As I write this post, I am sitting in the sun porch of the house in which I spent most of my first 18 years. My parents bought the house—a huge old stone farmhouse, built in the 1700s and expanded in the 1800s, in extremely dilapidated condition—in May of 1972. I was born that November. The enclosed porch in which I now type did not exist at that time; it was a ramshackle outdoor porch. The only plumbing for the first year was one cold water faucet, in a large white rusted enamel sink, which emptied out into the yard. We didn’t get a toilet, tub, shower, or bathroom sink for another year. There was an outhouse, and my father, who commuted to the DC area in a suit and tie each day, bathed in the garden hose, my mother holding the bar of soap. (The nearest neighbors, an eccentric quartet of elderly sisters, were half a mile away.)
The house is surrounded by about 30 beautiful acres, whose appearance has changed quite a bit over the years, even in the relatively short span of my own memory. Small trees have grown large and large trees have been lost. (This trip was the first time I saw the place without its iconic, towering elm, which was recently lost to Dutch elm disease, fulfilling my parents’ warnings to me throughout childhood that it would not last forever.) Fields have waxed and waned over the years with various fence configurations and differing amounts of attention to mowing. The surrounding hills have slowly filled with McMansions, giving the area a different feel, but this property has remained—at least during the leafy summer months—an oasis, and a throwback to an earlier time. I find it a welcome retreat from the rapid pace and mostly urban surroundings of both my habitual life and this rail journey.
Yesterday I ate a paw paw fruit, straight from the tree on the property that my parents discovered only a few years ago. (Interestingly enough, I had enjoyed a homegrown paw paw the other day in Charlottesville, too—my friend and her husband grow them on their property as well.) I also did my customary walk of the grounds, surveying the property and connecting to my roots.
In the past few years, I have felt a mixture of feelings in this house and on this land. It brings back feelings of nostalgia for my childhood, and appreciation for a more rural lifestyle which, while not my adult preference, holds values I can lose sight of in my Portland life. At the same time, over the years I have become aware of the various aspects of tragic and unjust history in the place. It was only within the last few years that I learned that the house had been built, at least partially, by slave labor. Although it really shouldn’t have surprised me to learn this, given the vintage and the location of Virginia, it did. It gave me pause to think of enslaved people being forced to build a house in which they would never be allowed to live, and yet I–by mere accident of birth–was allowed to enjoy that privilege.
Thinking back a few generations before, of course there were indigenous people living and hunting on this land. In the first few years here, while working ceaselessly to bring the house back into a more habitable and comfortable condition, my parents dug through many large trash heaps on the property, as well as just in the soil around the house in the course of construction, and they found, among old coins and marbles and such, arrowheads. As a child this fascinated me, but only within the past few years have I begun to grapple with the obvious implications of this: there were people living here generations ago who were forced off their land so that people like me could live here.
Our nation’s history (and, indeed, human history in general) is violent, oppressive, sobering to face.
And of course it is not only history; these injustices continue, in a variety of forms, into the present day. In Charlottesville the other day, my host showed me the various places on the university campus and in the downtown area where, just two years ago, white supremacists invaded the town, marching angrily with tiki torches, killing one counterdemonstrator and injuring many more by driving a car into a crowd. Of course I had read about it with horror in the national news at the time. Seeing it in person felt surreal; the place looked so calm and peaceful to me. But in Portland, now, we also have regular invasions of out-of-town white supremacists coming in to march in the streets and physically attack certain groups of people, such as visibly queer or trans folks.
We are living in a tumultuous time, in which fighting for justice, and against oppression in any form, is as important as ever. The work continues, always.
Meanwhile, I am ever aware that this idyllic family house and grounds will not be with us forever. My parents, aware of their advancing years (they are nearing 80) have been slowly, over the past decade or so, clearing out nearly a half-century’s worth of accumulated extraneous items, and continually improving and repairing the house, so that they might sell it at some point when it becomes too much for them to keep up. (My sister and I, both in the Northwest, prefer our urban environs.) So, I am doing my best to enjoy reconnecting with them and with the space. Yesterday I began interviewing my father about his childhood memories, which I did with my mother the last time I visited, two years ago. They both have led such interesting lives, and both are storehouses of a lifetime of memories, which I would like to record in some way. Connecting with some other folks from their generation on this trip has reminded me of the importance of learning from our elders, as a society. I like the idea of living history projects, where younger people interview elders—related or not—to ask about their personal past experiences, their observations and recollections of societal changes, and the life lessons they have learned. I would encourage anyone reading this to “interview”—whether formally or informally—someone older, preferably with a video or audio recording so that it can be shared with others, so that we may all benefit from this collective wisdom.
I think I may take another walk outside now, while we still have some glorious daylight. Tomorrow, it’s back to Washington’s Union Station, to proceed to the last leg of my trip in the Raleigh, NC area.