Monday, July 31, 2017

Magic Mystery Roadtrip Revelations PART ONE

The New River at the foot of the Bluestone Dam,
my stomping grounds while growing up.
I dreaded the trip. I was scared to leave the protective environment I've been living in, surrounded by the beauty my husband, Rob and I make together in our home, my beloved animals, Lil Bear and Benji and Joey Max around me, and the place of my heart, my studio, where I live and breathe art every single day and 3/4 of most nights. The place where I guard my daughter. Still. I was relieved we couldn't afford for me to go but I was also torn about that because I wanted to be with my husband through hard stuff, we got married to do it all together.

Rob's sweet sister Betsy passed away, and she is beloved to him, so of course he wanted to be with his family to celebrate her life and mourn her passing, to offer strength and love, in Florida, 1100 miles away. There wasn't any way we could afford for me to go with him because we'd gone through about $70,000 over the past 3 and a half years with my daughter's sickness and her death. We're still climbing out of that hole and will be for a while.

And you know what happened? FAMILY.

My dear sister came over to visit as we were getting ready to pack for him and planning his trip. Plan A: I would hunker down with the pups and my kitty here at home, and he would fly to Florida, stay two days, and fly back.

My sis rang the doorbell (you know how I am about doorbells if you've read my blog posts about Jessie's passing). Well I opened the door and there was my 84-year-old mother right behind my sister, both wearing Madonna smiles on their faces. I invited them in, fixed everyone a sandwich and some iced tea, and my mother took my husband aside and handed him a cashier's check for $5,000. Yep, five grand. Oh my.

She said, "I love you. You will BOTH go. If this is not enough money, let me know." It makes me cry to remember it. It's the kindnesses that make me cry. When I called her later to say thank you after Rob told me what she did, I said, "Thank you Mom, it is right and good that I go and be there with my husband, and we will pay you back, and whatever we have left over we will give back to you."

"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" she said. "There is no payback on this. And I don't want any leftovers. I love you. And I want to do this. You can thank your father in heaven for making this possible too." So I shut my mouth and took a deep breath - this was to be the first funeral after my daughter's passing and I wasn't sure I could do it. I might pass out. I might have a total meltdown. I might just die on the spot during sweet Betsy's ceremonies, and what kind of help could I be to my husband, bringing my own heavy emotional load along?

Well. We were in for a lot of magnificent surprises.

Plan B: That five grand allowed Rob to rethink his options, and he said, "I want this trip to be a celebration of life for Betsy. For all of us. I want to drive down and live along the way."

So I made arrangements for our pups to have a little summer vacay at the Royal Pet Resort, and my wonderful next door neighbors took care of our kitty at home and watered all our beautiful plants. No small task, bless them, as my hubby is a horticulturist and we have LOTS of plants that need watering. We traded, and we're taking care of Kip, their kitty, while they're traveling for the next couple of weeks. Good trade. AND, my kitty, Joey, and Kip are BFFs. They can be seen lolling about on the grass or the driveways with their paws around each other. They get along, wow I love that.

We're old and we get stiff and sore sitting in the car without stretch breaks, so Rob said we could make a detour to West Virginia, where my beloved grandparents are buried. I never thought I'd get to visit that place again. And it was oh, SO special. Rob is my true husband, having been there when my father passed away, when my daughter passed, and doing the lifebucket things with me like taking me to Hawaii, which had always been a dream of mine. There's no one else I'd rather have with me for things like this. He's the one.

I know every square inch of this riverbank!
When I was a kid, we traveled all over the world with my Dad because of his job for the first 10 years of my life, so I never "belonged" anywhere, and didn't have the opportunity to develop close friendships. I was always the new kid on the block. BUT, whenever we were in the U.S. between overseas locations, my Dad made every effort to take my Mom to visit her mother and father in the Blue Ridge mountains. They lived right down the street from the Bluestone Dam, and this was my stomping ground growing up.

