Why do people keep bees? These days, it seems that honey has nothing to do with it. “I don’t care about the honey,” they say with conviction. Instead, they cite a desire to pollinate their gardens or save the bees. Maybe that’s true for some. Others, I think, just want to look cool or intimidate the neighbors. Their reasons are personal and multilayered, but for me, it was always the honey.
I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, a wild place where I learned to love nature and covet solitude. The mountain folk were superstitious — something I’m definitely not — but they managed to instill in me many other traits, including a painfully embarrassing diction that still surfaces now and again. In unguarded moments, I’m apt to mutter, “I just as lief stay home” or “It’s fixin’ to rain” or worse, “Don’t touch! That’ns his’n, not your’n.”
I’m convinced my fanatic approach to English is a response to being mocked when I began school in a “civilized” part of the world where they didn’t take kindly to my speech. It also made me shy.
The scent of farm country
My mother married well, as they used to say, and the young physician who became her husband took her far from her Appalachian roots. But when military service called, he went to war, and my mom and infant me spent the next four years back in the foothills with my grandparents. Without a doubt, those were the formative years of my life. I became a child of the mountains, the sparkling beech/maple forests, and the nearby fields teeming with corn and buckwheat and potatoes. The memories of those carefree days are as much a part of me as blood and bone.
The family farms were a complex of smells: fermenting silage, wheat bending to the wind, and cow manure, fragrant in its steamy way. The local farmers had lots of children, kittens, a few pigs, and a scattering of hens that left eggs under porches and beneath bushes. They each had their own aroma, as did the open kitchen windows that smelled of bubbling ham bones, elderberry pies, and freshly baked biscuits.
The weekly wash was hung from ropes that straddled the yard, tree to tree, and was kept off the ground with a center support that tilted with the wind. Wooden clothespins held the clean clothes in place, their surfaces as smooth as marble from years of use. Within minutes of pinning, berry-colored bird droppings marred the sun-bleached sheets, but no one seemed to notice. Folks just brushed the seeds away once it dried, leaving nothing but the scent of a summer day.
Sounds of life: birds, bees, and milk cans
The countryside was noisy, loud with birds, insects, machinery, and livestock. Everything, it seems, had something to say. Each morning I was awakened by the clanking of metal milk cans from the dairy down the road. The cans danced and clanked along the chain-driven conveyor and into the dark building. All day long, beginning at five in the morning, the trucks arrived and left, with squealing brakes that announced their progress, but what happened inside that building, I never knew.
Insects of all sorts called, buzzed, scratched, and tsipped in the fields. Regardless of what was planted — food or forage — they rattled and trilled through day and night.
Beehives wherever one would fit
On the edge of the fields, chalky curls of lead-based paint laced the beehives that leaned precariously this way and that. The hives weren’t tended, except to harvest the honey, and I never once saw a bee suit. Nearly every farm had bees, three or four hives were common, although not much was said about them. They were unremarkable fixtures, like woodsheds, corn cribs, and bird baths.
Although people didn’t discuss bees all that much, honey was everywhere. A comb of honey sat on the kitchen table along with salt, pepper, a ball of homemade butter, and a crock of mustard. Honey went into tea, and chunks of comb were allowed to melt atop stacks of griddle cakes and waffles, sliding to the plate in viscous amber drops that smelled like flowers and spice. Honey-crowned biscuits and toast, graced sweet potatoes and glazed hams. Back then, I couldn’t imagine a table without a honeycomb.
The bees that lived in the hives came from the edge of the forest. Colonies were everywhere, it seemed, and well-known bee trees were landmarks for navigating the woods. Whenever I got close to a bee tree, a chill ran down my spine. I could feel the bees before I heard them, and the sense of danger made me shiver with delight.
The wild colonies threw swarms every spring which were easily retrieved from fence posts, mailboxes, and lofts filled with hay. If a colony didn’t make it through the northeastern winter, you just went to the woods and retrieved another.
