I have just returned from a trip with my mother's brother, my son, my niece and my nephew. We visited my mother's birthplace on the banks of Lick Creek in the western toe of Virginia near the West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky borders. The house that still stands there is believed to have been built by my great, great grandfather, Elijah Shelby Counts in 1863. Though I have never visited this place before, I am no stranger to it. My mother never saw another spot she believed as beautiful as Lick Creek, Virginia. And she told me dozens of stories about growing up there.
On the mountainside above the house, a family cemetery holds the remains of three of my mother's siblings, dead before the age of three. My mother was a little girl when Virginia Alice, Elsie Ruth and Henry Grady died, but she talked about them so much that I didn't need to read the stones. I have always known their names.
I had no idea how emotional I would feel when I stepped out of the van and stood on the ground where my mother had played as a child. Where my parents had walked together along the creek during their courtship. The place she returned to during WWII when a grenade blew up in my father's hand. She brought my older brother, an infant, to Lick Creek to stay with her parents while she sat by my father's bedside at Fort Jackson Army Hospital.
My grandparents moved away from Lick Creek, Virginia before I was born and we never made our way back. But my mother took me there in her memory many times. I knew about the creek and the swinging bridge they'd used to cross it. About the wildflowers that grew on its banks, the barn her great grandfather had constructed without using any nails. The root cellar built into the hillside that housed their canned goods and the smokehouse where they'd hung meat to cure. During this trip, I met two of her first cousins I'd never seen before and it was like staring into the dark eyes of my mother again.
The house is now owned by my mother's first cousin, Ira. He, his wife and sister made lunch for us--cornbread in a cast iron skillet from corn they'd grown and had milled. Pinto beans. Strawberry pie and chocolate cake with cooked frosting. Sweet tea. Though they'd never met us before, they opened their home and their hearts to us--because we were kin and they were rediscovering, through our eyes, the magic of Lick Creek and their memories of my mother. If you'd like to see them, I've posted some photos on my facebook page.
After Lick Creek, we travelled to Elizabethan, Tennessee and the Powder Branch tobacco farm where my grandparents moved after leaving Virginia. Don't you love those names? Lick Creek and Powder Branch.
That tobacco farm was the destination for many childhood vacations. Back then, the house had no running water and was heated by a wood burning stove. On it, my grandmother, Dixie Hay Counts, made applesauce pies and the best buttermilk biscuits anyone ever tasted. She churned her own butter. Slaughtered her own chickens. And made colorful patch-work quilts from the clothes her grandchildren outgrew.
While visiting there as children, my brothers and I took our baths in a big washtub placed in the center of the kitchen floor and filled with water drawn up in a galvanized bucket from the cistern on the side of the house. Ma maw heated the bath water on the wood burning stove. The cleanest kid got to bathe first. Luckily, I was the only girl in a family of four boys, so most of time it was me. We used an outhouse during the day and at night, a chamber pot my grandmother had slipped under the feather bed I shared with my younger brothers.
As we drove down the lane to the Powder Branch farm, I saw my grandfather, Henry Grady Counts, sitting on the edge of his cane rocking chair. He wore a pair of bibbed denim overalls and a straw hat. The plaid sleeves of his cotton shirt were rolled over his elbows. His muddy black boots were planted on the plank floor of the porch and a bucket wedged between his calves. My grandfather peeled apples that way--in thin, unbroken spirals, their red and yellow skins dropping into a bucket to "slop the hogs." I always wanted to help him, but my spirals were too thick. "You waste to much," he said, taking the knife from my small hands.
Once there was commotion in my grandfather's house, summers filled with tobacco harvest and reunion. I frolicked with my cousins outside, where lamplight fell upon the ground and the talk and laughter of the adults rose around us and drifted into the darkness.
The last time I saw my grandfather alive he was standing on the July green hillside behind his farmhouse. I snapped his picture with his three sons and my mother, his only daughter. My mother was in the advanced stages of terminal cancer and I knew it was the last time they'd stand together in this life. The sun danced off my grandfather's silver hair as he was placed, like a child, between his own children. And in that strange reversion that comes upon the very old, his skin was as soft as the skin of a baby. It was all there that day--the journey, the mystery, the cyclic nature of all life, or so it seems to be now, as I am transported back into the shimmering light among the shadows of the summer oaks.
My grandfather seemed old and young at the same instant--somehow beyond the reach of time. It was an illusion, of course, and I thought I'd never see him again. But it turned out, I was wrong. The dead really are alive when you allow the ground where they trod to remember them.