We could walk right down the street to the dam and play along the riverbanks and climb high into the pine forest beside the dam. This place was the only constancy in my life growing up - the place where all the kids knew us and loved us and all the grown-ups in that river mountain town loved us as if we were their own and we'd run from porch to porch along the stretch where my grandparents lived and sit on the porchswings and tell ghost stories and the women would feed us as if we were starving, pie, cake, cookies, ice cream, popsicles. God it was heaven on earth. It was as if all the children in the neighborhood belonged to everyone, and we never worried about a thing.

We'd come home after playing outside 'til dark and Mom would plop us in the bathtub, sprinkle baby powder all over us after we got out, and swab our mosquito bites with pink calamine lotion. Then plunk us into bed, where my sis and I would look out the window at the moon over the mountains and listen to the cicadas and the grown-ups downstairs laughing and every now and then shouting "YAHTZEE!!" If you've never played that game, try it, it's really fun. Kinda like poker with dice, (no betting in our homes).

My grandparents had the WHOLE set of National Geographic magazines and they kept it all lined up in a bookcase in the room where we slept and I'd lose myself in those magazines for hours, happy as a clam.

I am a mountain girl.
These are the very logs we played on in our flip flops 40 years ago!
Rob's skipping rocks, which we used to do for hours when we were kids.
Here's me taking the photo that appears at the top of this post.
Ah, sweet sacred territory.
So we walked all around the dam and I told Rob stories about what we did when we were kids, before music, men, marriage, just - it was the time of innocence. And I loved going to my Gammy's because at home we were taught to help out so we had chores all the time, dusting, cleaning bathrooms, doing dishes, all that stuff from the time we were about seven years old. Every freakin' Saturday, big chores, like oven cleaning or cleaning out the fridge, and on weekdays dinner chores and homework for school. When we got a bit older we cut the grass and weeded the garden and picked up fallen apples for Dad too. At Gammy's house there were no chores. We helped to clear the table after meals, and very occasionally helped with the dishes. But mostly it was "Go out and play and be home by dark." Yeah, baby. Good times!

We tramped all through that water when we were kids
while my Dad and Granddaddy fished.
Look at the bench on the far left....
See that bench on the far left of the photo? Something that cracked me up while we walked around, was that there are about 4 benches along the high banks, and they're the very same ones that were there so many years ago when we played there. However, the trees in front of them have grown so much without being trimmed that instead of getting a view out over the river, you find yourself looking into a solid wall of trees. I wish I'd taken a picture of those particular benches farther down, but I didn't because I was having too much fun scampering all around and wanted to get to the water. Yes, I got my feet wet : )

We drove past my Gammy and Granddaddy's house, of course they've been gone to heaven now for many years and the house has new owners. I learned something.

"Did you take a picture of the house?" my Mom asked me when we got home.

"No." I said. It would've broken her heart. I wanted her to remember the house as it was when my grandparents lived and loved there.

My grandmother had window boxes across the front of the house which they planted with fragrant purple pansies every spring, and my granddaddy grew and took care of roses in their backyard and also in several garden areas at the dam (they're no longer there). He was well known about town for his roses. He had a row of peony bushes that were fragrant and so very beautiful and my Gammy would cut some and bring them into the house. Gorgeous. I was hoping I could pick one of his roses and press it in a book if the bushes were still there, but it was not to be.

It was the grounding in family and in beautiful nature there, that helped make me who I am today.

But when we drove past the house, well, actually we parked along the street to look for a few minutes, every window was closed and all the blinds were down. The blinds were not in good condition. They were twisty and bent and misshapen. We drove down the back alley behind the house and there were no peony bushes in the yard and no rose bushes in the yard as it had been, and the cedar tree next to the wonderful screened in back porch was dead but still standing. The paint was peeling all off the porch area of the house. The yard was taken over by a huge bale of hay sitting in a huge garden of only tomato plants. And there was a big, old, faded black truck that took up about half of the yard. Just parked there. Maybe forever.

Revelation Number One. I learned, yet again, that a dream is built and comes to fruition through the love of the people who care for the dream they're building. It is very beautiful. It is loving and it embraces all who enter their abode. Their homes reflect their love, and when they die and the homes get new owners, the dream changes, and those new owners aren't always so loving of their environment, maybe they don't even dream at all.

