Almost Heaven

Interstate 77 winds around the mountains of Bland County like lifelines on the palm of my hand. I cross through the Big Walker Mountain tunnel and know I am home. I crack the window for a fresh breath of southwestern Virginia air and hear music beyond the wind and the butterflies.

I've come home to attend the funeral of my great-uncle Wendell Newberry. This stretch of Route 617 traces the roots of my family tree. We pass the family homestead of four generations--where my Uncle Randy and his family still live. Adjacent to the cemetery, my parents and I pass the farmhouse that belonged to my family when they were dairy farmers.

A serenade of dulcimer, banjo, and fiddle rises from Stone Age creek beds, now empty but filled with song. It's a lonesome twang that resonates in the county my grandparents claimed as their own. I remember the land, but growing up I felt I had no grandparents because I had no memories of them. My father's father died when my dad was 15. My other grandfather and both grandmothers died within six months of my birth. The grief I had experienced at the death of other grandparent figures--my great-grandmother Miss Lu, my great-aunts Elsie and Carrie, and now my great-uncle Wendell--pulled to the surface the intense grief I felt at never having known my grandparents, which became a divining rod for a deep well of love and gratitude buried inside me.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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