Small-town USA: a fleeting memory
One of the things I loved about growing up in rural America was the post office. The postmaster put out the mail twice a day — once in the morning and again in mid-afternoon. My grandfather walked the few blocks to the flag-topped building religiously, using the dual outings to greet passersby and learn “the news.” As often as not, he had me in tow.
His box, which I still remember was 122, had a dial with letters instead of numbers. He carefully turned it this way and that until the heavy door opened to reveal a letter or maybe a postcard — not the shiny kind with pictures, but the plain kind that had writing on both sides.
He explained that the code to open the box was secret. But it wasn’t — at least not to me. Twice a day I watched as he swung the letters left, then right, then left, and I always knew which ones came next. I was confident that as soon as I could reach the dial I could do it myself. Today I’d be called a hacker.
On most days, we returned home on the same route. But on some days, the kind with azure skies and chirping squirrels, we continued east on the root-cracked sidewalk, crossed the railroad tracks, and climbed the hill toward the church. He stopped to talk to everyone — people crocheting on porches, sweeping their steps, or pruning their privets. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Sometimes people gave him things like sugar cookies, greens, and eggs.
The churchyard: the source of cemetery honey
At the church, he would talk more, light a cigar, and I would play in the cemetery. I liked it there. It was dappled with sunlight, rich with flowers, and tended like a park. But there were things I didn’t understand, like why some stones had flowers and some had flags, why some were big and others small, and why some lay broken and mossy on their sides. The whole place was odd with undulating ground, quirky plants, and statues of angels mounted on stones that read, “Baby.”
But the thing that most bothered me was the beehive far in the back. It was a tall beehive that sat on the ground and tipped away from the craggy maple beside it. The hive was just on the far side of the iron churchyard fence. It faced away from the cemetery toward a small vegetable garden that filled the backyard of a two-story wooden house with a clothesline that cranked off the porch.
Even though the beehive faced away from the churchyard, the honey bees still went into the cemetery. They were everywhere, sampling the flowers that grew beside the stones, along the walkways, and beside the fence. This upset me. There was something passively sinister about honey that came from flowers that grew from dead people. Seriously. I worried about it late at night and considered how it all might work. Like the dairy building, I never knew what happened inside. But did I want to?
On to the general store and newsprint-wrapped groceries
Once my grandfather was all talked out, we left the church and circled round to the general store. The store, behind a wide porch with rockers, sold pickles in barrels, string-tied meat wrapped in newsprint, and cookies by the piece. They also sold honey in combs. We didn’t always get to buy honey, but when we did, I was allowed to select the one we would take home. I always chose the darkest, richest kind called buckwheat. Always. And I preferred the ones that were nearly black.
My choice was based on precocious reasoning. I knew exactly what a field of buckwheat looked like. Buckwheat flowers gleamed white as snow on every farm, and the triangular seeds were ground into flour for buckwheat cakes or cracked into pieces for porridge. But more importantly, I knew that no buckwheat grew in the cemetery. I checked each time we went, peering behind the stones and along the fence line.
Because there was no buckwheat to be found anywhere in the churchyard, I decided that buckwheat honey was safe to eat. While many people dislike the bitter-molasses taste of buckwheat honey, the fact that it was free of angel-topped babies was its grandest endorsement. To not have to worry about things that happened underground was reassuring. To this day, buckwheat is still my favorite honey.
The disappearance of buckwheat
Unfortunately for those of us who love buckwheat and buckwheat honey, acreage planted annually in the U.S. has plummeted since its heyday. In 1918, over 1 million acres were planted to buckwheat, much of it in Pennsylvania and New York. But as time passed, production fell to an average of about 50,000 acres per year.
A major reason for the decrease is buckwheat’s poor performance in high-nitrogen soils. Since nitrogen is applied in copious amounts to crops like corn, buckwheat is no longer suitable for many crop rotations. On the plus side, buckwheat flour is gluten-free, meaning more acres were planted in the last decade — about 70,000 — than in many of the preceding ones. Still, it’s scarce, and buckwheat honey has all but disappeared from roadside stands and farmers’ markets, and the darkest honey is not nearly as dark.
