents and their fourteen children. All of us fifty-four first cousins are tied to this piece of dirt. We know it. All of our children and grandchildren know it too.
To us, the little house on the side of the river is still “grandmother’s house.” We all visit it from time to time. Our cousin, John lives there now. But like he says; we are all welcome. If he's not at home, we know where the keys are.
Strange stuff for our cyber world. Southern West Virginia feels odd to some people.
Not to me.
Not to me.
“All my memories gather round her, miner’s lady stranger to blue water.”
My uncle John is one of those rare West Virginians who never left this place. He is married to the river. He knows its every turn. He knows how deep it is in each spot. He knows where each creek empties into the Kanawha and where up on the mountain it begins. He tells us stories about my father, his older brother, who also loved the river and the land but who left this enchanted valley to serve another mountain people far away in the Andes.
I listen and watch, sometimes too full to speak. Beside me is my daughter, the mother of my grandchildren, two of them named after one of their ancestors and the other suspiciously called Isla – which of course, means Island.
Their mother is Tiffany, whose mother and grandmothers are children of these mountains and who are descendants of the mountain women who have lived in these Appalachian homes for three hundred years.
Tiffany’s children have not visited here yet. But when they do, the Mountain Mama will pull them in. They will not understand at first what it is that keeps calling their names from a place so deep in their soul they can hardly breathe. They will peer at the sunset on the water and lift their eyes to the mountains; dark and dusty, painted on the sky.