As I Lay Dying, a Tale of Family Ties
Although I now live in retirement in the mountains of eastern West Virginia on the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley, I have always felt the tug of the hill country of Appalachian Ohio along the Ohio River where so much of my DNA is buried. My folk grew up in that land along the Ohio River east of Cincinnati, the descendants of people who had come into Shawnee country in the early 19th century. I feel strongly about family ties and links to the past and am always fearful that we are not doing enough to ensure that our children also know those who came before us.
It’s a beautiful patch of pulchritude, these rolling hills, a bit older and a tad more beaten down that my more pronounced geography nearly 400 miles further east where the Appalachians begin. When I was a young man I read a lot of Faulkner novels and at times likened his imaginary setting of Yoknapatawpha County with that part of Adams County, Ohio, where my folks grew up. For someone whose imagination might have been a tad too active, I saw lots of what I thought to be Gothic elements in the land and in the people.
“Life was created in the valleys. It blew up into the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down.”–As I Lay Dying, William Faulker
I hadn’t been back for many years until my wife Jody and I ventured over in the heat of summer in 2007 to visit Gerald, one of my few remaining ﬁrst cousins. Before getting to his house, though, north of Portsmouth, we went to West Union, where my maternal grandparents, Julia and Alexander, and my uncle Graden are buried. Graden was a gifted young man cut down in his youth during the Depression when his bread truck was rear ended by another young man. My grandmother’s heart was also buried with her son back then in the 1930s, although she never pressed charges against the other lad, who had fallen asleep at the wheel pushing himself to get home, too.
Grandma Julia was a shining light in a genteel farming family living in the northern part of the state and was brave enough to follow Alexander to Oklahoma shortly after the Land Rush where she married him. He was a teacher, born right after the Civil War in Virginia, and more than a bit of an adventurer. She was some 12 years younger and his second wife. His family homestead is in the Winchester area of Virginia and only a little over an hour away from where we live now. Many of his family are buried in two different church graveyards off the beaten path to the northeast of the town, one the resting place of Confederate sympathizers and the other a bucolic setting for those who didn’t think that that war was an especially good idea.
As I get older I more frequently ask myself the old “What If?” questions. What if something had been ever so slightly different so that any of my grandparents had not met? What if my parents had not gotten together when they did and what if they had chosen not to have children? And then there are the larger “what if” questions of several hundred years ago when American frontier people were asking themselves if they had what it took to pick up stakes and move west to ﬁnd a new life. Tough decisions in the best of times, but in 1820 even tougher I would think.
Alexander’s story is one of restlessness and wide-eyed wonder. His father was an Irish immigrant who was pressed into the Lost Cause’s cavalry late in the War when “old men” and boys were being dragged into service. He promptly deserted at the ﬁrst opportunity and hunkered down to wait out the war. Later when his son was old enough to help on the farm, he criticized his plowing, saying he would quit if he couldn’t cut a straighter line. That was all Alexander needed to say adios to the life behind the plow and set off to make his own way. He went to Martinsburg, WV, a main rail line west at the time, waved a ﬁst full of dollars at the clerk, and asked how far that would take him.
From my selﬁsh perspective, I’m glad he ended up in northern Ohio, near Carey, where the beginnings of my maternal narrative starts to unfold. The lady he wooed and married there, unfortunately, died a few weeks after childbirth which, sadly, was not that uncommon a story at the time.
“The wagon moves; the mules’ ears begin to bob. Behind us, above the house, motionless in tall and soaring circles, they diminish and disappear.” As I Lay Dying
He returned to Virginia, but something about those Ohio girls drew him back. So back he went, taught school and tried to farm, and wooed my grandmother. He ran afoul of her family, though, who thought he was just a little too rough around the edges for their pampered daughter. So he said goodbye to another farm and left in a huff and followed the alluring call of the Sirens in The Oklahoma Territory. Much to my good luck Grandma Julia wasn’t as pampered or genteel as some thought and later boarded a train to follow him. She must have made quite a stir in northern Ohio. She had also just graduated from nursing school so she had a vision and an independent handle on her life. I still marvel at Julia for defying her family and making that trip.
