coming from away
Mondays and Fridays I go down into the valley to the offices of
the county newspaper and write obituaries. Friends think this
must be depressing, but it isn't. So many of my subjects die
peacefully at home and full of years, to be borne by a full count
of pallbearers to the churchyard beside the village church, that
death here wears an almost grandfatherly face.
When relatives of the deceased call or stop by the paper to
drop off a photograph or correct the spelling of a name, details
slip out. One woman was killed in a fall when her horse shied; she
was ninety-one. Another, aged ninety-four, died shortly after
serving and eating Thanksgiving dinner, having assembled her
many descendants for final instructions.
I study the photographs. Some of them are laminated driver's
licenses; some family snapshots, peeled out of an album for the
occasion, and the BarcaLounger, the television set, and
somebody's shoulder will need to be cropped out. Women are
often photographed in their kitchens, part of a
refrigerator showing behind them. One elderly gentleman
had a gray cat cuddled on his shoulder that couldn't be cut
and ended up included. Often there's a Christmas tree in
the background or a birthday cake in the foreground, and
sometimes the whole family has pressed together to be
photographed in front of the house; the deceased is second
from the left.
"Survivors include," I write, and list them all, the nieces,
the great-grandsons, the sisters-in-law. I list where they
live. They live here. Some of them have clustered in a
single town; others are sprinkled up and down the valley in
village and town and hamlet, but nobody will need to drive
more than twenty minutes to the funeral, and some will be
able to walk to it.
Very occasionally a Florida address will turn up,
representing older relations, driven south like robins from
our bitter winters; in summer they've appeared in the
paper's social columns, home visiting family around the
valley, sleeping in a series of family guest rooms, staying in
homes only five or six miles apart.
I have changed worlds, and nothing about this strange
place seems stranger than this, in eastern America, at the
end of the twentieth century, when the very word "local,"
as in "local strawberries" or "a local boy," is fading from the
I'm afraid it speaks badly for the professional
attainments and ambitions here. No corporation has
bothered to lure our people to Houston or Chicago; no one
has found a challenging job in Silicon Valley, or even across
the river in Washington. What work they do, they can do
here at home.
Basically everyone who has made it past the age of
eighty-five was a farmer or a farmer's wife. Some of them are
nudging a hundred. I bury slightly younger carpenters,
stonemasons, shopkeepers, mechanics; members of the
VFW, the Lions, the Rotary, the Garden Club, the volunteer
fire and rescue squads. I bury a whole generation of
housewives whose lives are summed up in the lists of their
relatives. Sometimes the survivors consider the scant
facts--date of birth and birthplace, parents' and children's
names, date and place of death--and find them lacking for
a life of eighty-odd years. They add "An avid gardener," or
"She loved to cook," "Beloved wife and devoted mother,"
"Active in the church," or "She was always ready to help
those in need."
Her children have not gone off to Yale or Columbia and
developed a taste for modern life; they aren't clogging
faraway airports at Christmas. They stayed here, married
high-school classmates, and became farmers, carpenters,
stonemasons, housewives. Over the river and through the
woods to grandmother's house is reality here, not nostalgia.
After they've sold off their forefathers' farms to
developers, some go west across the mountains, where
taxes are lower, but most stay here because it's home.
They hang on in the margins, maybe driving east to a
construction job but coming back at night, toolboxes rattling
in the backs of their trucks, because they can't imagine
being happy anywhere else. The idea of loving a place
seems absurd in America now, a romantic conceit flavored
with the last scenes of Scarlett O'Hara, but here it's taken
Perhaps all the ambitious, wandering genes headed for
the cities after the Civil War, leaving only the naturally
contented behind. The same surnames run for column after
column in our slender phone book and show up on roadside mailboxes
all along the lanes: they have looked at the place where
they were born and found it good. The mayor and the mail
carrier, as well as roads and gravestones and businesses
and the dead on the Civil War memorial, all wear the same
surnames. The phrase "married into" is still in use: we learn
not that Bob married Sally, but that he married into the
Reids; she married into the McKimmeys.
Here, an "old family" doesn't imply any sort of
distinction. The name doesn't inspire respect, just
recognition, and the sense that probably your check won't
bounce, because misbehavior would cast a shadow on so
many others of the name, alive, dead, and yet unborn.