No more cemetery honey
Children today needn’t worry about cemetery honey and its origin. A few years ago, I toured a selection of western Washington cemeteries, thinking they might make perfect homes for a variety of native bees. In my mind, I kept picturing an old cemetery I had visited about thirty years ago where crocuses of purple and gold knitted together in a continuous mat that stretched from one weathered stone to the next. I remember feeling guilty because the flowers were so dense that every step I took mashed a few more. But the scene was magical, like something out of Oz. I kept thinking it wouldn’t be so bad to croak among the crocuses.
But now, cemeteries are different. Most are treated with herbicides, so gravestones and fences surrounded by flowers and weeds are a thing of the past. And so, alas, are the bees. Like family farms and combs of nearly black honey, flower-strewn cemeteries are part of our collective past, and cemetery honey is no more.
RE: But now, cemeteries are different. Most are treated with herbicides, so gravestones and fences surrounded by flowers and weeds are a thing of the past.
Not so, around here (Upstate NY). Many abandoned cemeteries, even ones that are “kept up” are often only tended to once or twice a year and are generally weedy and overgrown. One of my hobbies is photographing old cemeteries so I know where a lot of them are. The oldest we have go back to the mid 1700s.
The quaint blush of the arbutus in the midst of
the bleak March atmosphere, will touch your heart
like a hope of Heaven in the midst of graves.
— D. G. MITCHELL.
Really beautiful visuals in your writing. I can tell you that the last time I had buckwheat honey was the early 1980s in Southern Minnesota. I keep bees here in eastern South Dakota. On the property where they forage the owner planted rows of buckwheat. I did see the bees foraging in the flowers. I would love to find a couple of solid acres and put a colony amongst it. Our honey is mostly clover and alfalfa. It is very pungent and a light amber. So, if the bees make it through our mildish winter this year, who knows maybe a buckwheat plot will be planted and the dark honey might appear?
When you get your buckwheat honey, you’ve got a ready buyer right here!
Delightful!!! Thank you!!!
Nicely written. I often go to old cemeteries to photograph forgotten graves. Agree they are no longer bee friendly. Wish they were.
You are a beautiful story-teller, and I truly look forward to every post. Writers who are both knowledgable and literary are rare. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us.
Hi Rusty…your knowledge about bees and beekeeping is equaled only by your eloquence in telling a story….I’m jealous…
Wonderful story brought back a lot of memories.
Thank you Rusty. What a pleasant distraction from current news and the sad events occurring in our Nation.
Excellent writing, thanks!
Now I want to move back to the 1900s. Can I keep my computer and Kindle and WiFi?
Also, you mean you converted me to the love of buckwheat honey only to learn it’s disappearing!
Also, also, I’ve already lost three of my four colonies this winter, reminding me of your old post about what would make me give up. I’m not there yet, but it’s very depressing. And yes, it seems that I’m treating constantly, with different miticides, apparently to little avail.
Also, also, also, to your opening question, I keep bees because practically everything about the hive smells and tastes wonderful.
I understand. I always feel like giving up when I have losses because I feel so bad for the bees, and I keep questioning myself, wondering what I could do differently. Then again, I’m just plain tired of mites and being a mitekeeper. And no one grows buckwheat here. So sad.
I’ve had bees here on Cape Cod since before Varroa, and have had lots of “trial and error”. For what it’s worth, the following written for our bee club, sums up my current strategy.
Mite Monitoring and Treatment Timing are Critical to Having Live Colonies in Spring
I recently happened upon a research article in the Journal of Apicultural Research (Martin et al. 2010, abstract available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3896/IBRA.126.96.36.199) that crystallized for me the need to get Varroa mites under control before winter bee production or have dead colonies in spring. The study, conducted in the UK, followed both mite infestation and Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) infection levels throughout the year comparing miticide-treated to untreated colonies. DWV is probably the primary cause of over-winter colony deaths in our mite-infested colonies. Major findings of the study:
In untreated colonies, the most rapid increase in mite infestation and DWV infection rate occurred in July and August as the colonies began to prepare for winter. This pattern is well known: in late summer the Varroa population is still increasing on bee brood to emerge on a declining adult bee population – thus the higher mite-to-bee ratio.
