Memorial Day Mountain Mama

Williams River
Williams River – my most favorite spot on the planet.

I get a lot of questions about why I live in West Virginia. As soon as people learn that I’m not from here and don’t have generations of family living here, the questions begin. They’re even more puzzled when they learn where it is I have lived and I have friends all over the world and a significant other in Boston. So why I do live here? Well, now, there’s a story for you. The short version is I am wildly in love with Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.  [And with good reason.]

The long version involves Memorial Day in 1974. I thought about posting this yesterday, but it seemed a tad disrespectful. But here it Tuesday evening, there’s a spectacular thunderstorm going on outside and I’m gazing, with adoration, at the pyrotechnics in the sky and the rain bouncing on my patio. I love it here and I love spring and I love that the on and off monsoons of this day will only make the greening of the mountains more vivid, the wildflowers more profuse, and the sky bluer. It’s all good.

In 1974, my father was wrapping things up with the Marine Corps, but had not yet settled on a second career. We were at Camp Lejeune on the southern coast of North Carolina. We knew we didn’t want to stay there, but were dithering about where to go. While trying to make that decision, we headed north to a family reunion in Michigan (one place that was in the definite “no” column of the decision list). Contrary to habit, we took the route through West Virginia.

In Beckley, late Friday afternoon of the Memorial Day weekend, our car broke down. We sat at the Ford dealer and fair gaped at the West Virginia mountains. All of us were awed. Our mechanic, bless his heart, I don’t know his name, was mournful sad when he broke the news that he couldn’t get the part until Tuesday morning due to the holiday. He was really concerned that we were missing our family reunion.

We were not particularly upset. Most of the kin lived in Michigan and we had all summer to dither. We checked into the Holiday Inn. Beckley was not as developed then as it is now. There wasn’t much to do but hang out in the motel. Sunday morning, about noon, the mechanic and his wife showed up with food and invited us to their family reunion the next day. We accepted the food and declined the invitation, but we were bumfuzzled by such caring and concern.

While there is a great deal of community in military towns, it’s somewhat detached and superficial. I never felt an outsider, but I also never felt like any of those places was home. Moreover, in terms of natural beauty, West Virginia won hands down – and I was comparing it to Hawaii, California and coastal Carolina. The mountains and the flowers just knocked me out. My parents and my brother were having the same reaction.  The people, their warmth and hospitality, just made it all that much sweeter.

Without much forethought or planning, we moved here. Through a twist that you wouldn’t believe if it were in a novel, we discovered we had old family friends in Huntington. Next thing I knew, we’d bought a house and had joined a strong church community.

My high school experience was less than stellar; it was my first time going to school with non-Brats. Brats, military personnel offspring, have a unique culture. We move so often that you learn to make friends really fast – even with people you don’t like. Nothing is worse than being in a new place with no friends. Brats adapt and they do it quickly.

My classmates had been born in the same hospital, went to preschool together, went to church together and, in short, had spent most of their 15 or so years with the same people. My outgoing, let’s-be-friends Brat manner didn’t go over well. They didn’t know me and didn’t know anyone who did.  While I wasn’t mistreated, in fact I was treated very well, I wasn’t included in things because no one thought to do so.  What I had experienced for years in moving from town to town and school to school, they wouldn’t experience until college. Once again, I was ahead of the curve.

Nonetheless, my love affair with all things West Virginia deepened into a serious, life-long commitment. I did leave to live in Wisconsin for awhile. The entire seven years in exile, I spent plotting to get back here. I finally did in late 1985.

In these intervening years, I studied Appalachian culture, the stereotypes, the myths and the history. I may know this state better than those born here. Warts and all, I love it. Memorial Day is the time of the year that I reflect on the good fortune of finding my spot on the planet. I don’t want to be anywhere but here.

Because I adopted this place, I go off the rails when somebody lights in about hillbillies and rednecks and outhouses and lack of teeth. It absolutely corks me that Appalachian culture is one of the last remaining ethnicities it’s politically correct to bash. It’s akin to the saying I can criticize my family, but don’t you dare. I can go from zero to bitch pretty quickly in such circumstances.

I had a spectacular Memorial Day. I gardened. I admired the lushness of my version of the 100-acre wood and I pondered all the military folk, some I know and some I don’t, for whom this holiday means something entirely different. But those in war zones probably just want to come home and, perhaps, spent their holiday thinking about home. The holiday for me is the anniversary of finding my home.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the levels prior to self-actualization is belongingness – the need to feel you are part of your community and appreciated as such.  I belong here.

And it’s good to be here.

13 thoughts on “Memorial Day Mountain Mama

  1. I re-read “Death Comes for the Archbishop” recently and it reminded me of the importance of place in our lives. My place will always be the deserts of the Southwest even though I have been transplanted to the Northeast for so many years. For some of us it is rare to be in that place we know is so much a part of us so it is always wonderful to read of someone who has the best of all worlds – a life in a place she loves. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I’ve been feeling a little lost lately–sharing your spirit of place underlines my sense of confusion. Perhaps it has to do with realizing I’m an orphan instead of recognizing the anchor of my offspring…

    I knew I couldn’t leave while I was still caring for my mom, now that she’s passed I wonder if there’s somewhere else I should go. Before it didn’t seem like there was a choice and I settled into my situation. Lately, I sense a fleeting chance to change where I live and therefor, who I am. Is an old comfortable existence just an excuse to avoid possibility? Is it too scary to begin an adventure at ‘my age’?
    Ramblin’ Rosie

  3. Great post, Connie. I think there are still some people around like your Beckley family, though since moving back in 2005 I am distressed by the callousness and opportunism I see, that apparently I didn’t see or experience before.

    Yet, I feel the same way as you after being exiled for 25 years. One major barrier to being totally content being here is my other half’s frustration of finding a job he things is worthy (never mind things are tough all over). He’s suggested we move again, to someplace where he would have more “opportunity”, but I simply refuse because it took so many years for me to come home, my Dad is very ill and won’t live much longer, and Mom, well, I don’t know what will happen when Dad passes. And, I have 8 1/2 years before I can retire. Where’s the point in moving again?

    • From what I understand, things are actually tougher elsewhere right now. But 8 years ’til retirement? Dig your heels in.

      A friend in Vermont and I were talking the other day. She spent years in Arizona pining to get back to Vermont. Mountain people be the same everywhere. Change, as they say, is inevitable, but I still think we are an uncommonly gracious and hospitable people. Take me, for example( <—-that's a joke.)

  4. It is so wonderful that all of you found your home. You do sound so happy there and you do make it sound like home, like the best place on earth. My problem is that I never felt truly at home anywhere – yet – and neither has husband, yet together we have found “home” and that other, external place, well, we keep on looking.

    Your post also makes me feel like saying something so trite, but so honest – beauty is all around us and beauty is where we look for it. I know, gag me with the soppy, gooey sentiment, but it is true, and whenever I visit you here I feel this!

  5. For a long time, home was not a place, but a group of people – so I think I know what you’re saying.

    Part of my self-therapy is to slow down and really look at things. With the help of a relatively new camera, it’s been a rewarding experience – I can highly recommend it.

    Thank you for your words of praise – they come at a good time. –C

  6. Pingback: Comin’ Home « W. Va. Fur and Root

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