The vibes were different at the house. I'd imagined buying a cake and some flowers and knocking on the door, introducing myself and seeing if they were up to letting me take a walk around the inside of the house for old times' sake. But seeing it - nope. That was not happening. They clearly didn't want any intruders. It didn't feel welcoming. It didn't exude love, it exuded domestic troubles and hiding inside. Definitely NOT how it was when my grandparents lived there - they used to hand out over 300 lollipops each halloween trick or treat night. I know because my Mom would buy the bags of lollipops to send to them every year. Not anymore. So we drove on by and went to explore the playground of my childhood - the dam and the gorgeous river.

On this leg of the trip my husband also took me to visit the place where my sweet grandparents are buried. Way up on the mountain, overlooking the most gorgeous vistas of lush, green mountains. Granddaddy always said he would "sit on top of the marble mausoleum where they're interred and kick his heels and just enjoy the view" after he was gone. It's a helluva place to do just that.

But I forgot to take a pic  of the view and here's why - I had spoken with the man who took care of both my grandparents' interment at the mausoleum and he'd given me directions on how to get there. Go across the bridge, cross over the railroad tracks, turn right, and follow that road up the hill past the cemetery to the mausoleum at the top of the hill.

We did that, but after we crossed the railroad tracks and turned right down this little tiny road winding around the bottom of the mountain, we saw that we were driving through a sort of neighborhood and there were houses lining the road. It really felt like a private driveway. "They're gonna shoot us," Rob said. He's a yankee through and through and I'm a southern mountain girl in my roots. "It doesn't feel right driving down this road because it feels private! I think we shouldn't be here." So we turned around and went back to town and parked in the Magic Mart parking lot to check my directions and see what we could do. I put a call in to Mark Fox, the funeral home owner and director and he answered right away. I explained that we'd just gotten into town (about 4 hours later than our estimate) and we tried to find the mausoleum but we were lost.

"What are you drivin'?" he asked with a slow, Southern drawl. "A green honda accord," I said, wondering at his question. "Where are you?" he asked. "Magic Mart parking lot," I said. And he said, "You just hold on and wait faaave minutes. I'm still in town and I'm goin' to get in my truck and you'll see me coming around the Sunoco. I'll take you up there myself." Wow. I mean it was late and I'm sure he wanted to go home for his dinner and family time, but he came around that corner in faaave minutes and pulled to the side of the road. I waved, he waved, and we followed him on the very same route we'd taken before. Crossed the railroad tracks, went down the tiny road through the little neighborhood, did not get shot at, and ta da! after a while, the land opened up to this huge mountainside dotted all over with beautiful headstones and at the very top was the mausoleum. We parked next to it and he got out and we exchanged hugs.

Mark Fox, the owner of the Ronald Meadows Funeral Home
You know what else they did for us? I told my Mom I'd have flowers put into the vases that are mounted on the mausoleum tiles and Mark, smart businessman that he is, hooked us up with his flower shop. Crystal, the girl who works for him there, drove all the way out to get the vases, made the flower arrangements, and drove all the way back to hang the vases on the crypt door tiles. Wow. Such service. She really went out of her way for us. We couldn't just pick up flowers because their flower shop closed at 2 on Friday and we didn't arrive 'til way later than that. And there's a "thing." In a small town like Hinton, where everyone knows everybody else, you wouldn't think of buying flowers from anyone other than "the people who took care of your people," it's just not done. Relationships last not only lifetimes, but generations, down South.

Something funny about this photo of Mark Fox. He's a very busy, smart man. He owns the funeral home (there are only two in town), a thriving flower shop, and also runs both of the family farms.

I asked him, "Mark, may I take your photo so I can bring it back to my mother?"

"Nope," he said. "I'm in my farm clothes."

"Oh, but it would mean so much to her, and you look wonderful, please?" I begged.

"No m'am!" he answered.