Treating mites during spring or summer resulted in a rapid decline in both mites and DWV, usually within a four to six-week period, probably due to the short lifespan of summer workers. However, treating mites in the fall killed most mites but did little to reduce DWV in the winter bees, with infections persisting for up to 23 weeks, in other words, all winter. Thus, a single fall “clean-up” mite treatment, with oxalic acid, for example, does not rid the winter bees of debilitating viruses and probably explains winter mortality and spring dwindling of colonies despite the fall miticide treatment.
Based on the authors’ experimental mite treatments at varying times throughout the summer, they conclude that: “to ensure colony survival in temperate regions, mites must therefore be removed prior to the start of the brood production for overwintering which starts in early September”. A most cautious approach would be to be sure that mite infestations are below published injury thresholds (e.g. 3 mites per 100 bees) in late August. If not, immediate treatment at that time is recommended.
Of course, miticides aren’t the only way to suppress summer Varroa-mite production. Other options include bio-technical methods like drone-brood removal and brood interruption via queen caging, as well as the use of mite-resistant honey bee stock.
John Portnoy, Wellfleet
Right. “See August is a critical time for mite management” and “What are winter bees and what do they do?“
What a beautiful story! I loved reading about your upbringing. I have a similar story, based on childhood theories that satisfied my curiosity until I found out the truth. Attending Catholic school until 8th grade, I came to the conclusion that our nuns were regular little girls, but as they reached puberty lost their hair and failed to grow breasts. Off to the convent with you! That seemed to make sense to me, the stiff front of their head covering worn low, almost to their brow. Their robes were shapeless. I was relieved to learn that this was the life each had chosen for themselves.
I love an active imagination!
How delightful, Rusty. You are a wonderful storyteller. Thank you for sharing your childhood memories.
One question: I’m a geezer, but I’d never seen the word “tsipping” before. I don’t find it in the dictionary. Is it your own onomatopoetic creation? Thanks. Alan.
No, I didn’t make it up. I googled “sounds that insects make” and found it in an article on insects, but just now I looked again, and I can’t find it. What I thought interesting was my editor at American Bee Journal, Eugene Makovec, didn’t flag it. He is really astute, follows the book, and I was sure he would disallow it, but he didn’t say a thing. So tsip, tsip it is!
Well, that’s interesting. Thank you!
How mesmerizing. I am sending this to my Dad to spark more conversations about his upbringing. Your prose brings so many images to life in my mind.
Is it possible to publish this in a cemetery journal or whatever cemetery groundskeepers have to encourage more flowers there? Wouldn’t that be lovely?
In eastern Washington, my grandparents and their relations dug the graves out of the sand every Memorial Day–not so many flowers there. We do have some more primitive cemeteries with settlers or Native American graves that I know of too.
And I am sorry children can be so harsh. I love that we used to have so many interesting accents and dialects. I retain a few German words from my heritage, but it was definitely not a good idea to retain it after either World War back then. We become more and more generic as a consequence.
And–if our Pybus Market still has buckwheat honey I will send you a bottle. It would guess it could be wild buckwheat over here, but it may be grown by Quincy? I bought several kinds of local honey to use for tasting at the museum and it was definitely thick, dark, and like molasses.
Hey Lisa! What a great idea about cemeteries. I have no idea if there are cemetery publications, but maybe? I often stop at cemeteries to look for bees, but I find little. The one with all the crocuses was a pioneer cemetery in Steilacoom, but I don’t know what happened to it. I haven’t been back in years.
I also look for buckwheat honey but haven’t found any. I actually tried to grow it once, but I think the soil here is too wet and too acidic. It would like your area a lot more.
Kids can be mean for any reason. I don’t worry about it because they forced me to learn “standard” English, which has served me well over the years. Heck, I wouldn’t be writing for magazines if it hadn’t been for them.
I believe there is a lot of buckwheat grown in Steuben and Yates County in New York State. It’s my home state.
