Happy New Year to everyone! As I sit here in Southern California and whine about the cold, it seems fitting to post this photo of the snow-covered Buckingham County, Virginia, “Homestead,” built in 1850 for my great-great grandmother Virginia and still standing today. I am reminded that it can get much colder elsewhere! And young Virginia couldn’t crank up the heater when it got cold, or turn on the faucet and hop into a hot bath–or even flip on the light switch, for that matter, as I can do now.
I spent some wonder-filled summers in this house as a child, as did countless cousins, uncles and aunties, and more. In rural Buckingham County, this city kid discovered the country life. I had occasion to reminisce recently with several family members about the experience: we laughed about the outhouse (and corresponding nighttime chamber pot). Uncle Wardie, my grandma’s youngest brother and the only one who remained at the Homestead most of his life, loved to scare us kids by warning us to “watch out for the snakes” as we ambled off to do our daytime business in that creepy, creaky privy. And Cousin Robin reminded me how we’d screw up our noses when we got the duty of taking the chamber pot outside in the morning to dump in the woods and clean.
I loved the big black woodburning stove in the kitchen. A favorite memory is the thrill of baking homemade apple turnovers in that grand, fiery iron box, including, of course, the thrill of stoking the fire inside with pieces of split wood from the woodpile in the yard.
I remember running through the endless rows of corn, corn so tall that I could have disappeared for hours if I’d wanted. And I can still see the wrinkled, yellowed tobacco leaves hanging to dry from the ceiling rafters down in the barn, down next to where the pigs were. And slopping the pigs, of course. Hauling that heavy, foul-smelling bucket of slop down the hill to dump into their trough. I can still hear Uncle Wardie calling them: “Su-eee!” he’d wheeze out with a cackling laugh.
As an adult, I now view this place with reverence and awe. I had no idea in the naiveté of my childhood that such heavy history was hanging there in those dried-out tobacco leaves. That understanding came after I had grown up and even more heartrendingly after I had begun my research for The Trouble with Virginia. As a child, I could never have comprehended the life of my great-great grandmother Virginia, who spent more years of her life as a slave–property of her own father–than she did as a free woman; and that was after having withstood the “War for Southern Independence,” what many Southerners called the Civil War at that time.
I am reminded that history is told not only by those who were victorious but by those who would be famous–in this case, the Thomas Jeffersons, the Abraham Lincolns, the Robert E. Lees. But it is mostly the regular folk, black and white, who suffered under the oppression of slavery and its progeny, fear, hate, and violence; who filled the ranks and suffered the consequences; who struggled in despair as enemy soldiers bore down unwelcomed upon their civilian lives; who risked their lives in battle and then buried their brethren, who set the course of history.