Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Buckhannon, West Virginia and Conag, Turkey--Sister Cities?

We sat on the porch swing—Delal, Demet and I. My cousin Roy was on the steps.

‘You’ve lead such an amazing life,’ Roy told me. ‘Going to Japan and now living in Istanbul. Man, I’ve barely ever left this place.’

He waved his hand dismissively at the stunning mountain scenery that enfolded us there in that little hollow.

‘For us, West Virginia is pretty amazing,’ I told him. ‘Wherever you live is going to eventually seem a little ordinary and you get blinded to what’s amazing about it. Istanbul was driving me crazy when I left—but you would probably love it.  And here you’re saying it’s boring here, but it’s incredible to us.’

And what was so incredible for us? The mountains for one. Driving in and out of town took you through landscapes that cut to the quick, deep valleys with winding rivers and a sunset sky turning electric purple above. Quiet hollows full of fireflies.  Mist sending tendrils slithering over the rivers. We were staying in a cabin on the Middlefork River. Across the water was a huge meadow--a picturesque farm pastoral, the kind of thing you see in paintings in public buildings worldwide that seem so cheesy because they can’t be real. Such scenes are run-of-the-mill here. Our meadow—an empty green field, a dirt road winding through two poplars, a barn to the right, rolling green mountain backs behind, two horses grazing lazily.
The Middle Fork where we stayed

And then there was the animals. Everywhere we went, and I mean everywhere, we saw mother deer and their fawns. There were two fawns at the cemetery, a herd of six behind the car rental place, three out in the field next to the corn at my Uncle Jack’s house, three more at the empty lot next to the Wal-Mart.  A flock of wild turkeys in my Uncle Butch’s pasture, bears, rabbits, skunks, hummingbirds, groundhogs and a flock of wild red-headed ducks that made its way to Uncle Jack’s porch at 7:00 PM every day for bread.
The fawns wandering the Union Cemetery where my grandmother and her parents are buried

One thing about leaving a place for a long time, you’ll have a different vision when you come back. It had been nearly six years since I had last visited West Virginia, and I had a new set of eyes this time thanks to my wife and her sister. With our trip out to Bingöl and her village last year, I found myself in West Virginia looking for all the similarities to her Kurdistan. And there were quite a few—some more direct than others.

My Uncle Keith took us on a tour one day. We followed his pick-up down the four lane highway toward Elkins until he suddenly turned right onto a broken dirt road that wound round hillsides and dove deeper and deeper into the woods. At a spot just past a long stretch of nothing but maple shadows, the road winds between a farm and the ruins of an old one-room school house. This once was the community of Gormley, and this the Gormley School where my grandmother’s brothers and sisters learned to read and write a century ago. It was a one roomer, wooden, and now was a shell of gray planks and broken window panes. My sister-in-law tramped our way through the tall milkweed and peeked through the windows—a raggedy couch and bed sat pushed against the wall.

‘There was a family living here for a while,’ Uncle Keith explained.

My grandmother’s older brother Dick attended this school until the third grade. Her older sister for only two years. She herself finished the eighth grade—though I’m not sure where.

The Gormley School

I found myself thinking back to the one-room school house in Conag—also in ruins, also the place Delal’s grandparents had learned to read and write, also in the middle of a poor mountainous region in the center of the country where many people had to quit school early because there was work to do (and not enough teachers anyway) then later, being a people of tremendous pride, feeling embarrassed for it, yet having no reason to be embarrassed at all, for through hard work, strong character, and yes, intelligence, they carved for themselves respectable livings that we of the younger generation stand in awe of. These are no superficial comparisons—these kinds of things leave their mark on a family—the way you think and carry yourself in the world--and because of them I think that Delal and I have more in common with each other than we do with many of our own countrymen.

Up past the school we drove, leaping and hopping over boulders in the road until we came to a spring bubbling out of the woods on our left, flowing under the road and into a meadow on our right.

‘This is the spring that fed the Nesbitt farm,’ Uncle Keith explained.

Down in the meadow was the ruins of the Nesbitt Farm, a rickety shed that once served as home to my great grandfather Francis Alfred Nesbitt, his wife, her parents, and their eleven children—one of whom was my grandmother Lela.

