Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Waiteville of my childhood

I have two 6 foot high bookshelves in my little office at home. One of them is solid and has  lots of the copies of stuff I've written and several volumes of the Interpreter's Bible and my printer and two things that have to do with my computer and Bern's which I don't understand but which blink at me all the time and I know if I disconnected them I'd be thrust immediately into computer hell, so I leave them alone, blinking aimlessly, so far as I can tell. I also have pictures of my children as babies and toddlers and a picture of my Dad an a chalice and several stone lions on that bookshelf.

The other bookshelf is unstable and held straight by a piece of laminated coal that someone gave me because I'm from West Virginia. So, a week or so ago I decided to empty the unstable book shelf and give the books away. I gave the novels to the Cheshire Library and the religious books to St. James in Higganum for their library. I've never been attached to books as books. I go to the library in Cheshire weekly at least and check out books I want to read. And if I ever need any of the religious books, I know where they are. But they were very dusty and made me sneeze, so I can't imagine needing them any time soon.

I did keep some books of poetry and a book called If you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill him which I've had for 40 years or so, and my copy of Joachim Jeremias' The Parables of Jesus, absolutely the best book about parables ever, and Lamb by Christopher Moore (which everyone should read) and The Hundredth Monkey and The Giving Tree. Everything else is gone to Cheshire Library or St. James. Next week, when I get back from San Francisco, I'll take the rickety bookshelf down and out.

On it, though, I found a plate with a likeness of the New Zion Union Church in Waiteville, West Virgina dated 1863-1966. It was something I took from my parents home. Waiteville is in Monroe County, the most South-east county of the state. Monroe County is where White Sulphur Springs is, which is the only name you might recognize from the whole county unless you're from West Vriginia and realize Lewisburg, the county seat, is where the WV State Fair was held--and may still be.

Zion Union Church is called that because everyone in Waiteville was either a Baptist or a Methodist and there weren't enough people there to have two churches. So a Baptist would preach one week and a Methodist the next. And the graveyard for Waiteville was there where most everyone buried there would be in some way related to me.

We used to go to Waiteville every Memorial Day for the Dinner that raised money for the graveyard's upkeep. The dinners were unbelievable: fried chicken, baked chicken, chicken and dumplings, pork in an endless variety of forms, rare roast beef, green beans cooked into an inch of their life in fatback, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, fried potatoes, potatoes au gratin,  potato salad (lots of Irish folks there, including the Bradley/McCormick clan) sweet potatoes in several iterations, lots of jello salads, carrots and onions, peas and onions, just plain onions, gravy in several forms (gravy is a food group in Southern West Virgina) and desserts beyond imagining all topped with whipped cream or brain-numbing homemade ice cream.

Once, on some Memorial Day (linear time confounds me) I was wandering around the grave yard where countless ancestors were moldering in the grave, and happened upon two grave stones that said: JAMES GORDON BRADLEY and JAMES GORDON BRADLEY, JR. That is my name and I almost fainted away (I was, hard to believe, a delicate child). I'd never known I'd been named for ancestors. Those were my great and great-great grandfathers. My grandfather's name was Filbert and my father's name was Virgil. God figure. I could have been James Gordon Bradley V but for Filbert and Virgil in between.

Another year, my crazy great aunt Arbana (ever know anyone named 'Arbana'?) had put confederate flags on many of the graves of my ancestors for Memorial Day. Though Monroe County was a boarder county and there are slaves somewhere in there, most of the Bradleys and McCormicks had been true blue Unionists. My Uncle Sid and Uncle Russell went around gathering the Confederate Flags and cursing their Aunt Arbana.

My great uncle Amos was buried from Zion Union Church. I was at his funeral when I was 8 or so. (Linear Time, like I said....) It was February and bone cold and the boys digging the grave were having trouble with the frozen earth and kept sending messages to the Baptist minister to keep preaching, which he did, for an hour or so before the grave was ready.

Great Uncle Amos was a man about 5'4". He was a McCormick. He liked a bit of whiskey from time to time and used to keep it in his barn where my father and uncles would go with him whenever we were in Waiteville.

The story goes like this: there was a revival at Zion Union Church and great-uncle Amos responded to the altar call. He had his head down and the Revivalist came by, laid hands on him and said, 'bless the little boys', though Amos was 24 or so. Afterwards, out in the night, some of his friends were kidding him, being much taller than him.

"God bless the little boys," they said, circling him out on the road.

"Hump," Amos is reported saying, though I don't know if this is true, "I'd rather be a little man like me and go to heaven than a great big son-of-bitch like all you and go to hell." Then, I was told as a child, he hitched up his britches and walked away. That was the night, the apocryphal story goes, that he met my great-aunt Arlene, who had been saved like him. Only her salvation 'took' and she was a teetotaler while Amos had some whiskey in the barn. Arlene was 5'10' and weighed about 200 pounds to Amos' 95. But they had, so far as I knew, a joyful if childless marriage.

New Zion Union Church, founded in the midst of the Civil War, is, so far as I know, still there, though I haven't been to Waiteville for 40 years or so. Maybe I'll go someday before I die, to walk the graveyard and say soft things to those of my blood.

That might be something I should do....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.