"You know Mom, Mark! She wouldn't care if you were wearing nothing but an old flour sack. She loves you, and she would never forgive me if I didn't bring her home a picture of you!"

"Well, all right, just this once." Phew. He does look really good in a suit and tie, as you can imagine.

They got very close when he took care of her parents. He was working at the Ronald Meadows Funeral Home as an employee when her father died, and he did such a beautiful job taking care of everything. That was the first dead body I'd ever seen, and my beloved grandfather really did look like he was just taking a nap. They put his glasses in his jacket pocket and I'd never seen him without them. That was weird. I was pretty young. So when Mom's mother died, she talked with the receptionist at the Ronald Meadows Funeral Home to get things started before making the trip down from her home in New Jersey. Mom said, "I don't want anyone else to touch my mother except for Mark Fox, who took care of my father!"

And Mark Fox didn't even work there anymore. But they called him, and he came and dressed my Grandmother and she looked absolutely beautiful. He told us he'd been visiting with a friend of his the night before who had made some blueberry wine, and invited him to taste it. "Gol' durn it!" he said, "I meant to have just one glass and git on outta there so I could do Miz Fergie the next morning, but we wint through the whole bottle and I almost slept right through the next day!"

"I had a hangover the likes of which I never want to feel agin, but I got in there and fixed up Miz Fergie right purty. I did it for Jane." (My mother.) He told her the story of the blueberry wine and their friendship is such that she laughed and laughed.

"Mark told me I'm the reason he bought the Ronald Meadows Funeral Home," Mom said. (I love to hear her stories.) He said he always loved it, so after he took care of my grandmother he made arrangements to buy it and run it. Mom said, "He asked me for a little handful of my ashes when I die so he can hang them over his desk, because he says if it weren't for me, he never would've had the gumption to buy the place." I will remember to send him some. He's done well, and lives in one of the most beautiful homes in Hinton, a gorgeous palatial place with columns spanning two floors on the front of the house, a magnificent porch, and lots of beautiful architectural detail.

"Mark," I said to him before we left the cemetery, "I hope you know how special your work is. How much it means to us to have such love and care as we put our loved ones to rest. You make everything easy and smooth and special, not just their bodies, but the hard conversations we have around arranging things, and the thoughtfulness you put into all the details."

"Well thank you," he said. "That's why I do what I do. I want people to know we care." Wow, I was so impressed with all they did - from fixing the flowers and going out of their way to take them to the mausoleum, to driving in to meet us and take us to the cemetery when we couldn't find it, to the stories and conversations we had while there. He treated us like he had all the time in the world just for us. Thank you Mark Fox!

My Grandaddy's resting place - Julius David Ferguson (Mr. Fergie)
My Grandmother's resting place - Thelma Williams Ferguson (Miz Fergie)
After we'd visited my grandparents' resting place, we drove to the Dairy Queen in Hinton - which is located in the most beautiful spot of any Dairy Queen in the nation. It's built right beside the New River, and you can sit outside, or in one of the rooms that are so close to the river it seems to be rolling on by almost underneath the building. We ate there frequently when the whole family was alive, so to close out this leg of our trip, Rob and I went to sit by the river with full and grateful hearts. I ordered what I always did, a plain old cheeseburger and fries, and he had the BBQ pork sandwich. I declare it was the best I've ever enjoyed.

So when we arrived at our hotel after dinner, Rob watched a little TV and figured out the next leg of our trip while I wrote in my journal. I didn't climb into bed 'til 2 in the morning. I was so excited to be there in Hinton, West Virginia, one of my very favorite places. We started one of those soft bedtime conversations in the dark, and Rob's always really good at waking to listen. I told him thank you so much for bringing me back to my childhood, and told him how much happiness I felt in my heart. We talked for two hours about our childhoods and didn't fall asleep til 4 in the morning! Good thing he had been asleep for a while before I joined him. He was driving the next day.

This leg of our trip gave us such unexpected feelings and experiences. It was so precious to be able to share that part of my life with my husband. And the resulting conversations were also really precious.

The next leg of the trip wouldn't be so easy, but it was also full of unexpected surprises.

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