Sunday, July 30, 2006
Sometimes you need to get away from it all. Really away. On Friday, I took a half day off from work, packed a bag, grabbed the cat, and drove south to Buckingham County and Indian Gap, a rural family homestead where my father planned to retire but which was willed to me when he died. I love it there, I have always loved it there. It is why I moved my family to central Virginia, but it has it’s burdens, not all of which are financial. I grew up visiting my grandparents there. It was the house my grandfather grew up in, was schooled in, retired to and lived in until his death. After he died at 92, my grandmother lived there alone for 8 more years, out in the woods miles from nowhere, until she died at age 93. A caretaker who had lived in a tenant house on the premises since 1965 remained a few more years, until he too died, after which there was no doubt about it; it belonged to me, ghosts and all.
The main house was built in 1910, and the property is carved out of a larger farm that had been in the family since before the revolution, but no longer is. Generations of Virginia ancestors lie in a nearby plot in the middle of a pasture, surrounded by a stone wall. Of course there have been changes to the house and to the neighborhood over the years, but not so many. You can stand in the woods and listen to the tumbling creek and the song of the wood thrush and imagine that things were not so different 300 years ago. (Well, maybe if you don’t note the wretched kudzu that my great-grandmother planted at the advice of the US Department of Agriculture, and which has been a curse ever since).
So I drove down Friday afternoon. Among other things, I had to retrieve Thing One’s fishing rod for our vacation, but I really didn’t need that as an excuse. It is a restorative place for me, and I go there whenever I can. There is no TV there, no internet, just the sounds of cicadas and bull frogs, acres of fields and woods, and the old house filled with old pictures, and shelves of old books. When I arrived there I took a break from the war, from the disastrous season of the Chicago Cubs, and from civilization itself.
I spent Friday afternoon in the old building we were taught to call “the barn,” although most would call it the garage. Its an old stables, painted dark green and standing apart from the house, and it was where my grandparents kept their car when I was young. It hangs out over a hillside and most of it is held up with pillars of dubious strength, and I’ve been told not to park cars there anymore. It’s still filled with tools that go back to when my grandfather was around, along with the detritus of our house renovation: siding, lumber, old screen doors and commodes, and contractor’s equipment apparently in temporary storage. On Friday, after spending my whole life timidly venturing into the barn occasionally to borrow a tool, I finally made it mine. It was always a mysterious place, and practically forbidden when I was young. It gave me a very strange feeling to be in charge of it, moving things that had not been moved in decades, and deciding where they should go. I hope “poor ole Pop” doesn’t mind too much.
On Saturday I expected company. Pop always kept loaded guns around, shotguns and rifles, propped behind the library door. The family legend is that he received a pellet gun for his 5th birthday, a .22 rifle for his 6th birthday, and a shotgun on his 7th birthday. I have no reason to doubt this. My father unearthed letters Pop wrote to his uncle at age 8 or 9 recounting long lists of animals he had slain in the woods. A collection of old guns came with the house, and since I know nothing about guns, I invited my colleague Rebecca to come down for lunch. Her husband Matt is something of a gun expert and I thought he might be able to tell me something about the 7 guns that were locked in the library closet. I spent the morning puttering around the house, hanging up old pictures that came down in the renovation. Rebecca and Matt showed up about 2:00 PM, and we had some fried chicken and coleslaw before getting down to the guns.
I learned that Pop’s Ithaca single-shot double barrel box-lock 12 gauge can still be fired safely, although it can use refinishing. As can the old .22 that I learned to shoot back in 1976. The old Winchester pump 20 gauge required some maintenance, but was worth restoring according to Matt. The other 20 gauge should never be shot ever again. Finally, the gun I saw fired the most, a single shot 28 gauge shotgun which Pop used to shoot squirrels and harvest mistletoe (and execute a “damn nymphomaniac” cat in a famous story) should not be fired without a major cleaning, and Matt didn’t have anything that fit the rare 28 gauge barrel. He took down all the serial numbers and promised further research on-line, and we then enjoyed Rebecca’s blueberry pie.
