I first wrote this piece as my Fathers Day column for a local newspaper in 2008. I had not yet had the opportunity to visit the grave of my grandparents on the property that had been their Southeast Virginia homestead.
But in this October of 2010, my sister and I did visit that gravesite together.
It inspired me to share this column once again, and I dedicate it to my Virginia grandparents and to my sister and her family who made such grand arrangements for a visit to the area by my husband and myself. RMM
Rose's ode to a father of another generation:
A DECADE AGO for Father's Day, I wrote about my paternal grandfather whose given name was Benjamin. I had never met him; he died when my father was a teenager. But after all the years since his death in 1918, longtime readers of this column had begun to contribute information about him, and I had not previously known these things.
He was a native of the town in which I was born and still live. In recent years, I discovered that my father's father had a history with the city's water plant; he was the first non-Irish to sign the rolls of membership with the Knights of Columbus in our town; he was active in his community and his church; he was written of with great affection in the newspaper when he died in the Great Influenza epidemic in 1918, etc...
In sharing him with you, I ended with the written wish that, "Someday, somehow, I hope my mother's father will also reach out from the past and say hello to me." In recent months, that has been happening.
This given name of my mother's father was James, but he died so many years before my mother gave birth to me, I didn't know even that name. What little I did know was through my mother's small stories. He was a farmer in Creeds, Princess Anne County, Virginia. His property had experienced floods (perhaps in hurricanes) and been burned by wildfires. He was a practicing Christian, and she was the first of his children to "marry a Yankee and move to the north." (What would he have thought of that? He didn't live to see my mother married, but he might have enjoyed knowing that his southern Christian hymns became the lullabies of my childhood).
Through Mom, I knew he had a sense of fun, and a tenderness and protectiveness toward his family. I knew he worked hard all his life and had been widowed twice. I knew in 1923, when Mom was just 14, he had come into the house and collapsed and died on the spot. His wife died a few months later.
I had little hope of learning more, partly because his history had taken place so far away from here; and partly because my interest in him hadn't peaked until most people who might have known about him had passed away. Then my sister, who was stationed with the Navy in Virginia, acquired a photo bearing his name and the words "age 66." It was quite by happenstance, and the donor had said she had no other information to accompany that photograph. She only knew she was his great-great granddaughter and her grandmother's sister had been our mother.
I grinned when I saw the photo; he had a Buddy Ebsen-Jeb Clampett look. Then I looked again and thought about the person Mom had known, and I loved his look.
I later learned that my grandfather's own parents were both born in England in the 1820s. They married there, apparently, and later settled on family land-grant property in southeast Virginia, in America, and raised at least five children there, including my grandfather.
I WONDERED, how could they or my grandfather have loved this land that brought such crushing work and regularly threatened them with wildfire and flood and other hardship? Then recently a Princess Anne County historian described for me the land my grandfather and his family seemed to love, and I began to understand.
It was partly farmland that had attracted people to this place, clear back to the early English settlers living on their land grants from the mother country, she said. The soil was tillable on the ridges; wildlife for food was plentiful along the waterways that threaded through the tidal and deepwater marshes; building materials were there for the taking, in stands of tupelo, bald cypress, black gum, red maple, hickory and several types of oak. Providing good spots for the settlers' mills were the many little creeks which wound their way to bay and seashore, where seafood was there for the catching too.
When the land was his, my grandfather and his family would canoe amid the swamp land forests, accompanied by an orchestra of birdsong above an understory of persimmon, sweet pepper bush, swamp azaleas and southern arrowheads...
Many decades later than that, I would see a family photograph taken by my mother on the property, in a season when the water stood among the cypress trees whose roots grew upward from the moisture into elongated "knees." Those knees, and the land and water all around them, glowed mysteriously from the light that filtered through the canopies of leaves and Spanish moss. (My family lost track of the photograph after our mother's death, but I still have the old camera with which she captured that scene).
Now that land, appropriately, is part of a large patchwork of wildlife refuges, state parks, national parks. "Princess Anne County itself no longer exists; it is extinct," the historian told me. "Most of its communities were absorbed into the independent city of Virginia Beach... As for Creeds, the community around your grandfather's land, you'd be hard pressed to find it listed anywhere."
MY GRANDFATHER'S NAME exists in genealogies and public records, and as his personal trivia gradually makes itself known to me, he is materializing. One late-1800s census, for instance, shows him as the owner of more than 200 acres.
Holding further concrete evidence of his family in Princess Anne is the still-existent family cemetery, deeded long ago to the family lineage by a daughter of my grandfather. Unlike many private burial grounds established long ago, it is still well-kept. It's also still in active use for descendant kin.
Knowing my grandather was a tender, protective husband and father, great sadness lies for me in the testimony of that burial ground. In a "virtual tour" by website, the first gravestone I encountered was for his wife Bainey C.(maiden name unknown by me). She was my grandfather's second wife when they married, and three years later, she and her unnamed first-born son died in childbirth and were buried together. I still am haunted by that stone.
In a grave near Bainey and her son is that of Jane (maiden name unknown), who was my grandfather's first wife. She bore him two daughters and then died sometime after that, possibly from childbirth complications so common to that era.
A double tombstone marks the graves of James and his third and final wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was 25 years old, nearly two decades younger than James, when she married him. For the good fortune of my grandfather and his family, she turned out to be the sort of woman capable of incorporating the daughters of his first wife so lovingly among the children born to Elizabeth and James, the family would forever seem unable (or unwilling) to declare which were half-sisters. ("We were ALL sisters. Together. As one," my own mother would declare).
A tombstone in the family plot near that of Elizabeth and James seems to indicate Elizabeth gave birth a year after their marriage. The baby, named Davana, died at the age of one. Elizabeth, however, went on to deliver a large and healthy family that was raised by both of them to be close and very caring to one another.
WITH THE DEATHS of James and Elizabeth occuring close together, their eldest son knew what to do. He willingly and lovingly stepped in to assume responsibility for my mother and her younger sister, who were still growing up. My mother always made me carefully aware of that, and in a sense I see him as a grandfather too.
*We also spent some happy time with a cousin, Rachel and her daughter Donna and family. I have gotten to know Rachel and Donna through facebook, and they are exactly like I imagined they would be. We felt so comfortable together, and why not? We are family, and that is truly how we feel about each other now.
*I was surprised to find the land today no longer seems to feature oaks and spanish moss along the waterways. But these mystery-shrouded places through which my mother often canoed will exist forever in my mind.
R.A.T. (Rose About Town) receives comments at firstname.lastname@example.org