Most Americans think West Virginia is the middle of nowhere. Most West Virginians, if they even know of the town of Wayne, think it is the middle of nowhere. The people of Wayne, if they even recognize the name, think Petercave Road is the middle of nowhere. Out that road, deep in those layers of nowhere, my mother was once a girl, but is now buried, within a walk from the house where she was born.
The two lane hardtop leaves Wayne and winds out past the funeral home and up into the hills. Miles into the hills it sends a one-lane gravel spur off to the right. There was never a sign there, because you’d never make that turn unless you were looking for family. It crosses the railroad, then sets a stone arched bridge over the creek, and then disappears deeper yet beyond the hill. That’s Petercave Road.
As you drive it, you must imagine us walking it, in summer, 40 summers ago. She’d talk about her girlhood, another 40 years further back, and she would lean into the sassafras and come back out with the tender spring stem and show me the parts to chew. If you’d walked it then, you’d now pay attention to what overhangs a road, and what is back there in the shade. You’d remember there is some story of hers about this wideness in the ditch, but you forgot the details.
This roadside is special to me but every nowhere road in the wide world has stories upon stories composting in the undergrowth. The writers of the world are always trying to salvage them. I’m torn over this; I imagine myself knowing them all and I feel sick to my stomach with grief. I imagine myself knowing them all then I remember that God knows them all: I think it breaks Him, this curse of knowing all the stories. The preachers talk about His omniscience as if that is something to shout and sing about, but it sounds to me like suffering. Jesus asked His hapless followers how the Messiah could possibly not have to suffer…I suppose He was talking about prophetic texts there, but He could have made the same argument just from the fig trees overhanging the road.
Over there on that knoll is the graveyard, at the end of that one-car track across the meadow. Here, where that grassy track takes off from this gravel road, there was a house – right here, where you see this weeded depression in the ground. Mom’s friend lived here, and the girls would look out from the bedroom window across the night fields in search of floating lights over the graves — their people. Sleeping just a shout from the graveyard you’d expect some mischief, and sure enough in the middle of the night some ghostly presence kicked the mattress up from beneath the bed. Mom told the story for laughs, not fright. The ghosts are the familiar spirits of the hollers: they belong.
These folks believe the Bible, and Paul says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord…” So they have no place for ghosts, no ghostology. But they’re there, as sure as the sassafras. They all appear when the evenings are warm. With no ghostology the spirits are a little unnerving, but they are not malignant. My mother taught me to walk that road at night with no flashlight, and she did not cross to avoid the deep shadows under the trees. The ghosts are not angry; they have no purpose except to stay around. The occasional acts of mischief are simply what children do who are seen but not heard.
As we move on from here pay attention to the grade of the road. The roads all run the slopes, the slopes are all footed with creeks, and so it is really the creeks that map the countryside and the lives. You grow up “on the creek”, you travel “up the creek” or “down the creek”.
Let’s climb this road up the creek and stop at the high point of the ridge, then look down the road as it drops through the leafy tunnel on the other side into the next holler, which eventually stretches to another ridge. In the holler is the house where mom grew up without her dad, who died when she was two, of some disease that he would survive now.
The older brothers had to take his place. They worked the garden and were men enough to kill black snakes in the path to the well. Eventually they left the green country to fight in the War. All came home; they became carpenters, mostly, house-builders. Like many of that generation, they had no interest in introspection or suffering. The depression generation taught them to be quiet, the War made them quiet, Appalachian fatalism made them quiet, and they were men, so they were quiet. She was their baby sister, and so, quiet. But what about that little sister? I should have asked her before the Alztheimer’s changed quiet to silent: did those brothers all together feel like a father to you?
If you grow up too fast, is there a black hole in the memory? She never talked about her girlhood the way I am now talking to you about my boyhood. I never heard her try to find meaning in it all. She’d sing “Que Sera, que sera, whatever will be, will be…”. They all loved this place and lived as close to it as they could till they died of old age, but I never heard any of them try to articulate their affection. This is just where their people were.
She did tell stories. During the war, she said, they would put the radio up here on the porch and put chairs out in the yard and sit at twilight listening to the news of the fighting. Lightening bugs would glimmer all around. She would have been a teenager, brothers in danger, dad long gone, and slowly becoming aware of her own mother’s exposure to grief in the quiet of the huddle at the radio. So I at least got from her that the porch is for listening.
It was here I first heard a whippoorwill, and a bob white, the twilight birds. The call had come from somewhere up in that same willow which must have been smaller forty years ago. Tonight, the moon glows in the upper branches. The moon smiled at my childish effort to mimic the bird’s call and draw him in closer to the house.
It was here I first heard a dog howl at the moon. City-folk don’t hear that sound; we hear whole nights of barking and occasional moans at sirens but not that howl which makes you part the curtains and look down to where the road uncoils and slithers up to the yard. That sound is the closest to fear I’ve felt among the country ghosts. Old people say dogs see the souls of the newly dead as they cross the moon. I guess the ghost must see the dog, too, and the dog knows it, and there’s something in the face of the ghost the dog is trying to report. This is a mystery, yes. Few understand that report. It isn’t safe to try to understand it. There are those in these Appalachian hills who do, but the price of creating your own ghostology is dishevelment all around: they live alone, their hair is unkempt, their houses have rats, their teeth rot. They live too close to the weeds.
But don’t look down on my people as if you’re smarter. The dog isn’t stupid or just yelling his head off out of boredom. We fell with Adam, the country preachers say, and so I think there are fallen liturgies, ceremonies. They fell into the thickets and got lost to us under the brush. When someone dies in the house, and the house is far enough from all car headlights, elemental spirits try on those liturgies, like children try on costumes from long ago, and shapes happen in the dark. The dogs and the spirits play. Just leave them be. They have nothing. This is not your mother, tell yourself, this is a shadow. You can’t talk with it. She is now in the sassafras, just like she always was.
I know. It is a common sentiment, this fuzzy nostalgia, this wondering about lives, this feeling of lives in ancestral places. But it won’t go away — lives, lives, lives. If it is common, that must mean it is a question needing answered. And here is how I want to put it this time: if your mother knew how to chew sassafras when she was 10, what else does knowing her even mean? The philosophers talk about the essence of a thing hidden by the surface, the accidents. But this has misled so many; we love the accidents or not at all. We love each story or it falls into the ditch among the weeds, leaving only a light floating above the graves. God has to know each story because He can’t help it; when a story isn’t passed in the living world, He is one more story more alone.
We go through that sophisticated stage. We want to throw off the accidents of the nowhere we came from, and put on the accidents that mean something. So, country kid runs away to bright lights and big city. By now this escape from nowhere to the city has become a part of our American myth. I gotta blow this place, and all that.
But this myth is adolescent. A few outgrow it and discover that they never needed to run. They discover that all the accidents of life are equally connected to what finishes our hunger. Though meaning is more than the sum of the accidents, meaning is only within the accidents, and within them all equally.
All bread is a moment away from being His flesh…but only in the act of giving and eating, and taking and eating. What else is bread for? Not in the thing itself, but in the handing it along. Take, eat, give.