While we were looking at the guns the phone rang. It was Percy, the man who mows the grass, and who also happens to be one of the Bell Road Boys, the group I grant hunting permission to every fall. Percy wanted to know if I wanted any tomatoes. I had a big garden full of tomatoes back in Charlottesville, but I hadn’t seen Percy in a while so I said sure, and he showed up a few minutes later with a tremendous bag of tomatoes and zucchini. (A cauldron of fresh tomato sauce bubbles on the stove as I write.) I asked Percy in and his eyes lit up. “Oh, you got the guns out, eh?” he said with a smile. I look for common ground with Percy anywhere I can get it, and wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. He and Matt enjoyed a few minutes of gun talk, and then Percy excused himself and went on his way. He had a load in his cheek and I suspect he had to spit.
Rebecca and Matt went on their way, and as most of my self assigned chores were done I spent the waning afternoon fishing down at the pond. With a plastic worm I hooked one of the largest bass I’ve had on the line in a long while, but lost it when it ran under the dock.
In the evening I sat on the porch sipping a bourbon, listening to the birds and watching the shadows grow long. After dinner I sat in the library, enjoying the (newly installed) air conditioning, where I put on a Clifford Brown CD and pulled one of the old books from the shelf. It was “Social Life In Virginia Before the War,” and was sentimental look back at Virginia plantation life (in Virginia, there still is only one “war.”) It is one of about fifty books about Virginia-Virginia social life, Virginia military heroes, Virginians and the founding of the nation-lining the shelves, some of them more than 200 years old, collected by generations long gone. It is a treasure trove, but I have to wonder, is there any state in our union more self obsessed than Virginia? I think not. I read and enjoyed the book, and went to bed.
Now I’m back in town, back on-line, checking the news and the blogs, and hearing about the latest horrors in the middle east and everywhere else. I’m really looking forward to next week, when I’ll be back out of touch, once again missing the war and the Cubs, this time in the North Woods teaching Thing 1 how to fish a jitterbug and Thing 2 how to row a boat. One night we'll brave the skeeters and camp in a lean-to, far from even the remote cabins on the lake, and we'll have a campfire and look at stars and listen for owls, and I'll tell them stories about how their great great Aunt Lucy spent the summer camping on that very spot about 90 years ago. And maybe someday one of their kids will clean out the barn at Indian Gap, this time daring to move the things I carefully put just so, for some long forgotten reason.
CV this is glorious! Seems we both spent restorative time in ancestral halls this past weekend. My sole visit to Indian Gap was in the spring of 1970 as a wee lad of just about two, but I greatly look forward to your showing me around some day.
*Texas* is more self-absorbed than Virginia. I remember, at our sister's rehearsal dinner, asking one of our brother-in-law's South Texas cousins what he did for a living.
Cousin: "Ranch. Teach history."
Me: "Oh. What sort of history?"
Cousin: "Texas history."
Me: "You mean, Texas history is a course in high school?"
Cousin: "Everybody is required to take two years of Texas history."
Me: "Do you know how weird that is?"
Me: "No. Really. Other states don't do that. There is no required course in New Jersey history, for example."
Cousin: "There isn't?"
GMT: You and your family are welcome anytime. Just say the word.
TH: You could be right about Texas, but Virginia would make a game of it. And of course Virginia has that whole War Between the States thing going on. Our uncle ADH in North Garden has a cannon in his yard and he makes sure you note that it is pointing north.
This is one of the most delightful posts I've read in quite some time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Oh, how I would *love* to have a restorative place like that, full of family history ... unfortunately our family puts the "fun" in "dysfunction" (as do so many others), so much of that history is long since lost, as are the family places.
... and I have to agree with Texas is probably more self-absorbed (married one and gave birth to two, so I kinda have experience with that one). In Texas, those born there are referred to as Texas ... *EVERYONE ELSE* is a Yankee!
Throw me in with the rest of the Texans.
"And of course Virginia has that whole War Between the States thing going on."
Us too. Recall Hood's Texas Brigade? i.e. the crazy bastards that Lee would throw at Union earthworks when no one else could do the job. Near the end of the war they finally failed in an assault, but I can't remember which battle... There's a monument at the Capital in Austin.
Virginia, however, does not have an Alamo or the remains of foreign embassies. Or chili. :)
Dawnfire, there's no arguing with the chili comment. Lord have mercy. But we do pretty well with the mint julep and the barbeque.
I'm happy to concede that Texas is more self absorbed than Virginia. We'll proudly take second place.