Two weeks ago, we had a death in my family. My maternal grandmother died at the age of 87. She hadn’t been doing well for a while (several years, actually). She died relatively quickly, which frankly was a blessing because these kinds of things can often last for many, many months and become quite agonizing in the end. I remember my paternal grandfather’s death. He suffered.
For the past few years, she lived between Bedford, PA (her and my late grandfathers home for 40 years) and my parent’s home in Lima, OH. She would demand to be in her place – her home with her things and her memories and her life dependent on no one else. This was her place where she could just be herself and do what she wanted. This was her home where she had remaining friends. Everything was familiar.
When I was a child, I would spend a few weeks each summer with my grandparents, first in the mountains of Kentucky’s coal mining region (Pike County) and then in Bedford. I knew those places (as best I could as a kid and now). I remember vividly the smell of coal on fast moving, big coal trucks and slow moving, creaking coal cars being pulled along the railroad tracks. They were right there – I could touch them… mountain, train tracks, house, road, house, creek, mountain. I remember shucking White Half Runners and my great aunt making Apple Stack cake. Eating a piece of icebox cold Apple Stack cake on a sultry summer day was wonderful. I remember the sound of cicadas coming like waves from the mountain trees. I remember the aftermaths of terrible floods that ruined everything in the valleys. I remember driving on the curvy roads between Williamson, WV (their “downtown”) and up the holler to McAndrews, KY, where my other grandparents lived (the house my dad grew up in is still there). I remember my grandmother’s house in Kentucky, where I spent most of my time. That house suffered through one too many floods. I remember going to school with my paternal grandmother – she was an elementary teacher. I first learned to eat mustard on my potato chips that day.
I remember the poverty – tar paper shacks next to mansions, literally. Coal made some people quite wealthy. I remember the closeness of neighbors and the overpowering sense that this place was very different from my place, my home town along the southern banks of Lake Erie.
Then, it was to Bedford – a quintessential New England kind of town. “George Washington slept here” signs on the downtown buildings. The old, stately Bedford Inn and gold course was a short drive away, but seemed like it was worlds away. My grandfather used refer to gold courses as “cow pasture pools.” Why, I don’t know, but he was an avid golfer. One year, during the Bedford County Fair, I was walking through the grounds with a neighbor boy my own age (we actually got to walk to the fair on our own!), and I got on TV for the first time. Just a local station interviewing a couple boys at the fair, but I saw myself on TV. They talked funny there in Bedford. Not quite as funny as they did in Kentucky, but more kind of like Canadians. Then, of course, there was Shawnee State Park and the cool lake we used to swim in. It was a place different than my place in Vermilion, OH.
My grandmother always wanted to be in her own place. She would insist on being there (sometimes to the point of getting a bit violent about being taken back home). It didn’t help that she wasn’t remembering very well, either. She would be there a few months, but her health would deteriorate to the point when my parents had to go and bring her to Lima. She did not want to be in Lima! She did not want to be in my parent’s home, but her own. She would get well enough and then demand to be taken back. This cycle repeated itself for a few years. It was very tough on my parents.
She just wanted to be in her own place (and she was used to getting her way). I can understand wanting to be in one’s own place.
Now that all my grandparents are dead, I sense this loss not only of them but also of their places. I have no reason to go back to Belfry, KY. All my relatives are gone (except for a great aunt up one of the hollers). The train tracks have been pulled up as the coal mines closed. I didn’t even smell coal in the air two weeks ago. I was sad. I have no reason to return to Bedford, PA. Those places are gone to me now with the passing of those who made them real and available to me. Particularly in Kentucky, I no longer belong to that place… the place that is so terribly different from were I now live. There is a different kind of living, a different way of living, down there that is frankly more sane and civil that here in New York City.
A sense of place is important to us, I think. It helps define us and form us. Part of my formation happened in Kentucky and in Pennsylvania in my grandparents’ homes and in places very different from my own. I regret that with the passing of my grandmother I no longer have not only her, but the places she represented and the way of life found only in those places. It is a loss of connection, a loss of history, a loss of a bit of who I am.