When we were kids, we’d go to Virginia in the summer, making the all day drive in a Volkswagen bus from Michigan to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The drive was long and boring, and had a risk of car sickness but Granny and the farm would be at the end of it. Granny wasn’t always at the farm. When I was very young, she actually worked in Roanoke as a nurse. After my grandpa passed, she went back to school and became an LPN, so we would stay at her little apartment in Roanoke sometimes. It was exciting because we got to eat cereal from a box and there were striped snails on the porch rails.
Granny spent most of her life in Floyd County, with periods in West Virginia coal country and Roanoke where her father was a carpenter and bricklayer. Both her parents were from Floyd County. She graduated from a church-run high school and married a Floyd County man when she was about 21 (a marriage that was apparently scheduled around the theft of Grandpa’s truck, which some moonshiners ran off in). They started their family just before World War II and during the War my grandfather worked in the shipyards and Granny lived with one of her sisters-in-law. They went church in the same building where Granny graduated from high school and when their farmhouse burned down, they bought that church house and lived in it.
The farm was where Granny and Grandpa raised five children, numerous beagles, dairy cows, Black Angus cattle, a couple of fierce rabbits, pigs, chickens, strawberries, beans, corn, hay and a host of other things. When I was a small child, one of my uncles had an experimental farm where a bunch of hippies came to practice agriculture. Granny would take us for walks around the pastures and into the river bottom to the big white rock that my mom and aunts and uncles had grown up jumping off of into the river. She’d take us to look at the newts in the spring house, next to the old house site where the farmhouse my mother grew up in had burned down, a couple of years before I was born.
When I was a teenager and staying with Granny for a semester the farm was rented to a neighbor. The neighbor was feckless and Granny didn’t much approve of his methods. In the spring she said the corn was too short. Other things that Granny didn’t approve of included old people who drove too slowly on the two-lane highway to town, people who sang too loudly and tunelessly at church and her sister in law coming up to pick stray hairs off her coat after the service. Things that Granny did approve of and enjoy included transferware china in chocolate brown, soft boiled eggs, word play (like the mechanic’s shirt she found that said “ART” on the chest, so she embroidered other anatomical labels like “helbow” on it), and playing weird pranks like sticking plastic skeleton feet under various of the upstairs doors in the old church house.
Something Granny particularly enjoyed was genealogy. Talking to her was like sitting at the trunk of the family tree looking up and learning the names of each leaf and branch: Shanks, Vests, Connors, Wickhams, Livesays, Thurmans, Redmonds and Allens. I learned how to tell a first cousin once removed from a second cousin, and how it could be that my grand parents could share a cousin in common but not be related to one another. She taught me the 11 names of my Grandpa’s great grandmother (all of which I can still recite) and the names of her own father’s 11 brothers and sisters. I can only remember seven of them, but one of them was Aunt Gatha who helped raise Granny, then helped Granny raise her own children, before dying at the age of 102.
I was going through some papers once and found the funeral bulletins for my Grandpa and Aunt Gatha. I realized they died in the same month (about seven months before I was born) and thought, that must have felt like the end of the world for Gran. That’s what I often think of when I read a book of poems the family published when Granny died. She was always chipper and from all I could see she enjoyed the last 20 years of her life very much, but the poems she wrote are wistful. I put my copy in some place Very Safe and can’t find it, but it the last poem describes Little River, the broad stream that flowed through the farm. I can picture the river running over the rocks pasture and the last line of the poem:
“until my forever merges with thine.”