One of my cousins passed away just before Christmas. He was not my last relative on my mother’s side, but he was the last to live in the small town where she was raised and where we used to visit when I was a child. Just a small town in the mountains of West Virginia, one that used to be driven by coal mining, but now, thanks to the New River Gorge Bridge and whitewater rafting, is driven by tourism. I remember a small town with a few stoplights, a post office, my grandfather’s office, one boutique, a Ben Franklin and a department store. That is not the reality today, but rather the place that exists in my mind. When I last visited, I felt almost violated by the people with no connection to the town who came to spend time and money for a weekend before returning to their real lives.
That’s the town where I have attended too many funerals, the town to which we used to escape summer in Richmond, where the mountains offered a respite from the heat and boredom, where my grandmother’s geranium-scented porch had a glider and chaises, and where, miraculously, as children, we managed not to ruin her nice things. Where there were tiny bottles of Sprite and Coke (which we never got at home), Fiesta Ware at breakfast, Spode at supper, and where the adults drank beer and talked into the night at my aunt and uncle’s houses, while we marveled at the secret world that adults inhabited when they thought the children were not listening.
This is all, of course, colored by the power of the past: things seemed easier because they were. We would cram into a compact car (as was the style in those days), and my mother would drink coffee as if she would win a coffee drinking competition while we argued in the back. We would stop for lunch in Lexington before hitting the switchbacks where the vistas were as breathtaking as my fear that we’d careen over the edge into oblivion. I would spend the entire visit dreading the return trip, during which, until we discovered the magic of Dramamine, I would inevitably vomit from car sickness.
At the time, I envied small town life: getting the mail from a post office and knowing that you were connected to a family who had been there for years and was not going anywhere. (That is not really the case: my mother used to say she was so glad to have “left those hills,” and my family left town to attend high school and college. All but my mother returned to stay, at least for a while.) Because this isn’t the place from which I came, I couldn’t return. It is different, somehow, from my own hometown. Hometowns tend to be places where we start inventing ourselves, and we don’t always want to go back to show off the current incarnation.
Where we are from defines who we are and where we are headed. Years ago, my now husband and I stood watching the water in Belhaven, where his grandparents are from, and decided we should get married and have children. In retrospect, it was a romantic sweeping gesture of an idea, but one from which I have never looked back. So, these places where our families lived and grew and loved and died and are buried become touchstones, physical manifestations of what was and what might still be.
Recently a friend suggested that, given the chance, we pack up the family and move overseas. I know plenty of people who have successfully done so, but I don’t think that is for me. My husband is a Raleigh boy, born in the old Rex Hospital on Wade Avenue and raised in Mordecai. I moved here post-undergraduate and have been here for more years than I wish to count. Even if we could afford to do so, we have no desire to even leave our neighborhood, and next year my oldest will attend the same high school my husband did. Could be that I am old, or that I have lost my sense of adventure, but that continuity comforts me.
Maybe L.P. Hartley was right: maybe “The past is a different country: they do things differently there.” I like the idea of the past as a visceral place. We don’t know, really, where we might end up in the future, but we know the countries and customs of our individual and collective pasts. Those are tangible, and losing a tie to one, especially to death, stings.