When I give my own name, I'm usually told that there
are Hollands across the mountain; am I connected to them,
or perhaps to the Holland who ran for mayor in North Hill
some decades ago? I'm not. I am connected to no one in
the county and might as well be walking around naked.
Over at the old farmhouse I was introduced to a kid
toiling over a balky mower. He shook hands and told me
confidently whose boy he was. "I expect you know my
parents," he said. I said I hadn't had the pleasure. "My
mother's family, then," he insisted, and named them.
"The name sounds familiar," I lied, "but I don't think..."
He looked perfectly astonished. Was I, then, the first
person he had met in his whole sixteen years who had met
neither his parents nor his grandparents?
On any given day a person in the supermarket could
come across his or her entire extended family, one by one,
aisle by aisle, pausing to exchange fragments of news
among the canned goods. This would horrify city folk,
whose relatives tend to get on their nerves, but we're a low-strung
lot around here and our satisfaction with our birthplace spreads to
include our kin--or perhaps we consider them one and the
same. Kin float lightly through the conversations: "My sister
was saying, just the other day..."; "My brother-in-law got it
in Roanoke"; "I took my aunt Lacy to the bingo at the fire
hall Tuesday night."
Relatives are more useful here than in city or suburb.
They have tools you can borrow. They're someone to call,
in a taxiless world, when you need a ride. Someone to
leave the kids with or go hunting with; someone to help get
your firewood in or your boat painted. Someone to carry
your coffin. From cradle to grave, my neighbors here swing
in a hammock of family ties and nobody leaves except for
the churchyard. Even the few who fled to Florida get
carried home in the end.
Most Americans have traded their relatives for mobility.
Families are gum on our shoes; the times call for
nimbleness. Decades go by when we don't call our cousins
or see our faraway brothers and sisters. The American
family so praised by politicians is a mother and father and a
minor child or two, a unit too small and temporary to resist
centrifugal forces; a single death, a divorce, or just the child
driving west in a U-Haul, and the family dissolves without
leaving a trace. The new family has the strength and
durability of a cabbage moth. (A cynic might suppose our
politicians love this little trio not for any pleasure it brings
those involved, but because it means the child's father has
married the child's mother and between them they, not the
state, will feed the child.)
Families depended on the ability to stand still.
In civilized areas people tend, when they mention them
at all, to complain about their relatives, but somehow here
nobody does, not even those whose mother-in-law came for
Christmas and stayed forever.
Complaints of any kind are rare here. Even the most
outrageous weather is good for a laugh and a head shake
of astonishment: What will that old weather think of next?
The new people complain, the people in the new housing
developments on the eastern edge of the county. They form
citizens' associations for the sole purpose of complaining,
and each group spawns task forces and ad hoc committees.
They complain about each other's lawns and Christmas
decorations, and control them through subcommittees,
passing laws against nonconformity. They confront the
board of supervisors and write furiously to the newspaper
about snakes, snow removal, intersections, police
protection, and the insufferable racket of a farmer's corn
dryer running through the night at harvesttime. They
complain about our famous local turkey buzzards that might
well swoop down and carry off their children, and about
raccoons that might well be rabid. Because they commute,
unencumbered driving is their most basic civil right; they
demand new laws banishing farm machinery from the
But out here to the west in the still-rural hills and towns,
the gene for contentment that kept us here keeps us
easygoing. The weather could have been worse. Even our
mother-in-law could be worse; in fact, since she grew on
the same tree, she's probably pretty easy herself and helps
out at canning time.
Each town and village and cluster of farms in the county
contributes a weekly column to the newspaper. In the
eastern housing developments the citizens are restless; they move in
and move on unremarked; names rarely appear in those
columns, which are computer generated and sent in by fax.
In the western villages, everyone's noticed, by typewriter or
ballpoint, and the columns are often delivered by hand.
Every local child who wins a classroom spelling bee is duly
celebrated in print. Hosannas greeted the minister's wife
when she made a clean blue-ribbon sweep of all three
categories, apple, cherry, and "other," in the pie-baking
contest at the fair. When a house changes hands, it's news.
