Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Walk With Dad

My friend WP, who blogs at I am the working poor., recently wrote beautifully and movingly about her father, who is dying of cancer. She reflected on his burial, which she knows is inevitably soon:

One of the things my dad did when my mom passed was take her ashes to the private family burial ground. He reconnected with her relatives and they welcomed him. The burial site is on top of a mountain in a long gone coal mining community. Her father died, crushed in a mining collapse when she was just three months old. Long story short she had a rough life and longed to know her real father. My dad buried her ashes and the old coal mining lantern that her father had on his hat when he was crushed which she had kept on display all her life.

This mountain top next to his wife is where my dad wants to be buried. He has the names and numbers ready for me when it is my time to reconnect with the relatives. He said they would be real glad to meet me. He said I would have to walk the remaining mile or two up the mountain because there wasn't a safe road anymore. So I am reminded that my next trip will be to a remote mountaintop where I will walk a long way, a shovel for a walking stick, my last trip with my father.

WP didn't identify in which state that family cemetery is located, but I'm guessing West Virginia or Kentucky, based on her description. Coal mining and family cemeteries - gotta be somewhere in or around those two states.

WP's post was very powerful and brought back strong memories of my own.

My dad was born in Greenup County, Kentucky, which is not quite mining country, but darn close. Greenup County hugs the Ohio River just across and down a ways from Portsmouth, Ohio. It is a land of hollers (hollows) and steep mountainside farms. The regional author Jesse Stuart spent his life in Greenup County, the last few decades of it in a log cabin he bought from my great-aunt Nora Jane and had moved across W Hollow Road, on which they both lived, to his farm, which is now a state nature preserve. Although his reputation is now dim outside of Kentucky, Stuart captured well the look and feel of that land in his stories, poetry, and memoirs.

My dad's parents moved north to Ohio in 1936, fleeing the devastation the Great Depression wreaked on an already impoverished area. All the same, they kept strong, deep ties to those family members who stayed on in Greenup County. My childhood and youth were well-laced with trips back and forth between here and there.

We - my dad's family - have two family cemeteries up on hills in Greenup County. One is the Gullet cemetery, which is my dad's mother's family. My great-grandfather Gullet died of black lung when my dad was a little boy, but my great-grandmother lived to be almost 100 and was a fixture of my childhood. The other is the Nelson cemetery, which is my dad's father's side of the family.

It has been decades since I have attended a family funeral down home, but I remember it clearly. Dad's Uncle Bill had died and was to be buried in the Nelson cemetery. Some of the men in the family went up the day before to dig the grave; no backhoe could navigate the hilly terrain. The grave digging was hampered by it being March and the ground being still partially frozen, so midway through, some of them went down and came back up with dynamite to blow out the frozen soil and rocks.

After the funeral in Greenup, the hearse drove to the foot of the Nelson cemetery hill. The house at the bottom of the hill and the hill itself were owned by others than members of the family, but the gate to the path to the top was open. The pallbearers unloaded the coffin and then handed it off to the first of two or three teams of local men - those who lived up and down the holler - waiting in stages up the hillside. Dressed in hunting clothes and coveralls, they relayed the coffin to the top while the rest of us picked our way up the slick clay path.

Up on top, Cousin Athene pointed out another hill, a few hilltops over. "That there's the Gullet cemetery where your great-grandma will be buried someday."

When great-grandma Gullet died, I was out west in law school and lacked the funds to make it back to her funeral. I have yet to see the Gullet cemetery. I haven't been back to the Nelson cemetery since 1976. When my dad dies, he will be buried in a small cemetery here in Delaware County, next to the high school he attended but never graduated from. His parents are both there, as is the baby girl, Heather, that he and mom lost 55 years ago. Mom will either already be waiting for him or will join him later.

Dad is 77 this summer. Despite having had diabetes for almost a quarter of a century now, he is in very good health. He has already outlived his mother, a diabetic who ignored her disease until too late, and at some point will start closing in on his dad's mark. All the same, Dad knows that his time on this earth is growing finitely short. By all appearances, he is still going strong, but I am increasingly aware, and he is too, that he is starting to slow down physically.

It has weighed on my mind for some time now that before too much more time passes, Dad and I need to drive down to Kentucky and visit the family cemeteries while we can still explore them together. As I write these words, it occurs to me that this is a trip I should not put off much longer. The month of April was Jesse Stuart's favorite one, and he often wrote about the wild beauty of spring unleashed in his beloved hollers and hills. I'm thinking April might be a good month to head south.

WP's heartfelt post about her last trip with her father was a powerful and poignant reminder to me that I need to take a walk with my father, and soon, up two hillsides down in the hollers of Greenup County.

1 comment:

I am the working poor. said...

Beautiful post April. My dad was planning a trip down here to visit me shortly before his rapid decline. Things can go wrong in an instant. You're so lucky to be able to plan a trip with your father now.

Oh, and you guessed it. It's West Virginia! :)