This Land, Her Land – A Day with Mom

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This Land, Her Land – A Day With Mom

by Joe Cundiff

The narrow pass weaves a glorious trail through the steep mountain ridges, steeped in a history of family and community so rich it would be impossible to measure the depths.  Endless stories flow fluidly as waters rolling across the rocks of time, seamless, and pure with life.  A cool early spring breeze lifts a branch of leaves, beginning a wave of free-flowing green that sings in the air as if time were to merely measure a single day, this day.  The breath lingers only a short while as the wave rises and falls with the contour.  This is her land, nearly five hundred acres nestled in the mountains of Southern West Virginia, the place she called home.  But it’s so much more.  As we ride she talks, and the stories are timeless treasures.  It was a day I wish to hold forever.  A day with Mom.

The previous week my friends and I spent two days clearing trails in the rain in preparation for the opening of Spring Gobbler season and our annual Turkey Camp.  The next Sunday was spent with family and friends and children playing.  We had a cook out by the pond just down from the house where mom grew up.  She learned to ice skate on that pond when it was so cold her dad, my granddad Bruce, would drive his tractor across the ice to make sure it would hold all of the kids.  She drove that tractor too and I remember the story of her first time and nearly running up the pole.  There is a new pole there now, in the same spot, not too far from where we sat.

The view of the pond from the house is one of those settings you don’t ever want to leave, which might be why my grandmother never did.  Even after granddad Bruce passed, she stayed on the farm.  She was born just a few ridges over on the property that borders what would become her farm.  A farm where they raised pigs and cows and chickens, had a garden, canned and did all the things you do to survive in such a place.  To them it was just the way it was.  To me it’s a priceless bit of history.

Many summer nights and days of my youth were spent with friends, camping and fishing by that pond.  My grandmother was always a part of the adventure and though she passed in 1999, her presence remains.  She taught me how to clean catfish and she helped me skin my first squirrel.  Each camping or hunting trip to the farm always included breakfast with Ma Riley, and those spreads are still legendary among those fortunate enough to sit at her table.  Her only daughter continued the tradition of legendary meals, but no longer has interest in cleaning fish or squirrels, but she could if she needed too (or if her grand kids asked).  She learned how to do all of those things and so much more on the farm.  Milking cows and butchering hogs and I still enjoy hearing the story of her chasing a headless chicken around the yard.

The ‘simple’ life on a farm is anything but simple and many of the lessons are hard learned.  Yet, like the rugged contour of the West Virginia Mountains, we seem to enjoy their beauty and prefer the magical mysteries stored like treasures in our minds.   Ma Riley loved to tell stories of her life and the community she called home.  Many were passed down to my mother, but she lived many of them too.

She smiles as she talks, recalling one memory after another.   It’s about a mile from the old house to the gate at the road, yet somehow they made it through the heavy snows of winter to get to school or church.  Those challenges were just part of the fabric that decorated such a colorful life and the stories never get old.  At least I never tire of hearing them.  We ride along remnants of stone structures and brick buildings, the remains of what was once a bustling DuPont black powder plant.  Her dad (my grandfather) bought the land and buildings when DuPont closed the Nemours operation in 1951.  He set up a saw mill and started timbering the towering oaks and hickorys.  Fifty or so years later mom and dad would harvest the timber again.

Granddad Bruce was accustomed to hard work, as he, like most of the men in the village had worked at the DuPont Plant.  Like so many of that era, the risk was overshadowed by the reward of an honest wage to provide for family.  There are stories of deadly explosions and all the dangers of working in such an environment.  Mom (and dad) recall almost all the stories and remember many of the people.  They lived it.  My father’s father worked there too and after the plant closed he got a job with National Electric Coil in Bluefield, and would no longer walk the trail along the Bluestone River to work.   Two of my great grandfathers helped to build the plant in 1903, which brought jobs to a small community that would grow into a bustling town.  The work was hard but DuPont treated the employees well and everyone would gather to celebrate life and freedom at the annual Fourth of July picnic, complete with the local semi-pro baseball game.

After the plant closed many moved away, taking jobs with DuPont in other cities.  Many stayed including both sets of my Grandparents.  Bruce timbered logs, built more fence and bought some cows and pigs and chickens, and life as a farmer began.  Those trees provided the foundation for a transformation, not only for a family of three, but an extended family, and a changing landscape.  For nearly fifty years a vibrant community thrived as men worked, and sometimes died, in the powder plant.  The impact and meaning of those events are not lost, but became the core of my parents and so many like them.  They worked hard, really hard, and overcame many obstacles to emerge from the ‘hollows’ of Nemours, to get an education, to graduate from college (mom has a master’s degree), to become professionals and to educate their children and grandchildren.   The education continues as we ride and she talks and my daughters hear some of the stories.  Now my oldest asks more questions about a place that is already a part of her.

Winding over bumpy trials, dodging thorns and weaving between the hardwood pillars, we rode.  Mom sat next to me that day on the bench seat of my friend’s MULE ATV and she smiled a talked the whole ride.  One story followed the other, then another.  I took it slow, perhaps to savor the moment and get in every story possible, but also because the trails are rough.  It’s not an easy ride, but per usual, she never complained.  She just laughed and brushed off all the debris decorating her white sweater.  Near the end of one of the trails, she got out in her white sneakers, indifferent to the mud.  Still on her land, yet about as far removed from the home in which she was born, she wanted to walk further.

Later mom would tell dad that she saw places on her land that day that she had not seen in over fifty years.  I had taken her back to a place she still refers to as the Workman Hollow. It’s a hard place to get to, even now with our modern equipment, and she wanted to get closer.  Both my mother and grandmother loved, and eventually cared for Sadie Workman, who lived back there.  There was never a road, only a trial and once a month Sadie would walk out.  She would traipse along the trail, up and out of the ridges to find the old logging road that would take her out to the farm and the gate near the road.  From there it was a few more miles to the Mullins Grocery Store, where she would fill her old feed sack with flour and sugar and whatever else she could afford.  Then she walked home.

How and why a family settled there is lost on the story.  Eventually all of Sadie’s family would leave the hollow to create a life in a place far less challenging.  But not Sadie.  She stayed for as long as her health allowed.  As I stood in the depths of those towering ridges, mom told me the story of how her dad and my dad moved Sadie out to live on the farm.  Granddad Bruce drove the tractor with trailer in tow in as far as he could, then he and dad carried all of her belongings up the ridge.

Sadie died when I was a child, yet I still remember her.  Mostly I remember my mother and grandmother telling stories about walking the trail back to visit her.  As they approached the modest cabin on a warm summer day, from the distance they could hear her singing.  Soon they would find her draped in a tattered cotton dress, barefoot, and long white hair flowing as she danced and fed her roaming chickens.  That breeze once more lifts a branch filled with springtime leaves and another wave wisps across a multi-dimensional landscape.  The ghost of Sadie sings a sweet melody still, the echo rising to dance once more atop a timeless windswept wave.  Mom smiles at the moment and memories of her land.  I smile too.

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