Noah Adams, author of books including “Far Appalachia: Following the New River North,” is senior correspondent and former co-host of “All Things Considered” for National Public Radio. He is a native of Ashland, Ky.
I live in Maryland with boxes of beloved ashes. Some wood, some cardboard; they hold the remains of friends, pets and parents. Their presence here seems to be temporary and perhaps in time my wife Neenah and I will find a more suitable spot for each.
We can’t figure out what to do about my mother and stepfather. She’s from eastern Kentucky and he was raised in the Virginia Blue Ridge. They were together for 37 years and remain so on a closet shelf.
My stepfather always told us: “We’ll just be cremated and there’s no reason to have a service or bury us.” He wrote it in their wills, didn’t want anyone to bother. But I realize I’m longing for the strength and certainty of place – I’d be comforted if they could be close to their rivers, their hills.
Ten years ago I set out for Somerset County, England, to find my mother’s forebears. In 1645, Thomas Wellman adventurously left the town of Ilminster to emigrate to Massachusetts. In 1998, I stood in the church cemetery, taking note of the Wellmans who stayed.
My father’s lineage is obscure; his people came from somewhere in Virginia. He’s buried at a crossroads marked on some Kentucky maps as “Adams.” No longer a town, no longer a post office.
In spring, the country gravesites of Appalachia are graced by blue myrtle blossoms, or “periwinkle.”
Myrtle is evergreen and makes good ground cover. In some places it can be the only clue to the past. “They call it cemetery vine,” a forester told me. “When we’re cutting roads you learn to look for it or you’ll be pushing up a skeleton.”
I went to West Virginia this past April to work on a story about timber growing, and my tree expert took me to a family cemetery on the rim of the New River Gorge. There was something new to see. A Boy Scout troop had been surveying a number of unmarked graves. They lay in the woods just beyond the fence line. You could see slight depressions and ridges in the earth. Small orange flags were bright against the myrtle.
A cautious excavation awaits, but the bodies surely are victims of the Hawks Nest Tunnel – a project started in 1930 to divert the New River for electrical power. It was a deadly place to work, Gauley Mountain being almost pure silica. Hundreds died of silicosis, and quickly. It was said bodies were thrown in the river, weighted with rocks. And it is surely possible that some of the grave mounds belonged to men whose families were never told.
I drove down out of the Alleghenies that day admiring the luminous purple of the redbuds against the pale greens. I stopped in Waynesboro, Va., the small town where my stepfather was born. I’d been meaning to visit Riverview Cemetery. His mother was buried here in 1943, while he was away at war.
It’s an old cemetery, with views of the Blue Ridge. My stepfather must have walked here, been to funerals as a youngster. I made a promise to talk it over with my wife – maybe this summer we can bring him back to Waynesboro.