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.

Theologian Kirk Webb says that Christians are called "to know our past, so we are compelled to love others in the present." I long to hear a sound that would draw me up to the back porch of a house in the hills to meet the grandparents I have never felt in my arms--Mamaw, Papaw, Gram, and Poppa Cecil. I'd pull a chair up next to my grandmother, hold her hand, and tell her everything that has happened. I'd hear the way the mountain accent wraps itself around my grandfather's laugh. It will be as if I had just walked to an old dried-up well to make a wish but came back because everyone I could wish for was already there. "Remembering pulls us toward the truth," Webb says. "Remembering is our responsibility as Christians because we are people of memory who are of a God that does not forget."

THE FELLOWSHIP TIME following Uncle Wendell's funeral was also an act of memory--his wry sense of humor and his deep, loving laugh that rustled like doves flying over the countryside. As a family we revisited the lives, deaths, and burials that had brought us there. This offering of memories honored our family as one of God. This story-telling act of reverence transubstantiated our offering into worship as we returned Wendell Newberry and the others back to God.

The recollections that day pulled from me an unknown grief, but they also provided a joy rooted in the love in which my grandparents lived in their 50-something years--and the love they had for me. This realization opened a whole world for me: to know that they loved me before I was born and love me now; to know that a powerful love envelops me in my days.

Until I get to them, I'll continue to drive through the hills and let the mountains whisper to me in thoughts that seem to be my own. A song wails to me in the wind across the mountaintop. It covers me heavy like fog and warm like a quilt. "Walk these hills like we have done and soon, soon you will find us here." My grandparents encircle me in old hymns, meals spread across tablecloths, the family Bible, and old volumes of English poetry. I feel all four of them in the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the preacher at a Saturday night revival. They seep into me like the smell of Sunday supper, comfort me like a shot of whiskey. Their mountains are a quilt flung wide onto a bed, with curves and wrinkles settled across its landscape before it is smoothed out. There's a settledness, a comfort about the bedcover, and about the mountains across the valleys, that I can tuck myself into.

ELIZABETH NEWBERRY is an Appalachian writer and activist, as well as a former Sojourners intern.

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