But the adventure didn’t turn out all that well. They lived in a sod house and eventually lost everything to a prairie ﬁre that did them in. Plus, Alexander was showing signs of TB of the bones. So they swapped farms sight unseen for a hillside place in Bentonville, Ohio, just outside West Union in Adams County. Thus starts the distaff side of my ties to the Ohio hill country.
Their sense of family had been tried and somewhat tested, and they gave it a go although they couldn’t live together for periods of time. Grandma ended up having to run a boarding house in West Union and was famous for her pies with crusts so lard ridden that they were Sirens, too, pulling in people from far and wide. And it was in this boarding house, now long gone, that my mother Margaret met Brooks.
Down the road a way, my father’s family were eking out a living as dirt poor hill farmers. It was a hard scrapple life trying to make a go out of faming where farms weren’t supposed to be and raising some livestock to peddle. It was a tough time even trying to survive, let alone prosper, on such a farm.
My paternal family had started out in Virginia, also not far from where I live now, benefactors of land that was rewarded them for service in the Revolutionary War. Their land was also on a hillside in a gathering called Powell’s Fort, on a switchback coming down the Massanutten range that forms part of the eastern boundary of the Shenandoah Valley.
As I think of my maternal and paternal families, I see how their universes were spinning sometimes close to one another and sometimes far apart. But there is a sense that somewhere down the road they would collide.
On the down side, my sense of family ties that sometimes went a bit awry probably starts to play itself out here. Jeremiah, my great grandfather to the 5th degree, wrote in his 1799 will that he was leaving his daughter Chloe $1 because of disobedience. This sentiment has always stopped me in my tracks. Whatever could she have done to be disinherited? I only hope she had a memorable roll in the hay with a tinker peddling his wares up and down the Valley and it was worth the the old man’s vengeful wrath. Although that’s all I’ve ever been able to ﬁnd about her, she was also a feisty woman with a mind of her own.
Like all of them, details of their lives are mostly lost to time. By the 1820 census, those who had survived had all moved west, mostly to Kentucky. From there, some must have swum the Ohio River to ﬁnd even more inhospitable land on different hillsides to farm. Many eventually ended up in Ohio regiments ﬁghting in the Civil War, but fortunately none of them ran up against my Virginia great grandfather in his short-lived military career.
By the time I came around, most of my father’s immediate family no longer lived in the Ohio hill country since there was no meaningful work and little promise for a future there. It was a harsh place to live, especially during the Depression when life was especially difﬁcult, if not downright grim at times. Many of the men were prone to ﬁghts and at the least perceived provocation. As my cousin Gerald told me this past weekend, they could get serious real fast about hurting you.
Rural poverty, bad health care, and not much attention to education were the prevailing winds of the time and place. Such hard times put a stretch on families, mostly large who depended on the boys to be farm hands and the girls to cook and clean. My aunts to their dying days almost snarled when they would reﬂect on their lots in life before they could escape to the industrial north and independence, albeit in dank manufacturing jobs. But they kept up their sense of family and never totally let go of their lifelines to the hills and those they left behind.
My father had the hardest time letting go and would return back at every opportunity, especially to funerals. And he would always drag me with him, a strange visitor to an even stranger land full of people and tales that I would later identify right out of the pages of Faulkner. Thus the association with the Gothic.
“It is as though the space between us were time: an irrevocable quality. It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us like a looping string, the distance being the doubling accretion of the thread and not the interval between.” As I Lay Dying
So when my 72-year old cousin Gerald sent me a Christmas card telling me that doctors had told him his ticker had deteriorated so much it was now beyond their repair, I made plans to visit and roam those hills with him before I lost the chance to know where our people who came before us lay buried.
As we left Sunshine Ridge, a beautiful old fashioned cemetery, way back in the hills where his father, our grandparents and our maternal great grandmother are buried, we stopped by a picnic area where the remains of their schoolhouse stood. I confess to walking off with one of the foundation corner stones to keep for myself. Driving away, I took one last look at the family grave sites, lingering a bit at great grandmother Jemima Shaeffer’s nearly faceless stone which only said “Dide” without the date which I know to be 1915. Way back in the 1980s on an earlier trip, my young daughter had asked me who this woman was, since she thought “Dide” was just an alternative spelling of Didi. The only remnant of Jemima’s memory was that my aunts had remembered her fondly as young girls themselves. That wasn’t the case with many of their kinfolk.