Delal got out and hopped over the rocks to get a drink. I followed suit. The water gathered in a shadowed pool lined with fallen sycamore and oak leaves. It tasted of the forest—earth, green, cold. It looked like the pool of Xidirilîyês (Hıdrellez) in Conag where we’d picnicked one afternoon. The pool was also off a dirt road winding away from the village, also pouring from a spring to gather among the rocks, also lucid and lined with leaves. In Conag, the Pool of Xidirilîyês is a holy place for all the surrounding villages, where people come to drink water and pay respects to the spirit of the two saints Xidir and Ilîyês, patrons of those in trouble on land and sea respectively. Xidir was rumored to have drunk from the Water of Life and springs and water seem to hold a special place for the Alevis in Conag—springs, fountains, and rivers are sacred places. This little spring of ours, while no pilgrimage spot, felt sacred to me as it was by this water that my great grandparents and their children survived the wilderness. Uncle Keith seemed to feel at least an echo of this—it was him that took us here, to the middle of the forest, to show us this modest little spring.

The spring flows down into the Middle Fork River. The old Nesbitt homestead of my great grandfather sat on its shores in 1900. This place is remote now—fifteen miles from the nearest town of Buckhannon (itself only a small town of 5700 people) down a back road off a back road.  Back in the beginning of the twentieth century it was a bit livelier—there were communities all along the river built by the railroad for its workers in the coal mines and lumber mills. My mother took us on a tour of the river one day. She pointed out the ruins of all the wooden houses that sat high on the rocks or rotting up among the trees. ‘That was a railroad company house, and that one, too.’
A train of the Moore Keppel Lumber Company--along the Middle Fork. My great grand father worked for them

There are lots of trailers in the woods, cars junked in the yards.

‘The mountain people used to live out here,’ my mother tells the Delal and her sister. ‘We would come out to the camp meetings all piled into the truck and you could just see, lining the hills, these people watching us. They didn’t smile or wave, just stared. You could tell how poor they were from their worn-out clothes. No shoes on the kids. They had the spookiest looks in their faces.’

She had frightened them a bit with tales of mountain people a few days before—families that lived on the remote peaks and almost never came down. She said she had a dentist friend down in the south of the state. Sometimes her friend would hear a knock on the back of the office door and find two kids standing there, unspeaking, without shoes or sometimes without a shirt. She’d tend to them for free, but they’d never speak.

A lot of the tales of the old family feuds—the Hatfields and McCoys that come out of West Virginia have their origin in the clans of the Scotch Irish who settled here. In Dersim, the province that Conag culturally used to belong to, a similar clan system was in place, leading to similar kinds of feuds—whole families holed up in the mountains managing their own affairs independent of the central government.

On our river tour, we pass an enormous white house, all boarded up. Next to it was a little white-washed building.

‘That was my Uncle Elam’s house—my grandmother’s brother,’ my mother explained. ‘And that little building was Uncle Elam’s store. We used to have our camp meetings out on the grass. People would gather here for a few days or so in the summer and have baptisms and preachers would give sermons. I always sat in the back with my girlfriends and spied on the boys. One day we were just a giggling and carrying on and I saw my grandmother way up in the front, suddenly stand and scan the crowd for me. Her eyes locked on me and she motioned with her finger for me to come up front. And there I went, walking all the way down that aisle in front of the preacher, God and everybody.’

‘Or another time I remember me and my cousin Bobbin went out on the river swimming. There was no one around so we figured we’d take off our bathing suits. We were about 11 or 12 at the time. We took them off and lay out on the rock to sun and just as soon as we did, two men came down to water their horses. We jumped up to put our bathing suits on only to see them go floating down the river.’

I’m going to veer into a bit of drier history here—you can skip this paragraph if you wish.  The camp meetings my mother spoke of are a unique feature of Appalachian religion. They used to come when everyone wasn’t busy with farming and focused more on the ‘plain folk’, ecstatic variety of religion—lots of singing, baptizing and evangelizing. The central churches didn’t like it much—because by that time they had established a church hierarchy complete with leaders that conflicted with the individualistic faith of the mountains. And so they sent missionaries (particularly starting in the 1880s with the ‘home missions’) to ‘correct’ the Christianity of this ‘backward’ region. Delal’s region of Bingöl has a similar dynamic going on with Alevism—the Alevis were pretty self-sufficient religious group living in the mountains, and the surrounding Sunni communities saw them (and see them) as deviants from the true Islam.

We pass a ruin of a blue house set up against the hillside. ‘That’s my Aunt Sarai’s I think.’ She pronounces it Say-ree. ‘She was my grandma’s sister. My great grandmother used to stay with her. I remember she would sit out on the porch smoking a pipe and swearing at us all in German.’

Dede’s Dad used to wander through Conag, drinking coffee and wearing American clothes, swearing at kids in another language (English). My grandmother’s grandmother used to smoke pipes and fuss in German.