It becomes a matter of public record that Bill and Betty will
be sadly missed, but Joe and Millie and Teresa, age four;
Michael ("Micky"), age seven; and Bumps their black
Labrador are welcome new neighbors, and Millie enjoys
Last summer, a man in one of the villages up the road
sold the house in which he'd been born and lived for
eighty-one years, and bought and moved into the house next
door. A friend of mine asked him why. The fellow said,
poker-faced, "I reckon it's just the gypsy in me."
Typing obituaries, listing relatives, I can't help feeling
slightly superior. It's so un-American, so unadventurous,
this contentment, generation after generation settled in the
same county, sometimes in the same house, never to set
forth over the hills to seek their fortunes in the great wide
And sometimes, in certain weathers, I would trade
everything I own for that elusive gene.
As the eastern suburbs grow, I bury more of their
denizens. They don't seem to have the staying power of the
old families here in the west and many peg out in their
forties and fifties. The funeral home rarely tells me why.
Loneliness? Boredom? Stress? Here in the west, folks
would be ashamed to give out before their eighties.
Every few months an important man dies, a man who
has come from many faraway places to retire in our
countryside. The funeral home sends me his resume, often
several pages long. It doesn't say who his parents were or
where he went to church, but it lists his every promotion
and accomplishment. He was district manager in
Cleveland, then transferred to Dallas where he was
regional manager. He sat on boards; chaired conferences;
was recognized; received awards. The survivors live in
half-a-dozen different states. No pallbearers are
I shoehorn him onto the page among farmers and
housewives, and he seems to me as lonely as a cowbird's
fledgling hatched in a restful of wrens. But then, I, too, am
a cowbird here.
On Fridays, my duties at the paper include some
copyediting, boiling down local press releases on village
fairs and pancake breakfasts, and writing up the "years
ago" column, staple of all proper country weeklies. I haul
down the archives and search out tidbits from ten years
ago (more housing developments and a shopping mall
sprouting in the eastern half of the county), twenty-five
years ago (the first housing development in the eastern
county), and fifty years ago (droughts and wheat and the
milk production of prizewinning holsteins).
I check the spelling on engagements and weddings. If
the least bridesmaid's name is wrong, indignant visitors and
phone calls will let me know, and we'll have to run it again,
correctly, so that extra copies of the paper can be bought
and the piece scissored out and saved in scrapbooks by
family, neighbors, and friends. We are the paper of record
and each citizen's steps from hospital delivery room to
cemetery must be accurately reported.
Trivial work from a reporter's point of view, but I am
producing family heirlooms here. A woman called and
asked if we would mail her sixteen copies of the current
issue with the report of her wedding in it. I thought of this
massive bundle of newsprint leaking colored advertising
inserts and suggested she take the clipping she already had
to the nearest library or copy shop and make her own
copies. No, she wanted the newspaper. But the copies
would be on better paper, I argued. They'd look cleaner
and sharper and last longer, and cost ten cents apiece
instead of fifty cents plus postage.
No. She needed the originals. She seemed to feel
there'd be something morally shoddy about copies, mere
secondhand forgeries of this solemn document, that might
cast a shadow over her marriage. Defeated, I routed her
call back up to the front desk and returned to my task,
freshly awed by my responsibilities.
No one not a resident, or related to one, can be married
or buried in our pages for any price. We accept no news of
the outside world; no wire service crosses our threshold,
nor do our reporters and photographers set foot over the
county line in any direction. The courthouse is across the
street from the newspaper offices, and on the rare
occasions when something illegal has happened, our
underemployed cops-and-courts reporter strolls over to ask
about it. Mostly it's nothing
much. For us who work here, happenings even sixty miles
away in Washington feel smudged and misty and possibly
I scrounged this ragbag job in my struggle to
come to terms with being in this place, trying to understand
where I was and why I was living alone on a mountain in
my middle age, without friends or family or proper
employment, surrounded by this mysterious way of life.
I wasn't completely a stranger, at least not to the
mountain. When I was a child, a schoolteacher friend of my
mother's summered in a pre-Civil War cabin just down the
hill from here. She had a son my age, an only child and
easily bored, and I was sent to the mountain every summer
to keep him company.