With the darkness coming on, we visited two more graveyards, one a well kept one that has the remains of my great great grandfather Thomas Warden Evans, probably born in the Powell’s Fort site on the eastern side of the Shenandoah Valley. He would have been a nephew of the dear and disinherited Chloe. Years later this man would lie about his age and join the Union Army when he was in his 50s but claimed to be younger. He would also have been a contemporary of Alexander’s father over in Virginia who wanted nothing to do with the war and took an alternative way out.
A few miles away up on a hillside was another grave site, fairly inaccessible and private with only two stones, both of which were substantial. One marked the grave of Thomas’ son, my great grandfather David Evan Evans. Gerald and I knocked on the door of the small farmhouse to ask permission, probably from some distant kin of ours, to visit the grave site. We chatted with the wife who was friendly but didn’t ask many questions and never invited us in. We just thanked her and then started the climb up the semi-frozen rut to where we thought we were going. A possum running easily on a downed tree alongside the steep incline made our slippery and stumbling climb look even more difﬁcult. But we found the spot where David and his wife Harriet Jane were buried in the early years of the 20th century.
A haunting moment to look around at the hillsides and the meager ﬁeld along the road where the weathered tobacco barn was still functional and standing. A friendly dog tied to his own house in the shade nearby wagged his tail as though to wish us well and to let us know all was secure under his watch.
Thus ends this phase of my narrative, which is really not mine but one of all those who came before me. It was a hard life living off the land in a beautiful but unforgiving patch of earth that demanded your unrelenting labor and gave you back few smiles. People tended to be hard, isolated, unforgiving and prone to violence. The lifestyle just appeared to come with the turf.
One of the artifacts in my family genealogy is a photocopy of a January 1924 jury verdict in favor of my uncle Dewey who had been acquitted of murder in the killing of a hot head who had harassed my uncle’s girl friend and then taunted my uncle with a challenge to do something about it. My uncle grabbed him, pulled him close, and shot him in the heart with a small caliber pistol. In the deposition, some one testiﬁed that this man was in an ill temper that night and had consumed far too much illegal whiskey and that he had said earlier that he intended to use his black jack “to crack some son of a bitch’s head before he got home that night.”
My parents eventually left those hills, somewhat conﬂicted, but knowing they had to go in search of a better life and home for their family. But, as I said earlier, my father was never able to fully leave and would return at every opportunity to visit. In his own journeys, he became a bit of a funeral junky. He always dragged me along, too, which was a formative but bafﬂing experience for a young boy who didn’t really belong and didn’t know the players. It was only later in life, unfortunately after he had passed when I had some of the right questions to ask but there were few people left who knew the answers, that my curiosity fully grew.
My cousin’s children have no interest in their heritage so I can only imagine this particular link to the past will die with him. I certainly don’t belong there and could not ﬁnd “home” there, although I feel a sense of the place and seem strangelycomfortable with the bigger questions of family, history, and mortality when climbing up one of those muddy hillsides to stand where some of my forebears lie.
So Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha County is not foreign to me. This odyssey for me was a journey not just to a place but to a frame of mind. I have Mr Faulkner to thank for sharing his rendition of Homer’s concept of “Nekyia” where the living try to ﬁnd deeper signiﬁcance in their own lives by trying to understand their ancestors.
As Agamemnon said to Odysseus: “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”
These people lived lives that are foreign to me, almost to the point where my imagination and research fail me. They had to work hard but were strapped by a bare-boned poverty that stole most of their existence. Children were lost young, disease had few antidotes, education was primitive at best. The life that was given my forebears forced them to live it in a more difﬁcult manner than we can imagine. I don’t know what the spiritual side of their lives were, but I can only imagine they didn’t talk much about it.
Even with all that mystery separating us, I feel compelled to continue to speak out softly to them.
- William Faulkner photo by Carl Van Vechten from the Library of Congress (public domain) via Wikimedia Commons. All other photos provided by David Evans.