Updated: Oct 11, 2021
In the Shenandoah Valley, there’s a chapel that sits next to a farm. And on early Summer mornings it appears through the mist driving South on Chapel Road. At this spot, tucked between farmland and old plantations, General Stonewall Jackson camped with his troops. And it was here that slaves tilled the land two centuries ago. Today its straw colored fields rustle softly, whispering tales of the past. The rippling blue-ridged Appalachian mountains encase this valley with a hushed reverence, holding in for us The Old South and the world we left behind.
It’s at this particular spot that my grandmother lays buried in the cemetery beside Graves Chapel amongst her ancestors. The Graves family was one of the first families to break land in Virginia, dating back to Jamestown in 1608 and eventually settling in the Shenandoah Valley. My ancestor, Captain Thomas Graves, is listed as one of the first Adventurers of the Virginia Company of London. At the price of 25 pounds, Thomas Graves was granted 200 acres. Graves represented Smythe’s Hundred Plantation in the first General Assembly, The House of Burgesses. If one chronicled the Graves family thereon, one would find tales of battles, barn burnings, and captures with the Powhatan warriors, records of marriages to governors and old money alliances, plantation owning, and loyalty to the Confederacy. My grandmother was one of the last to carry the Graves name.
When I was a girl, the 4 hour drive to Virginia felt exhausting and daunting, driving through woods and alongside mountains on curving, deer thronged roads. From Pennsylvania to Virginia I watched the blur of trees move past, until the sun streaked sky lengthened shadows and eventually the world was a strip of black road and shifting car lights. Somewhere around midnight we’d turn up Blue Ridge Drive to our grandparents’ brick bungalow with holly bushes and navy blue shutters. Groggy and stiff, we’d shuffle into the warm lights of their kitchen with vegetable soup heating on the stove and crackers and pimento cheese waiting for us. I always greeted my grandparents with a certain anxious reverence. My grandfather, an Army Colonel, was formidable and strong-willed. My grandmother was graceful and reserved, greeting each of us with a soft kiss on the cheek. After eating and casual discussion about our trip, we’d go to bed in thick Southern air, windows open and fans humming all around.
When I was young I found a book on my grandmother’s shelf. It was a book on etiquette. During our visits to Virginia I often found myself immersed in that book, taking mental notes on my behavior as I went. I learned that it was improper to rush through greetings, that an introduction merited a presentation of a guest to the host, to include names and titles and whatever else might honor each individual. (“Rebekah is an excellent seamstress!” “Anthony is studying to be an actor!”) I learned about table settings and manners and that it was impolite for men to wear hats indoors, while women were allowed to. I even practiced my posture on occasion by walking with a stack of books on my head. On visits to Virginia I hoped to convey excellent form to my proper Southern grandmother. At five, she gave me a porcelain tea set, miniature sized for my miniature hands. When I was older she shared with me her hat collection. I’d stand in front of the mirror with my sister trying on hats with feathers and hats with veils and in the afternoon I’d settle at her kitchen table wearing my designated favorite for some Virginia ham or fruit pie. Grandma would take me to get my hair styled or go out with me for tea. In her soft, proper Southern accent, she’d ask about my life, my studies, and boys.
Grandma was always well spoken and informed. She followed Oscar nominations, read books, traveled to nearly every continent. She went to school at William and Mary in a time when most women did not. She was cultured and her home had beautiful furniture from all over the world. She was never harsh, never improper, or anything but charming. My grandmother was a Southern Belle.
When I was a teenager my Great Aunt Betsy, her older sister, visited and in their conversation I understood that there were secrets in their past that stayed there buried and unspoken and could only ever be referred to subliminally and never openly discussed. It was then that I began to understand the legacy of abuse that carried throughout the Graves. Great Aunt Betsy referred to their father as “that man.” I heard reference to the notorious white Klan robe and hat stashed away in a closet, and nights when their father would mysteriously disappear. It ought to be acknowledged here that my ancestors were slave owners. They owned a plantation in Virginia. And when The Civil War began, they fought for the South. After losing the war, my family lost much of their money. Their land, Big Meadows, was utilized to provide jobs during the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even visited during this time. Eventually the land was sold off, however, and not much remained but my grandmother and her siblings.
When she was 18, my grandmother met my grandfather at a high school dance. Orphaned and adopted by his well-off relatives, my grandfather was a brash and brutish youth. He would drive up to the mountains and drink moonshine late at night. He joined the Army and earned his Colonel rank from sheer valor, volunteering to fight in the Vietnam War. Eventually they had five children. They travelled from military base to military base across the country. Their child, my father had a constantly shifting landscape before him, living in 16 different places by the age of 16.
