August 1, 2007
It happens sporadically, mostly in the summer, but not every summer. I am not sure how it comes about, but my grandpa gets an itch. It is not caused by an insect, but from memories. It is an itch that cannot be physically scratched. He starts looking towards the southern horizon. He mentions relatives that have either passed away or not been seen in years. His itch is a want to see his homestead, the place where he was born and raised.
It was mid-July when the five of us set out. My mom had finally given into my grandpa’s want and my grandma’s prodding, taking my sister and me along for the ride. We sat out early that hot and humid morning, taking the interstate and debating where and when to eat breakfast. We left Ohio and entered the “Wild and Wonderful” state of West Virginia. Continuing along 77 south, we reached Ripley, our exit point. Another hour of winding roads and roadside vegetable stands brought us to a place where the mailboxes said Chole.
Sitting in the backseat, the only things I could see were trees, grass, and the occasional house. The mountains we drove between were too high to see the tops of from my seat in the back. Comments came from the eldest three about everything, from the condition of the now paved road to the people who used to live in the houses we were whizzing past. Suddenly, we slowed down and turned at a small church on to a smaller gravel road. The road was bordered on one side by a tree-covered sloping hill and a mountain on the other. The speed on this road was much slower, partly because of the loose gravel, but mostly because the old farm was on this road. Even at our slower pace, my mom had to backup the car when my grandpa said, in his soft and slow manner, “there it is.” The opening in the trees that we pulled into was only a little bit wider than our vehicle. Mom popped the car into park, and grandpa fiddled with the child-lock before springing out.
To the unattached person, there was really little to see. The only things still standing were the barn and the corn crib. Both buildings had tin roofs, now red with rust, and wooden sides that were gray with age. Off to the side, in a wooded area, were the ruins of an outhouse, but nothing else remained.
By the time I got out of the car, grandpa was past the barn looking at a creek that separated the pasture from a small mountain. I looked around, part of me wondering why we drove three hours to look at an old barn and a hay field and the other part curious. I had been here before, the summer before I started college. We had not gotten out of the car then. Instead, we had parked at the edge of the opening and looked out the windows. The grass had been high and worries of snakes had kept us in the air conditioning.
This time was a lot different though. Setting my feet on the actual land gave me a sense of belonging. We all stood there looking. Then the stories started flowing from the lips of my mom and grandma. They described to me where the old house had set and how it had burnt down, causing another one to be built a little farther down the hill. The scandals surrounding property and marriage affairs were told that make my family sound like our last names were Hatfield and McCoy. Laughter over silly cousins and crazy aunts filled the air. The longer I stood there, the more I could believe it. I could see the huge vegetable garden next to the creek. I could smell the horses in the barn. Things that took place long before I was thought of, people that died before I was born, seemed to be right in front of me.
Our next stop was the cemetery on top of the second highest mountain in the county. The memories of the people who had been loved and lost filled the stories that flowed from my grandparents’ mouths. Tombstones that contained dates that I only know from history books surrounded me. The wind blew around us as we stepped through the high grass, moving from one grave site to another.
We headed back to the blacktopped roads. Soon we were on the interstate again going north, being passed by cars and trucks alike. Vegetable stands were replaced with supermarkets. Tin roofs became shingles again. The old farm is nothing like the new farm. There was not so much a want to see the pasture and the decaying buildings as to remember what life used to be. It was to remember who used to be there and what used to happen there. The land and the buildings served as prompts for the stories and tales that span generations. Things that need to be remembered must be passed down. They are not the histories of royalty that we will never meet or government officials that might be seen in passing. They are much closer. They are what shape each individual person. These stories are part of who I am. The lives we live are so fast paced that we cast off the stories of those we love. We forget that what they have to say is important. Heirlooms that are material can be passed down, but without the stories and memories behind them, they are worthless.
Melissa Miser is a senior from Cumberland, Ohio, majoring in Political Science.