Do people even know anything about West Virginia?
When you tell people you’re headed to a family reunion in the Mountain State, they either start singing John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads (like we’ve never heard that before) or they tell you they have people down in Roanoke, which is fantastic, except that Roanoke, being in the Commonwealth of Virginia, is in a whole other state. It’s been that way since June of 1863. Look it up. (BTdubs, happy 150th birthday, Mountain Mama!)
Granted, there have been many attempts—some, quite successful—to exploit and poke fun at West Virginians. The most recent was the short-lived MTV reality show, Buckwild which featured Charleston-area teens engaged in various activities in their rural areas. Naturally, it perpetuated negative stereotypes of West Virginians, essentially doing for them what Jersey Shore and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo did for the casts of their shows: it paid them to be obnoxious caricatures of their worst selves and duped them into mistaking infamy for fame.
Not that there aren’t plenty of mountaineers who are like that for free.
Last weekend, during a visit to my home, I had such a run-in. I was in the parking lot of the local Kroger and happened to be wearing my Downton Abbey t-shirt that says, “Free Bates.”(If you watch Downton, you know what that’s about. If you don’t, why are you still reading this? You should be ordering seasons 1-3 at pbs.org this minute.)
As I neared the store entrance, a bearded woodsman in the passenger seat of a mud-covered pickup truck stopped me. I solemnly swear this is how it went down:
Bearded Woodsman: Hi. (He made it sound a tiny bit creepy.)
Me (smiling): Hey.
BW: What’s that shirt say? “Free” what?
Me: Free Bates.
BW: *crickets chirping*
Getting the feeling that he might not be altogether familiar with Masterpiece Classics or the Crawleys, I offered a quick explanation.
Me: Bates is a fictional character on a television show I like.
BW (with a sly grin): Oh. That’s cool. I thought it said “Free Bites.”
Um, you wish, Grizzly Adams. You wish.
That trip home was epic for me. I got to attend a family reunion AND the Belle Town Fair! I finished it off with a little visit to the Dairy Winkle, the site of some pretty awesome onion rings and an enviable West Virginia-style English dog.
Not to brag, but back in the day, I participated in the Belle Town Fair Parade as a Belle Bulldog Majorette. So, as you might imagine, I was quite thrilled to realize that my visit coincided with such an extravaganza. Even if I did forget my baton. And if majorettes haven’t existed in 20 years.
Still, I was ready for the parade!
I may have romanticized it a little, but really, it was not the spectacle I remembered. I was happy, however, to overhear my mother refer to me as “The Shizzle” when she proudly recounted to my children my stint as co-captain of the squad.
(And, as you can see in the picture below, I [front left] was indeed rocking the boots and baton at the Belle Town Fair parade, circa 1979. And check out those lovely WV hills behind me.)
We walked from my mom’s house to the parade, visited the fair and meandered back home. My husband loved the small town-ness of it, and it’s true—it did feel very River City Iowa, very Music Man. I half-expected Mrs. Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn to sneak up onto the podium at the coronation of Miss Belle.
We were taken by the mayor, whose approach to politics seemed to be genuine and earnest, and at times even funny and politically incorrect without him even knowing or caring.
We also liked the lady who didn’t have enough cash to make change when we paid for our hot dogs and simply told us to “come back and pay later.” We did.
I enjoyed that comfort of being raised in a place where 23 years after I moved to another city, people recognize me, saying, “Oh, honey, you look exactly like you did as a girl!” and “Those kids have to belong to you, girl, they are your spitting image!” Some people I didn’t even recognize called me by name.
But it was the Nelson Family Reunion that took me there. The Nelsons—my mom’s side—gathered for a long-overdue family reunion at Point Lick Park, the Campbell’s Creek site where my Aunt Pat used to take me, before I was old enough to have memories. But my soul remembers, and because of that, Aunt Pat was there, too.
I reconnected with a cousin I hadn’t seen in years, whom I always thought seemed older than I was. Turns out, she’s only two years older than me, and just as funny!
It didn’t take long for some of the old family stories to be retold. We heard the hilarious story of how Uncle Tykes reacted to a man on the moon, and recounted the times when my Paw Paw’s sisters would gather to make fudge in Aunt Dell’s tiny kitchen, the sound of a stirring spoon, heavy across the bottom of a cast iron skillet.
I heard, for what seemed the first time, of cousin Buster who lied at age 16 so he could join the service and went on to become a POW in WWII. I must have heard of Buster and his story dozens of times, but it wasn’t until someone showed me his picture and I saw his sister wearing a POW pin with the piece of a retired flag on her blouse that it connected somehow. In his picture, he was young, beautiful and mischievous. His eyes, that same blue I’ve recognized in other Nelsons, shone behind a freckle-faced, dimpled grin.
We remembered the Nelsons who had gone on to their own reunion, the ones whose lives were harder than ours, and who were back together again just the way they always liked to be; the way we were that evening at the park.
There were no stereotypes around that table—just a group of good, honest, loving family members lucky enough to know the unique life of hard-working West Virginians.
I watched my kids playing ball and running around with their cousins in that valley, in the shadow of those great, green hills, the way I had as a child, and my mom had before that. I kept taking pictures of the children as they played, and found myself adjusting the zoom to include the mountains around us, as though I wanted to give my pictures a context.
Those mountains, it turns out, are always a part of my picture.