Birkett Mills in Penn Yan processes tons of buckwheat. I imagine you would be able to find buckwheat honey in that area. It’s all farmland and there must be beekeepers.
Rusty, the best honey I’ve ever tasted comes from a beekeeper in the Northeast region of PA, endless mountains region. He told me there are lots of basswood trees in that area and they produce the minty honey flavor. I love it so much that I planted a basswood tree down here in southeast PA. Now I only have to wait 5 more years till it flowers. 🙂
Patience is a virtue.
Rusty, I truly love when you wax lyrical in your prose. It has a cadence and rhythm that always matches what you are sharing and really matches up to my memories of the mountains of PA. We are looking forward we hope to being able to harvest some buckwheat honey out of our hives come spring. I planted a little over half acre last spring and the bees of all kinds were quite pleased. Now as long as they didn’t eat it all this first year, poof. Maybe,
For a small moment, I was transported from the harshness of today to the reality of “before”. I was disappointed when this piece ended. I scrolled down quickly for more but, like cemetery honey, it was over.
I so enjoy your articles and learn from them whether they are for instruction or for living.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. It makes me want to get out and tend those hives. Now I seem to have two kinds of fevers, gardening and beekeeping.
Hi Rusty, that was a beautiful description of your childhood days! Your writing is so wonderful, thank you for sharing that with us.
Buckwheat is in heavy rotation as a cover crop here in southern Rhode Island. It’s a great fast growing summer crop that crowds out weeds even tho it doesn’t produce much organic matter. When I first started keeping bees much of my honey was very dark buckwheat honey. Local honey still has a good amount of buckwheat in it. Yum!
Beautiful prose. It takes me away to another world, a more peaceful time. And there I can watch the bees with the other readers and my world is set aright.
Oh Rusty…what a delightful memoir. You were lucky to spend time with your grandfather.
I don’t think buckwheat is grown here in southern Australia, but I’m determined to find out. Would love a few seeds for the garden too.
Thanks for sharing these treasured memories so eloquently.
Oh Rusty! What beautiful writing! I always enjoy your posts but this one is special – I hope it will be a chapter in the book you will (I hope) write one day.
Thanks for the wonderful memories!!! I read it like a novel!!
I love reading your posts. I keep bees in Western Oregon. Several years ago, I took a very strong hive to Sauvie Island, in the middle of the Columbia River, between Oregon and Washington. I placed it in the middle of a lavender field. Three weeks later, I had 3 gallons of lavender-scented honey, which I split with the lady lavender owner. Would she be a lavenderesse?
We own acreage over near Pacific City on the coast. It’s unimproved land full of ancient spruce on quite an incline, going from sea level to 500 feet on switchbacks. At the top is a pioneer cemetery, largely forgotten and landlocked among private parcels. We have a hive over there too so I now realize we are producing cemetery honey ourselves. Wouldn’t those pioneers be happy to know that the flowers planted by those who loved them are still being tickled by honey bees? After an initial period of uncertainty regarding our 70+ quiet neighbors, I have come to appreciate the wild peace that comes over me as I sit amongst the tombstones, watching our bees industriously collect nectar and pollen. It makes me realize that life is for the living and there is a lot of beyond in the beyond. Please keep writing. You make me want to cry, in the best of ways. Thank you. Laura.
What a lovely image of the bees, both in the lavender and in the old cemetery. It makes me want to sit there with a notebook in hand. Thank you.
How beautifully written! Even though my early childhood was spent in Sri Lanka and early teenage years in England, I was transported to another time of hazy days of summer in another world made real through your well crafted prose. Really enjoyed reading it Rusty. Thank you.
Life teaches us all the time if we can take it on board. I have one of those angel baby graves in a tiny cemetery that since 1992 is solely used for angel children. Many years ago on one of my visits, I was accompanied by a heavily pregnant friend. She was tired from our walk and asked me if it was okay for her to sit on the grass. Before that moment it had never occurred to me to sit on the grass next to my angel child’s grave but I always do now. I am also going to plant some buckwheat seeds there too next time I go and I will take a pot of honey from our garden here for whoever might want a taste of bee heaven. Thank you Rusty so much for bringing into ‘play’ flowers and bees in these places of solace.
