My grandfather was the family patriarch for many years, holding court and always dreaming of returning to the family seat in Parkersburg, WV, which he fled after World War II in the years when New America was born.
My maternal branch has caroused in and around Parkersburg since it was a little known land grant operating under another name at the end of the 18th century, a little port town at the confluence of the mighty Ohio River and the Kanawha. They’ve scraped a living out of the hills, enjoying all the booms and busts that are so raw and close to the surface in the passed over frontier of Virginia’s former western counties. They’ve danced during the oil boom, and run liquor to waiting barges hiding on the river, and generally moved through the generations as small town rabble rousers. Unusually sized medium fish in a small pond.
As my grandfather approaches 90, his position of patriarch has waned. The crux of the family has moved to his niece who, in a vain attempt to escape, inadvertently shifted the family seat to Florida.
After her retirement, she fled to a large house outside Orlando, leaving her home state, and her family, behind. She acted on a compulsion that those of us easily crushed by the desperation and mountain Baptist defeatist fatalism of the Ohio Valley all share – get away at all costs. Sever all ties. Try to embrace life.
But running never works. In the decade since her move, the family has followed her, one by one. A gradual migration that almost went unnoticed until, finally, all that was left in West Virginia was a wayward cousin too crazy to move and my grandfather, waiting for his death.
Now the family holidays have shifted to Florida. Orlando’s the place to be… Which is a great excuse for me to cut off all contact.
Though, for me, that’s not difficult. I’m the black sheep, the outcast, the pariah. Born and raised in DC, I’m the uncomfortable yuppie at every funeral, the one who won’t drink cheap beer, the one who asks for and actually reads through a wine list. The family distrusts me as much as I distrust them.
Though, I know, it’s not the city that pollutes me. It’s my father. His side of the family – Yankees, no less! – fled New Jersey in the 1930’s and carpet-bagged their way into the upper crust of the undeveloped and sweetly innocent pre-war Montgomery County, Maryland.
But everything about my father’s family is wrong. In the Revolution, they fought for the crown. They dragged rebels and upstarts into the Pine Barrens, slit their throats, and dropped them into tar pits. After the war, they made their peace with their new country and entered into law, becoming judges, lawyers, police officers, all with sticky fingers and secret agendas.
They avoided war, buying their way out of the Civil War or, in one case, taking up a musical instrument. On my wall hangs the discharge papers of the cowardly drummer, who saw every significant battle and was one of twelve in his regiment who lived to tell the tale.
Quietly, they amassed a fortune in the years after the Civil War, able to exempt them from every war in the 20th Century. By the time they came to Maryland, they became part of the first wave of gentrification. What the Discovery Channel has done for modern Silver Spring, my family did for pre-war Silver Spring. Though, of course, there was no grander plan to benefit the community. It was the ultimate, final gambit in a 200 year cycle of grabbing for money, stuffing it in a mattress, and running away.
My father, seeing the short term nature of such actions in the modern world, decided to cut and run for good. Tearing everything down, and taking everyone with him into the abyss.
For my maternal family, used to poverty and unsurprised by horrific fates, it was typical. Fifteen years were made a bit more fluid by inexhaustible bank accounts, but it all had to end. Though I think they’re still a bit sore that they didn’t think of skimming a little off the top while they had the chance. Honesty never pays in the long run.
For them, they marched out of the hills of West Virginia to fight in every war. Patriotic duty and all that. Taking up the grey in the Civil War, they were among the first to fall as the Confederates beat a hasty retreat from Philippi, the first land battle of the war, abandoning the B&O only to get caught at Rich Mountain. Two brothers died there in a ditch, shoulder to shoulder as the Yankees cut them down.
Relatives lie scattered from the Rich Mountain battlefield to a mass grave outside a prison camp. For some, the loss of the war remains a hard pill to swallow, for others, the south may yet rise again if we’re not careful.
They marched to the wars of the 20th, falling from the skies over France and thrown into the Pacific by torpedoes. They climbed hills in Korea and slogged through the jungles of Vietnam.
To them — these brave fools always marching to their deaths — I am, and always will be, my father’s son.
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