The cabin had no running water, no phone, no electricity.
In the mornings we children hauled buckets of water from
a spring fifty yards from the house, sometimes surprising a
thirsty copperhead. The water was heated on a kerosene
stove--in damp weather the whole house smelled of
kerosene--and we washed the dishes in spattered-blue
enamel dishpans. We washed the sooty lamp chimneys
from the night before, working our stubby little hands inside
their fluted tops. We threw the dishwater out the back door,
where earlier we had spat after brushing out teeth.
We were given pails of vegetable peelings and sent
across the pasture to the farm to feed the rabbits, the
farmer being notoriously lax with his livestock. The gates
sagged on their hinges and yielded reluctantly to our
shoulders. The pasture contained two inoffensive cows;
sometimes goats or sheep, depending on the farmer's
whims; and a pair of cart horses,
retired except for plowing the garden in the spring. They
were white, the fly-specked, yellowish white of retired cart
horses. The larger one, Beauty, was indifferent to humans,
but Lady, the smaller, hated them. If she spotted me and
Alfred from the farthest corner of the field she laid her
ears back into a snake's head and bared her slanty
tombstone teeth and charged, chasing us to the nearest
fence or climbable tree. She was very old, past thirty, they
said, but she could put on a surprising turn of speed. I
expect we were the bright spot in her day.
In August we hoed between the claustrophobic corn
rows higher than our heads. At night we took a flashlight
and went down the hill to the outhouse, delicately called
"Down-the-Hill," and sat side by side on the smooth board
bench shining the light around the crusted, cobwebby walls
and frightening each other with the inexplicable noises of a
country night. We slept on wire cots in what had once been
the chicken house. Things snuffled around in the dark
My mother admired the mountain but saw no reason to
suffer needlessly. In 1959 she had an unexpected success
with a book and bought a chunk of land uphill from her
friend and built a little house, to be a summer retreat where
she would write and hide out from her family. She installed
a flush toilet, an electric stove, and a phone.
Time passed. I moved to Philadelphia. I had three
children of my own, and every August I brought them to
the mountain, took their city clothes off, and parked them
on the lawn with a trickling hose and some saucepans and
water pistols. Summers went by and they grew taller,
poked around in the woods, captured toads and turtles,
invented elaborate secret games, built things with sticks,
and moved through the long,
interior process of growing that seems now to have given
way to electronics and organized sports.
A summer house is different from the place where you
live and work: A summer house is expected to be cut off
from social context, isolated from the daily lives of those
around it. Summer people everywhere are the objects of
derision from natives, as the natives are a mystery to the
visitors. Coming here on vacation, we stopped at the
nearest town with a supermarket and filled the car with
groceries. We bought a peck of peaches at the orchard and
drove on up the mountain and stayed here until it was time
to go home.
The mountain isn't very high, but being here is like living
in a fourth-floor walk-up. Once you're here, you tend to
stay here. As summer people, our closest encounter with
neighbors was when the grown-ups gathered on the deck
at cocktail time and gazed down into the valley at cows
lining up to pick their way, with the curiously fastidious gait
of cows, back to the barn to be milked. When the right air
currents floated up the mountainside we could hear their
deep, serious voices.
Sometimes, if we woke up before dawn and went to get
a drink of water, we could see lights on down there in the
dairy barn: the farmer was milking. We knew his name
from his mailbox out by the road, but otherwise we
considered him scenery.
More time passed. I wrote magazine articles and an
occasional book and worked in a small advertising agency
in Philadelphia, where the routines and even the crises had
come to seem as familiar to me as my own hands. I rented
a three-room house in the heart of the city, walked to work,
visited friends. In the usual way of things, my children grew
up and my mother died. She left me the little house on the
mountain in the far northern corner of Virginia.
I couldn't afford to go on paying rent in Philadelphia and
pay taxes and upkeep on a house four hours away. I
couldn't sell the place. At the time, nobody was buying any
houses anywhere, at any price, and certainly nobody would
ever want a one-bedroom, one-bath house without furnace
or insulation on ten acres of overgrown woods in the Blue
I quit my job and gave my landlord notice. I kissed my
children and friends good-bye and stuffed my possessions
into a U-Haul. It was April first, April Fool's Day. Quite a
lot of snow still lay on the mountain and a thick freezing fog
blotted out the valley and the world beyond. Friends had
come with me to help, but the next day they went away. I
cried for a while from sheer apprehension, but my small
Siamese cat Morgan was well pleased. Even
snow-covered woods were better than city windowsills.