My father was brawny, blonde, and athletic. And growing up, he excelled at football and wrestling. In high school, he was an undefeated wrestler. College and Olympic scouts gathered in the stands for his matches. He had the square jaw and chiseled physique reminiscent of a Greek statue and one would think his existence on earth was as enchanted as a fairytale. But taking great pride in his son, my grandfather pushed him intensely. There was an unspoken awareness of my grandfather’s erratic behaviors and his closet alcoholism. Occasionally my grandfather would show up to his son’s wrestling matches. Drunk and excited, Grandpa would walk down to the wrestling mat and scream at the refs. He’d sink to the floor and drunkenly wail at my dad, offering slurred instructions, occasionally getting escorted out of the gymnasium. While his domineering nature earned him respect in the military, he was a tyrant at home. When Grandpa didn’t like their behavior, he’d administer a heavy palmed smack across the face to any one of his children. And meanwhile, his wife silently stood off to the side, continuing on as if nothing happened. He also preached as an ordained minister and Grandpa celebrated strength and authority, rallying a crowd with the gusto and high-spiritedness that led him through war.
One hot evening, my grandfather got into an argument with his son, my uncle. He was drunk again. With the chemical smell of vodka on his breath, he yelled into his son’s face. His wife was in the kitchen as usual and his other children watched quietly. Maybe it was an argument about college and that he’d gotten kicked out of another one. No one remembers. I imagine his ruddy face sweating as he slurred threats at his son. I imagine him in the white t-shirt and khaki pants just like in all the black and white photos from a younger age. And I imagine the look of sheer rage as he shoved his son down the stairs. I imagine the grunting of pain, the door slamming, and the silence thereafter. And even though it was just one night on some military base in the 1970’s, I can’t help but feel that the man my grandmother married might have held within himself the same spirit of those Southern men willing to hold captive a person’s right to enjoy life in its simplest form—for the simple joy of being alive and free. Soon after, my uncle moved out.
Eventually all of his children grew up and dispersed, moving away and settling into their own lives with their own families. My father never did make it to the Olympics. Instead he quit.
When I was a little girl I didn’t understand the deep-rooted pain at the center of that family. While he was respected and feared by his peers, I knew him to be the robust grandpa who would chase me down and playfully rub his scruffy face on mine. The halls of his home were decorated with medals and black and white photographs of war. And at dinnertime in my grandparents’ house, Grandpa would slather his food with hot sauce and talk loudly, while Grandmother sat quietly and politely at the other end of the table.
My father held nostalgia for The South. And while we lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia was deemed as a Motherland in our household. We’d go from battle ground to battle ground on family vacations, walking through museums displaying rusted bullets and bayonets. I hated these trips. On those hot Summer days spent in cold air conditioned museums, I’d walk quietly with my sister observing tools for amputation and tools for killing, lit up in sharp contrast to the dark aisles in which we stood. She and I continued ahead to the gift shop, where we’d wait for our brothers and parents. There, we looked at the paper doll sets with Old South themed fashion with women in big pluming dresses and bonnets and men in riding boots and tailored military jackets. Old spherical bullets were for sale for just a few dollars there. I often wondered what it might be like to have one lodged in my body. And looking out from the window at an empty battlefield, I wondered how a blood soaked earth might look. On those days, though, the fields were golden in color much like my hair.
As I got older, the drive back to Pennsylvania would remind me of the climb back to my reality as a girl in a modern world, leaving behind visions of war and legacies of violence. I often wondered what might stir such violence in me to die on a battlefield or to demand in others submission to my will. I never could find an answer to that.
When Grandmother fell the first time she broke several bones in her hip and leg. She had medical care and around the clock service, but she fell again, and then a couple more times. Eventually she ended up in the hospital. And during our last visit with her, flowers decorating her room and with cousins, aunts and uncles present, she leaned to my father and whispered softly to him, “please ask Josh to remove his hat.” We all laughed and checked our posture.
When we buried her at Graves Chapel it was a cold day in February. With biting wind darkening our cheeks, we held our jackets closed as we stood at the grave. And as our shoes sank into the muddy earth, I think we all remembered with solemn reverence the price paid to grant us the privilege that we belonged to.
Was it a privilege of wealth or some form of dominance in our world? And to what benefit, I wonder? Those of us that descend from violence, are we the reproduction of it, like some dormant gene screaming to be unleashed? Or are we victims of it as well?
As a woman in our modern world, I have often searched for the level of class that appealed to me in my Grandmother’s book. Sometimes it seems that our world serves for me instead a provocative nature, not of beauty or grace, but violence just as my Grandmother enabled. Is the world made up of those who demand and those who yield? And when does the cycle end? I chose a different path instead. To walk away from all of that and to allow for it to be nothing more than a distant place. I’d like to believe instead that an individual can be in and of themselves, not a victim of their past or a byproduct of their environment, but entirely who they choose to be. An individual, free from social construct, prejudice, or condemnation. A person of elegance and class in spite of money or education. A person of strength but not force, of courage but not rage. Maybe then we can find our peace on this earth. And maybe as well, it will be just a little bit more beautiful because of it.