Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Place Forgotten

Traveling home from storytelling at Scott Teays Elementary on Friday (a wonderful school, great audience) I decided to take the slow road home, Rte 34 across Divide Ridge. The ridge was so named because it divides the waters between the Kanawha and the Ohio rivers in this part of West Virginia.

At the top of a hill, this muddy track lured me. There was no mailbox, but I spied a stone wall, much overgrown. An old homesite?

As it turned out, it was a final homesite--a graveyard for the most part abandoned. A few graves, like these, were being cared for, but the rest of the cemetery was a tangle of vines and weeds too thick to even be able to tell if there were other stones under them.

The name on one of these stones was Gonzalez, and I wondered at that. In this predominantly Scots-Irish-English state, a Hispanic name, although not so rare anymore, would have been unusual in the days this graveyard was established.

Or perhaps not--that got me wondering about the heritage and history of this particular area around Red House. Were there Hispanics here many years ago? Why? What trade did they bring? In some places in the states, there were communities of Italian, Spanish, German, Swiss, even Russian, Chinese and Croatian. In all these cases, the immigrants brought a specific trade--tile-making, ceramics, tin, glassblowing, railroads, steel-making and coal mining. So what did this Gonzalez bring to Red House hill? A question without a quick answer, but offering many possibilities for the writer and storyteller.

In the woods below the graves, wildling daffodils brightened the drab woods that still show only hints of green. There was one lone daffodil blooming in the cemetery itself, but these escapees were blooming profusely.

One of the many overgrown stairways leading from the dirt lane (used to be gravel, I could see bits of it here and there) into the graveyard. I admired the craftsmanship of the stoneworker who constructed the walls. Was it a CCC project? Possibly, since they did many such community projects. Or was it one of the Italian stonemasons who were responsible for so many fine walls and buildings in West Virginia? Was Gonzalez a stonemason, perhaps?

Far below, the mighty Kanawha River winds its way through the valley. The river was actually the reason I found the graveyard. I was looking for a place to take a clear shot, without trees and bushes in the way. I didn't find one; instead I found a forgotten place of peace and rest.

These stones were below the road, and obviously well maintained. Someone still visits here to mow and renew the flowers of remembrance. The name on one of these stones was Ice. Those resting in these graves have a lovely spot, shaded by the pines and overlooking a deep valley.
I left the graveyard regretfully. I want someone to come back and care for this place with its circular drive, stone walls and stairwells and rampant daffodils. I want the families to come back, to remember their ancestors, to care for the past. I was but a stranger passing through and yet the place spoke to me.

High on a hill, hidden behind weeds and brush, lies the heritage of many people. Where are they now? Why do they not come here to clean the graves, take time to remember?


Marion K. said...

Hi Granny Sue,

What a lovely entry!

Like anyone else, Hispanic immigrants who ended up in Appalachia tended to get stuck there, I suppose. I don't know much about West Virginia Hispanic history in the era of the CCC, but I do know that in the 1960's there were a number of Cuban families in the Kanawha Valley. I had a Cuban kindergarten friend and later on a Cuban dentist.

Also, there was a Hispanic family in our neighborhood in Charleston whose last name was Lozano and they had been there from before I was born in 1956. It never even occurred to me to ask, growing up, about their ancestry, so I don't know which part of the Spanish diaspora was involved. Unlike the Cuban families we knew, the Lozanos spoke English at home.

Thank you for highlighting the cemetery--this is very meaningful to many West Virginians. I have often thought that the unique meld of cultural influences in Appalachia really shows up in how West Virginians tend their family graves. It speaks to the continuity of the tie between the people and the land, and of the importance of family connection.

To me, the most shocking scene in Denise Giardina's novel "Storming Heaven" was not the one where they threw the union organizer into the furnace (I could see that coming) but the one where the family was denied access to their cemetery after their land had been taken away from them. If more people understood what this means, that many West Virginians had their land taken from them by violence and treachery, they would not so easily turn their backs on those who suffer the same in our own times.

It saddens me to see old cemeteries gone to brush. That happened to the Mound Builders, too.

--Marion K.

Granny Sue said...

Thank you for your comment, Marion. You're right about the importance of cemeteries in our culture. I wasn't raised with it--my father's family didn't do it, and my mother's people are all buried in England. But my husband and I go to his family graves to do the flowers and just remember the people.

Since my parents passsed away, my family members visit the graves often. While we weren't raised with it, many of our spouses were, and we know what is right to do.

There is an old graveyard in the woods behind my house, about a mile back. It was neglected for years because the only way in was on horseback or walking. Now with four-wheelers, the family that has people there is taking care of it again. It did my heart good to see that the last time when I walked out there. The only gravestone there is for 2 babies--the other graves are marked only by fieldstones or are merely sunken places in the ground. Kind of fitting, in a way, for that lonesome place.

bluemountainmama said...

that's my kind of place..... little side roads like that always lure me. and i many times ask myself the same questions of the place.

what a great find!

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