As unobtrusively as possible, I worked myself in around
my mother's cotton dresses, her mismatched dishes, her
books, and the kind of battered silverware and lopsided
furniture that finds its way to summer houses. It was hard
to move anything to make room for my own things. In a
summer house, nothing gets moved or replaced, and when
an object, any object, a lithograph of a bird or the Peter
Rabbit cup and saucer on the shelf by the phone, has been
in the same spot for thirty years, the whole room shrieks
with disharmony when it moves. Once a month or so I
made a small change, apologizing to the premises. For a
long time I lived half in, half out of the house, as if I'd put
only one leg in my pants.
Much of the stuff in the house had outlived itself, and
came from yard sales to begin with, but it was Mother's,
and her ashes have been scattered under the biggest oak
tree with a clear view into the windows. This was Mother's
sanctuary, and while her children were accepted as
summer visitors, she was severe on those who interfered
with her arrangements. Besides, throwing anything away
here involves a long journey to the dump. My mother and I,
between us, have far too many saucepans and scrawny
twin bedsheets. Her bookshelves were tightly wedged with
books, and for the first week I scrambled like a goat over
cartons of my own books until finally I called a man who
advertised, on the post-office bulletin board, light hauling.
Frantically, almost at random, I scooped up books to
send to the dump. My books, Mother's books, books
abandoned by summer visitors, paperback murder
mysteries, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, the Bobbsey
Twins, whatever. The light hauler, a fatherly looking black
man, opened a few at random and said reproachfully,
"Must be a lot of good reading here." There was, of course,
and I felt wicked but desperate: I cannot build another
whole house for books.
Ever since, I've been groping through the shelves
looking for the ghosts of books I threw away.
I turned my attention to the outdoors, clearing brush
in the jungle around the house, a project that was to
occupy my spare time for years and yield only the most
fleeting results. When you chop down brush, it grows right
back again; when you poison it with herbicides, new brush
grows in its place. Scatter wildflower seeds, and the wildflowers
bloom and the brambles grow up and flourish among them.
My own children's water pistols and comic books kept
turning up. It was very quiet.
The valley was still beautiful, with the kind of useful
beauty more eloquent to easterners than western canyons
and waterfalls. It's impossible to describe a landscape or
explain its comeliness, but everyone from the earliest
explorers--on horseback because the falls of the Potomac
blocked their boats--called this place beautiful. Maybe it
has to do with rightness; no artist would alter the placement
of a hill here or the bend of a creek; everything is exactly
where it belongs, placed here on God's best day. If it's not
too fanciful a thought, the land looks happy, as if it were
secretly humming to itself under its covers of alfalfa and
soybeans. It's been well loved. Our county farmers were
the first to sweeten their fields by rotating crops, by sowing
lime, gypsum, plaster of parts over clover in their fields to
refresh them. As the idea spread, it was named after the
county, and farmers stopped exhausting their land and
wandering on west and stayed put.
Here still are the rounded pastures for growing meat and
milk, fields for growing corn and timothy and soybeans, with
barns and silos for storing them. Orchards on a hillside, so
the spring frosts can slide down away from their blossoms.
Patches of forest for stovewood. Sturdy houses with red tin
roofs for families, plain on the farms and dwarfed by barns,
gingerbreaded in the towns, all with porches from before
the days of air-conditioning. Houses innocent of architects
and unwarped by ready-made parts, built by carpenters and
stonemasons with an organic rightness the race seems to
have forgotten, each window the perfect size and shape, each house
unique but obviously kin to the others. My mother used to
say that nobody here could build an ugly house because
nobody had ever yet seen an ugly house.
Six years ago, when I first moved here, nothing was out
of place. I drove all over the western valley and saw
nothing to outrage the eye. It helped to soothe the
strangeness of being here.
I suppose most of us spend so much time among visual
outrages that we've had to blunt our eyes to them, drive
around blind. It's a luxury when it's a pleasure to look.