My mom and her cousins filled a book about our family with stories of their parents—the eleven children who grew up in that shack on that Nesbitt farm by the river. My mother tells this one:

‘Being the meek and mild child that I was, I got blamed for a lot of things for some reason. I would be put on restriction and had to stay in my room, which was on the second floor. I could look out the window and see all the kids playing and having a great old time. One day I decided I would climb out on the roof, climb down the drain pipe and no one would know the difference. Wrong! My mom was coming home from somewhere-I didn’t see her-and saw me coming down the drain pipe. She met me at the bottom with a switch!’

Or this from her cousin Jack about his dad—my grandmother’s older brother, Dick. ‘One day, my dad decided to get another pony and we loaded that pony into a two-door 1934 Ford. Dad turned the back seat up and we three boys got in, the pony sitting in front of us. Mom got in the front seat with the dog ‘Rex’ on the floor. We had about forty miles to drive like that and I remember all the folks in the small towns we passed through just stopping and staring. And whenever we’d hit a stop light, that pony would just raise cane!’

My aunt Joanie writes about my grandmother’s younger sister, ‘She and one of her siblings upset the outhouse once while Uncle Dick was still inside. And once she and her sister Lela (my grandmother) hotwired their dad’s Model T Ford with a fingernail file and took off on a joyride. Her old job used to be to pick the beetles off the beans and the bugs off the potatoes. When her youngest brother Bob was born, they had no money to pay the doctors and so they paid him with a ham.’

These stories of my mom and her cousins remind me of Dede’s stories back in Conag—funny, pastoral, and opening a window to a past that I am always surprised I am so closely connected to—poverty, camp revivals in the woods, German immigrants, coal company towns.

There’s a picture from the days of the camp meetings—an old blurry black and white. My grandmother is a little girl—about 6 years of age. She stands with a group of her siblings and cousins. Behind her is her mother with all her brothers and sisters, and her grandmother with all of hers—about 40 people in all, over a hundred years ago. They all made their lives down here on the river where we were staying. They bathed and swam in the swimming holes where we were bathing and swimming. I sometimes went down at dusk and followed the river to a swimming hole at a point where it forks—there were no houses here, no sign of people at all, just a dense wall of oaks and poplars and ash. The sky would be pink or else already fading into a dark purple-blue, fireflies would have ignited along the shores. I would hear nothing but the flow of water over the rocks, the crickets, the cicadas, and the frogs. It might be 2012 or it might be 1890 when my Great Great Uncle Elam swam here with his brothers or friends or father.

This blood continuity, this connection with the land is another thing that we have in common. Delal and Conag, me and here.

And like in Conag, in West Virginia the family protects. One night, as we drove back to the camp Delal asked me if we had enough gas. I looked down at the needle—an eighth of a tank. ‘Sure,’ I said. When we pulled into the drive the needle dropped and the empty light flipped out.


We were fifteen miles from town.  From any town or major highway. Figuring I should take care of this now (we had a long day trip the next day) I called my Aunt Bobbin, owner of the camp, and asked her where the nearest gas station would be. ‘We’re a little close to empty and close is best.’ And then I took off, with my mother driving behind me just in case. Of course, the needle went back up to an eighth of a tank as soon as we started and I was fine.  When I got back to the camp, my sister told me I needed to call my Uncle Butch and Keith right away.


‘Well Aunt Bobbin told Keith and he told Butch, I guess, and now they’ve filled a gas can and are going to come looking for you!’

I laughed. You always feel taken care of out here—for a kid who grew up with an absent father, it’s a tremendous feeling. This kind of thing and others is what made my wife tell me that West Virginia was the only place in all our travels that didn’t feel foreign, that felt like home.

I think on what Roy said to me on his Dad’s front porch.  Why do I travel? Why have I always been drawn to foreign places? That feeling of discovery? Of roaming new worlds? I remember last year when I first stepped into Delal’s village. Everything was so different, so rich in a history that I’d only come across in storybooks. There was a culture so colorful and strong.  Sometimes I lose track of the same thing back home, or maybe looking for it here in Turkey makes me see it more clearly when I came back home.

There’s a picture of my mother and all her cousins, standing at the camp along the Middle Fork River for an impromptu barbecue-slash-reunion. These are the children of the eleven kids who grew up along this same river—all of them long lost to old age and disease and death. There’s something special about this group of people. When they are gone, a precious thing will have passed out of this world. I have a picture of their parents, too.  Eleven children born to a poor farmer in the backwoods of a backwoods state. How they grew up, how they took care of each other, how they were intricately wound into each other’s lives bespeaks a culture that will be lost and is almost as foreign to me as Delal’s own.
The Nesbitt Children around 1918--my grandmother is Lela
The children of those 1918 kids in 2012

Their children and grand children and great grandchildren (and one great great on the way)

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