Yesterday, we made a six-hour round trip to the place where my body will someday lie until the end of time. Not that we were trying to get a jump on things. Rather, we were attending David’s eldest brother’s 40th wedding anniversary party. It was held in Cheraw, where David grew up, in Zoar United Methodist Church, which David’s grandparents helped to build. Coming home to Raleigh, we were chock-full of emotions, ranging from “Everything there has my family’s name on it” to “How could we possibly be old enough to have a sibling celebrating a 40th anniversary?”
When David and I were first married, back in the Paleolithic Era, we lived within easy walking distance to this little brick church. It was the first non-Catholic church I had ever stepped into, although we attended the Catholic church in town. Zoar is out in the country, and David’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, ad infinitum, lived close by. Some of the stained glass windows are in honor of all sorts of Teals and Campbells, David’s grandmother’s family name. There is a portrait of his aunt in one spot, with a plaque underneath citing all of her good deeds. David’s grandparents owned a prosperous family farm and peach packing plant, and all of his family members were key players in this busy little community.
David writes: “When I was a kid, Sunday afternoons were spent at my grandmother’s house ‘visiting.’ We’d have our Sunday dinner, then sit on the porch in warm weather or in the den in winter, waiting for friends and family to drop by, to visit. Everyone knew to come to Mama Teal’s house, and so they did— to share the news of the day, or to tell and retell stories of the past. ‘Big Bill’ Rivers was a great story-teller. He could have the whole house howling in laughter from so many tales of family life back in the day. Our family hasn’t ‘visited’ anyone in as long as I can remember. No one has shared any of the great family stories of the past with my son. He has no connection to Zoar, and may not have a connection to anywhere we’ve lived for that matter.”
Now the only ones left are David’s brother and his wife. Charles and Janet are really good people, and anyone who stays married for forty years these days deserves to be honored. They have worked hard all their lives, raised two children, and are now enjoying six active grandchildren, none of whom live nearby. They are still working, and Charles is also the local volunteer fire chief. They socialize with people who were once classmates, and the church where their parents and grandparents worshipped is still a key part of their lives. Their ancestors’ graves are a short walk away.
This is how everyone used to live, isn’t it? When we read books— fiction and nonfiction— from earlier times, we see that it was shocking and traumatic for people to move away from their home town, especially since they may never have seen one another again. In the past few decades, though, it has become normal for Americans to move around, particularly to seek employment. As for me, I don’t even have a home town! I’m sure many people feel the same way.
When David and I were engaged, I thought that the whole rural, small town idea was romantic. You know, let’s get back to the land, and all that. It was 1980, remember; I grew up wearing peasant dresses and long hair. What a shock I must have been to them! Here was a native son marrying this then-Catholic girl, fresh from New Jersey, where I’d lived for ten years and had picked up some of the accent, I’m sure. Everyone was so nice to me, although perhaps tentative. I am truly blessed in my extended family.
Rural life, though, is not romantic. It is hard work that takes perseverance and a clear-sighted understanding of life. All ideas of romping through the meadow go out the window when the crops fail due to drought or the grocery store your grandfather founded closes up when Wal-Mart opens on the bypass. When you drive through the country now, it is so bleak. A family farm today often means that Tyson or Cuddy has put enormous, hideous chicken or turkey houses on your property, and most of the farmers have debts that they can never repay. The towns are taken over by fast-food restaurants and the old downtown areas are drying up. Children of farmers work in mills, often owned by overseas corporations, keeping the local population fairly close to minimum wage.
I asked David this morning why he moved away and whether he missed living in his home town. He said that, although he felt nostalgic seeing the old church, he had planned to move away even before we met. After he had graduated from college a couple of hours away and then traveled to Europe, he had different plans for his life, and he knew that as long as he lived in their small town he would always be his father’s son. Although his father was a very respectable man, he was a mechanic and a high school graduate. It did not matter that David had excelled in academics all through his education, he could never be more than a supervisor in a factory. He told me this morning that, one time when he was looking for a new job, the headhunter had told him about a position in Cheraw for which he was perfectly qualified, but David refused to even interview. He knew that he could not move back to a place where he would always be the youngest son of his father, being slipped into a slot that other people had made for him, one that didn’t fit him anymore.
There are always new people moving into small towns, and there always will be. But they won’t be the ones whose names are on the church pews or carved on the marble headstones. The children of once-proud families will find less and less reason to visit, until some librarian in the future will list the names in a book of the genealogy of the area, a gem for some local history buff. In the meantime, we can be comforted that this world is not our home, and that there actually will be an end of time someday.
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland…. As it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:13-16.