The farm ponds I remembered seemed fewer; they
were for livestock in the summer and ice-skating in the
winter, and people keep less livestock now and probably
ice-skate less. The cows in the field down below were
gone, sold off by the farmer's sons when the farmer retired.
The roosters that used to crow erratically all day were
silenced. The pasture where Lady chased us had grown up
in saplings and brush; the farmhouse was occasionally
sublet but often empty; its roof sagged. Only a handful of
apple trees, descendants of orchard days, still bloomed in
the woods, struggling up toward the light. The cabin had
been neatly sealed against the weather in case it might be
The silence was broken only by birdsong in daylight and
occasional snuffling by night that sent Morgan to perch
alertly on windowsills, a black outline against the moonlight.
There was no one to talk to, no one who would even
hear if I screamed. Possibly no one else at all, anywhere. I
had been ripped out of context and the torn edges
continued to drip blood, slowly, for months.
I started dreaming parties. Two or three times a week
my sleep would be filled with faces and voices, laughing and
chatting. They were wonderful parties and everyone
came--my mother, my ex-boss's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt,
Humphrey Bogart, and all the friends I'd left behind. I woke
up in the morning cheered and refreshed by all that merrymaking.
Then, as abruptly as they'd started, the parties stopped.
Perhaps my subconscious was forgetting faces.
In the beginning friends would call from Philadelphia,
asking me when I was coming back. Then they gave up and
stopped calling. The phone sat dumb as a candlestick and
when it did ring, I jumped and dropped things. I hated to call
and report myself in to friends and relations because I had
nothing to report. I wrote, and consigned my manuscripts to
the mail, and sometimes, soundlessly, an answering letter or
check would appear in the mailbox up on the county road.
I have read earnest books by people who set forth
deliberately to be alone for some days or even weeks in
order to find spiritual fulfillment and uncover the nature of
their true selves. I admire these seekers, but either I'm
hopelessly shallow and have no spiritual self to be revealed,
or else these excursions into solitude need to be voluntary to
produce. I paced the floor and muttered to myself. Talked
to the cat. Took up cigarettes again. Wrote scathing letters
to newspaper and magazine editors at night and tore them
up in the morning. All I learned about my inner self was that
I was less brave, less capable, and less self-sufficient than
I'd liked to think. Standing on the ladder cleaning gutters I
thought, If I fall, how badly will I be hurt? Will I be able
to drive myself thirty miles to the hospital? Or will I hit
my head on that rock and lie here forever? Suppose I
got sick; what happens to people here too sick to go buy
groceries and fill prescriptions?
Six years ago the only human habitation in sight was a tidy
little farm in the valley, on Yellow Schoolhouse Road. I
could see it clearly with binoculars from the deck. I
didn't know who lived there, but it was comforting to
Sometimes, just as I was beginning to relax, the
precarious mountain electric power would go off, reminding
me of just how helpless I really was.
I drove down the mountain, peering into the
woods for lights. The power had been out all afternoon and
I'd been trying to work in the mournful shadows of
candlelight, in the deepening chill, my house lying dead
around me: no light, no heat, no water. No stove,
refrigerator, computer, and only the single flush left in the
toilet tank. Without electricity I wallowed rudderless as a
raft at the world's end, striving only to keep the pipes from
freezing, a woman too lone and helpless to maintain her
own generator as proper montagnards do. The powerless
cabin down the hill, in my childhood, was inconvenient, but
it didn't feel forlorn--how can a house miss what it has
never known? My mother's house runs on electricity and,
without it, stands still.
By the time the power crew came, cheerful in yellow
slickers, headlights blazing as they hacked their way
toward the power pole, I was ready to cry. I was ready to
move to a city, any city, where toilets always flush and
nobody needs to be manly.
I got in my car and fled.
Down at the Gap I turned west, and there in the dark
forest below the highway, over toward the West Virginia
border, gleamed the authentic twinkle of electricity. I
plunged down the switchbacked road like a diver and found, on a hairpin
turn, a nameless building with beer neon in the windows and
a parking lot full of pickups. I skidded onto the gravel,
jumped out and, mindless as a moth, barged through the lighted