West Virginia is one of the most devastatingly beautiful places in America. If you’ve spent significant time there, you know what I mean. You’ve smelled summer and fall, been embraced by the mountains and jumped in the streams and rivers. You’ve seen the coal barges glide down the river.
In West Virginia, mountains disappear from the skyline. I feel the grating sound of a dragline in my heart and in my teeth as it scraped the top of a mountain away. I can see this from my grandparents’ driveway.
West Virginia has come up a lot over the past week. I’ve been thinking about all the karma that brought me this life and how indebted I am to the legacy of my family. Senator Byrd’s seat has been filled. The bastards at Massey Energy are still coming under fire.
On a recent family trip, my uncle let my sister shoot my great-grandfather’s shotgun over a lake in a residential neighborhood. In the picture, her eyes are closed and she’s pointing up. I called my parents, a little concerned. My mom tsked and said, “Your uncle had it under control, he was throwing a detergent bottle in the air and they were shooting at it.” I said, “Okay, but weren’t they still kind of aiming at the neighbors across the cove?” “Emily, no one was around, it was very controlled.”
My great-grandfather is somewhere laughing and chewing cigars.
West By God Virginia. I’m going to write about my great-grandfather.
I used to spend weeks with my grandparents in a little working-class neighborhood on the Kanawha River near Charleston. My great-grandfather, Paul, lived across the street with his second wife, Fritz. I would spend hours at his house listening to his stories and looking through pictures.
A lot of the wanderlust in my blood comes from Paul’s side of the family. Paul’s father went to Nebraska on a covered wagon. The blanket he slept under hangs in my parents’ house. My great-great-grandfather lived as a kid in a sod house for a year or two and then the family went back to Ohio by way of Louisiana. The stories of the harsh winters were passed down through our family. It sounds miserable.
Paul also had the waderlust. Starting in the 1930s, he would get in his car and drive. He drove all over the country before there were good roads. His photos were of a wild and exciting America full of adventure and promise. He loved photography and took pictures in every medium available, even 3-D. His house was full of boxes packed with family history captured in everything from tin types to Polaroids. I loved it when he would find a box, sit in his chair, and start talking, “Now, these two Wickiser boys got this picture taken for their mother before they went to California to dig for gold. No one ever heard from them again…Here’s a crater from an asteroid I went to out west [digs] and here’s a piece of it I made into a keychain…After they left Nebraska, there was a big flood in Louisiana and all the tombs flooded. There were coffins in the trees when the water went down….now there’s the biggest marlin I caught in the Gulf with my brother Ernest. I got tired of reeling it in, so I shot it. That took care of it [digs in box] here’s a scale from it….”
According to his stories that I remember, he knew the Wright Brothers, worked in a shoe factory as a child for pennies a week, worked for Henry Ford, and was a “local patrol” of sorts during WWI that always made my grandmother roll her eyes. He had a subscription to National Geographic from its first issue. I got his back issues and pored over stories about far-off places like Tibet, the Amazon, and California. He could make anything out of metal and wood. He taught me how to fish on the Kanawha river and we buried the fish we kept in his garden for fertilizer. I ate M&Ms by the pound from his candy dish.
He would sit on his front porch and chew on cigars. When my grandmother crossed the street, he would hide his beer and spit the cigar into the bushes, winking at me to be quiet. When I was in second grade, we were sitting on his back porch and he was telling me about the tom cat that was getting in his trash cans. He got a spark in his eye and brought out his guns. He stood behind me and taught me how to aim. I pulled the trigger and the butt kicked my shoulder back. The metal trash can fell over. “Good, now aim for the tree.” He held my shoulders as I shot again. My grandmother stormed across the street, “Dad! What on earth are you doing?” Her arms were straight at her side, fingers clenched in white knuckled balls of fury. He calmly explained he was just teaching me how to shoot a gun. Argument ensued, something about how it was illegal to shoot guns over the river bank or neighbors calling the cops – I don’t remember the details. I was shuttled across the street and seated at the kitchen table while my grandmother fumed and assured me I was not in trouble.
The older I got, the more I became aware of the tension between my grandmother and her father. As he got older, losing his independence was hell for him. He had cataracts and refused to stop driving. By driving I mean flying down the highway going 90 miles an hour. My grandmother would take the keys and he would hide copies so he could keep driving. She was constantly going across the street to tell him to get off the roof or try to stop him from leaving in the car while blind from cataracts. I know enough now to realize he was fantastic as a great-grandfather but was probably a very difficult man to have as a father.
I’ve been thinking about him while we’re in this economic melt down. My generation is so fucked. I have friends who are dealing with unemployment and coming to terms with the fact that our parents’ generation has no idea how to relate. Even my grandparents’ generation – they were kids during the depression. My generation has to answer questions like, “Well, you’re still saving 10% of all your paychecks, right? Is your employer matching your funds in your 401k? We worked summer jobs to pay for college, how come your college was so expensive?” Ugh. I really shouldn’t start on the boomers.
I imagine Paul in the Depression with the wanderlust and the American Dream exploding in his heart as a young man with a family and no money. No one had money. (No money as in no candy and trapping muskrats to get money from Sears no money.) Paul must have been so frustrated, to have dreams and no way to live them. I’m sure that came out in the sometimes selfish ways he acted as my grandmother was growing up. I know because I’ve had this selfishness. It comes from fear and that fear runs through my family.
I saw fear in his eyes the last time I saw him. He was sitting in his chair by the front door and I knew he was getting really sick. I was leaving and he grabbed my hand, his eyes wet, and he said he wasn’t going to see me again. Like any member of a good Appalachian family, I heard about not seeing people because they were going to die all the time. My grandmother told me she would never see me graduate from high school or get married because she would die. I’ve been asked about family antiques I would like to someday have since I was in middle school. So when Paul grabbed my hand, crying, I assured him that he would indeed see me again.
But he didn’t. He went to the hospital and spent his last days angry at the nurses and circumstances. He was the last in a line of elders my grandmother nursed in death and it exhausted her.
So I am living this life because of Paul, my grandmother and all those before them who made their lives in West Virginia and Ohio. They made this life I have possible. I have the wanderlust and I made it out west. I jump in the car when I need to go and have seen so much of America, this country I love. I have a career and a family that loves me and keeps me honest. I am not trapped by circumstance but sometimes overwhelmed instead by opportunity. I am looking the fear and anxiety than runs through the family square in the face to break the cycle. I am doing this because of them.
My husband and I are at our best when we are on a road trip. I think Paul is with me when I’m on the road, smiling at the open road spilling into the horizon. When I’m in the car by myself I sometimes talk to him and thank him. It’s almost heaven.
One of these days I will drive the whole way back to West Virginia. I will have my ancestors as my copilots and, if there are any mountains left from the Massey Energy Massacre, I will thank each and every one of them for the beautiful life I am blessed with. I couldn’t be here without them.
Almost heaven. West By God Virginia.
I highly recommend reading Beauty Before Comfort by Allison Glock. It’s a memoir about the author’s grandmother, a beautiful redhead (okay, I’m partial) with big dreams and little opportunity in West Virginia. You will laugh, maybe cry, and give thanks for all you have in your life.