Thanks, Lindy. It’s impossible to know who might be touched by a story or in what way. Thanks for sharing, and do plant some buckwheat.
I second Mary’s encouragement for you to write a book (maybe short stories?). Thanks for the really beautiful story.
I agree with Kevin, whilst acknowledging that it’s easy to suggest big work projects for people-not-me.
I mention John Scalzi from the website Whatever, who has a couple of books (unselfpublished books, REAL books) that are nothing but blog posts. Still work, but at least not starting from scratch.
Thanks. I have a number of people bugging me about this, including some publishing types. But when I think of what our world could do without, another beekeeping book is right up there. I’m not dismissing it completely, but I would need an angle.
“It Depends — A Complete Lack Of Advice For Common Sense Beekeeping”?
Also, you would have to ruthlessly cut out the beautiful pictures of non-honey bees. Save them for the expensive coffee-table book you can easily sell when you’re famous someday. (I mean as famous outside of beekeeping, as you already are in the beekeeping community, obviously.)
You always make me laugh.
Here’s an angle for you. The first beekeeping book I ever read was The Joys of Beekeeping by Richard Taylor. I read it after I decided to start keeping bees but before I bought the equipment and bees. If you wrote a modern version of that I would buy it and tell all my beekeeping students to buy it. ?
I agree with all the other commenters here. Your way of describing your experiences transports us us to where you were and envelops us in your experience. Thank you for all your posts but especially for this delightful one.
Thanks, JoAnne. I’ll keep your idea in mind.
Ah! Wonderful! Thanks for sharing a magical glimpse of your childhood. I too would buy a book of your short stories.
Thank you for that lovely, vivid memory, including how common beehives were! I might plant some buckwheat on our property this spring. Beautiful, educational writing, Rusty. Perfect for a glum January escape. All: my longhive is covered in snow except one patch of roof, melted exactly where I think the brood is!
I love to see that melty patch on my top-bar hive, so reassuring.
Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us. You add a great deal to the beekeeping experience. My question is that this fall I stored my honey super frames in boxes with moth crystals and inadvertently placed some frames of both capped and uncapped honey in them as well. Is it safe to feed this back to the bees after it has aired out sufficiently? Thanks for your patience.
Grace and peace
Make sure it is thoroughly aired so you can’t smell anything, and then air it some more. Also, go easy. Start with just one frame and check back in a day or two.
Thanks for the lovely, evocative story, Rusty. I agree with others: a book of stories would be welcome!! Here in northeast Massachusetts, there are still plenty of old (early 1800s) cemeteries, bordered by wetlands, New England style rock walls, and full of native grasses and flowers and “weeds”, where the bees are still at home. I’m lucky to have 2 such places within a mile of my house, so I’m certain some of my honey must be “cemetery honey”. Haha. Never had any complaints! Harriet Beecher Stowe is buried a few miles away, down the street from where Lorenzo Langstroth preached for awhile (Andover, MA)
With all the cemeteries out there, it seems I need to pack my camera and go on another bee trip.
Lovely, vivid, and important remembrances, thanks for sharing them.
What a beautiful, beautiful piece of writing. Thank you so much for transporting me back in time. Loved it!
I look forward to reading a book written by you. This story kept me very interested and the pictures in my mind, vivid.
Mount Auburn Cemetery does have a newsletter.
With a horticultural history that’s over 150 years old, a lot of their plantings are exotic specimens. But in recent years, they have been moving toward a stronger emphasis on native plants. I believe their pest control policy is IPM.
They have a strong apiary. I have led Bee Safaris to show people where to find native bees near the ponds and wildflower meadows. I think they’d love your story about buckwheat!
I’ll give it a try.
Oh, golly! I have family buried there, most recently my almost 100-year old mother. Small world! Next time I’m in the area I will definitely look up the bees, too.
After reading your story, I am kind of sad that I was asked to, and did, remove a hive of bees from a cemetery. However, living in SE Texas we have a lot of crossbred bees, bees that have crossed with the “African Killer” bee. The bees I removed were very aggressive bees. Aggressive to the point that visitors could not visit the cemetery, especially graves and headstones that were close to the bee tree. Finding bees that can be handled with very little protective gear is fast becoming a thing of the past here.
I’ve long enjoyed your posts. When I teach a class, yours is one of the few websites I recommend. Thank you for such fine insights, information, and stories like this one.
Thank you for sharing your extensive knowledge and beautiful writing.
I am a recent amateur beekeeper but I think the photos I am sending are rare.
This was a peaceful hive for two years. Last summer with a full brood box and an empty super they would not grow.
I suspected the super might be in bad condition so I changed it for a new one.
When I did the most powerful attack began.
In October, the colony was bigger. And yesterday this is what I found, building from the bottom up in the weird forms you can see.
Part of the “pyramids” had honey.
Do you have a clue?
Honey bees do indeed build from the bottom up from time to time. I don’t know why. I think sometimes we don’t notice it because, by the time we look, the top pieces and the bottom pieces connect in a normal-looking comb.
Oh, Oh, Oh. You write so well! Literally brought tears. As an old man who was born and lived as a child in a small Ozark town, the post moved me. Everyone knew Everyone. Everyone knew everyone’s family back for generations. No one had any money, everyone had family. So far as I know, everyone had a garden, including those who lived on the hardscrabble farms. Everyone had multiple children, lots of aunts and uncles, dozens of cousins, and ‘kin’ everywhere. Need help? Ask. People would come out of the woodwork.
As economic refugees, my family fled the area for work. Did a 4,000-mile round trip run “home” every other year on a 2-week vacation. The town had become a sad place with widows living in the small rock houses, waiting for their children who were scattered around the country, to come “home” from time to time and to bring their grandchildren to visit. A particularly sad story. God, I remember fireflies, June bugs, Cicadas, Warm enveloping evenings, people rocking on their porch, waving at whoever went by. Bugs, ticks, and the like.
Last time I heard, someone bought all the buildings ‘downtown’ and knocked them down for the bricks. Big sigh. I remember a bank, 5 and dime, a soda fountain, a small hotel, a gas station, a general store, a liquor store, and more. All gone. All those old ladies went on their big trip. By now, all their children have too. Hell, most of their grandchildren have too. Now I’m depressed. BUT, it was wonderful when it was good.
I didn’t want to make you depressed. Sorry about that, but thank you for the compliment.
Oh, baby. Don’t feel bad. When I think back on my life, I grieve for what was 80 years ago and more. The belonging. The extended family feeling. The knowing where everyone fit. It was a different life and time. This journey has been wonderful. I have a wife to swim the river with, a daughter who is a wonder, grandchildren who are not freaks. Can’t ask for much more. It just makes me sad when I think about that little doomed town and when, about age 13, I realized that all those old women who lived alone, lived waiting for the annual or bi-annual visits of their children and grandchildren from Seattle, California, Chicago, and so on. Things are what they are. There is no “going home”. Just think about the ghosts from time to time.
The author of “Hillbilly Elegy” also from the Appalachian Mountains, spoke of his love of the land and place in the same manner as you did. There was a real connection to what we now imagine as home. How lucky you both are. Traditional Jewish cemeteries and Native American burial grounds do not mow, spray or otherwise disrupt the land where their ancestors are buried. Yet another way that they have opted for environmental stewardship over the fruitless and damaging quest to tame down nature and keep it neat and tidy that white Western people have adopted. (I seriously do not understand why this neat and tidy idea is considered a mark of civilization. In addition to all the environmental damage it wreaks, it is expensive beyond belief.) Your description of your childhood home was a vivid, and sweet, breath of fresh air. Thanks for ending my day on such a good note.
It touches my heart. No one had any money, everyone had a family.
Tsipping! You didn’t dream it Rusty!
That’s so funny!
Lovely and evocative essay – thank you!