I don’t have enough memories to draw on to fit the form, and I can’t fake it without moving into the realm of fiction, without lying to myself, no matter how nice a story it would make, no matter how very rural or Appalachian these stories could present me.
By Stacy Jane Grover
The following is an excerpt from Tar Hollow Trans, to be released by the University Press of Kentucky on June 20th, 2023.
On June 2, 1961, Beatrice Grover looked out the kitchen window to see smoke rising from one of the horse barns on the family’s sixty-five-acre farm. She ran out of the house and up a short rise of grass to the barn and squeezed in through the sliding door. Flames whipped and cracked around her. She unlatched the gates of the three stalls and flung them open to let the horses out. The horses galloped into the field, unscathed. Beatrice ran back into the house and called the fire department. She grabbed her youngest son, David, and rushed back outside to make sure no other animals or children came near the blaze. The fire incinerated the barn and all the equipment inside, including her daughter Sharon’s new show saddle.
Sharon was eleven years old and had just begun participating in her local 4-H saddle club, the Lucky Horseshoes. Beatrice was heartbroken, knowing she would have to tell Sharon that she wouldn’t be able to compete in the upcoming season. Each of Beatrice and her husband William’s eleven children raised a colt and livestock for 4-H when they reached the age of ten. Because the family had no money for a new saddle, Sharon would be the only one to have to wait to begin 4-H.
News of the fire and Beatrice’s quick action to save the horses including Duke, Sharon’s new sorrel made the local newspapers. The members of the Lucky Horseshoes raised $71 and surprised Sharon with a new silver-studded show saddle. Sharon and Duke placed runner-up in the junior division. Later that year at the county fair, Sharon would ride Duke in the club’s horse square dance.
In an interview after the competition, Sharon told the local paper, “My horse and I are wonderful pals. We go riding almost every day. I have been training him myself. I’m very thankful that Mother saved him from our burning barn, and for our wonderful leaders and club members who made it possible for me to continue in 4-H.” The article included a photo of Sharon sitting on Duke, wearing a cowgirl hat and smiling.
The year of the barn fire, Donnie, the oldest of Beatrice’s children, was living with his wife and children in the modest ranch house he had just built at the edge of his family’s land. When Donnie was younger, he not only raised his colt and livestock for 4-H, he served on the county judging team and appeared on the local station’s Sunday evening program Junior Fair.
Donnie’s sister Dolores helped him prepare for his cattle shows at the county fair. A photo in the local newspaper in October 1954 shows a young Dolores standing over a wheelbarrow holding a shovel. The caption reads, “Straw Boss – Pretty Dolores Grover of Carroll High School gives a hand to brother Donnie in preparation for his stock entries at the Fair . . . and that ain’t hay.” As Donnie, Dolores, and many of their siblings grew older, they transitioned to serving as 4-H camp counselors at Tar Hollow State Park deep in Ohio’s Appalachian region.
Donnie would go on to raise his three daughters in the home he built. He raised them with horses on the ten acres he bought from his parents. Together, children and horses ranged through the winding hills and fields of family land. Behind the house, a steep hill dove into a deep creek valley where they would take the horses to drink. As the children grew up, the size of the farm shrank. Donnie and his wife, Ruth, sold land around the house to other families. The simple pole barn with the tin roof Donnie had built remained, but eventually the crops and livestock disappeared. So too did the horses.
Donnie’s three daughters had nine children, and I grew up in the house he built with my parents, my two siblings, and my oldest first cousin. We roamed the land, up along the creek bed through forest and hill, or behind the neighbors’ houses to the hill with the single tree where we’d watch the sun go down. I climbed the silver maple with the rope swing in the backyard, bringing supplies to create my own treetop world. We sledded down the hillside in winter, and if we had enough weight on the toboggan, we could often coast all the way to the creek, jumping out just before we splashed into the frozen water. My cousins and I played in the treehouse my grandfather built on the hillside, complete with functioning windows and my oldest cousin’s artwork hanging inside. We lit bonfires year-round, lay under the stars, watched the combines plow, observed the long straight flight of the biplanes as they sprayed pesticide on the surrounding fields. Just beyond the cornfields sat my great-grandmother’s house, more cousins, more family. Living with them was a link to the world before my birth.
But when I picture the village, the countryside, and my family and their history, I don’t see my face; I don’t see my stories filling the landscape as theirs do. I can conjure the village and the landscape, describing it as bucolic and timeless. I can write general childhood memories about the village using the facts I’ve learned to try to make some claim to it. I can write a young me into that place in a way that’s so generic I could be anyone. There’s no substance to these memories, nothing compelling enough to leap off the page and rise to the level of a story. I don’t have enough memories to draw on to fit the form, and I can’t fake it without moving into the realm of fiction, without lying to myself, no matter how nice a story it would make, no matter how very rural or Appalachian these stories could present me.
I can’t find or write myself there now, even when I have the chance to fill the narrative void. I left home and so my story in that village was cut short, and even though I planned to stay in that county forever, it didn’t work out. I’d like to make this story of leaving home fit a tidy narrative. In this alternate narrative, I left to scrape by in major cities, but I miss home so I travel back as often as I can. I drive home to see my young cousins napping with their show animals, see the ribbons adorning their show squash, their pies, their quilts. I watch them ride horses and admire their prize heifers at competitions. In this fictional version of my life, we meet for dinner and pick up our relationships where we left off. I’d write a dramatic arc that would ease my guilt and hurt and unravel the threads of my emotional tension.
But I’ve never traveled home to see them. I have thought about looking for them, but I’m not sure what they do, what age they are now, as they are perpetually the last age at which I saw them, the last time we shared a life. I wouldn’t know where to find them, or what we’d have in common. I don’t even know if they’re still home. And when I do finally drive home to see them in my real life, it’s not at competitions or their houses, not for the holidays, not in any of the ways that could relieve this narrative of longing. Instead, I drive home for another funeral.
Sixty years after my great-grandmother saved the horses from the barn fire, after the photo of Sharon on her horse, after Donnie built the house in which he raised his children and grandchildren, I sit in front of his casket as relatives filter in and out of the room, sit and talk, reminisce, and admire the photos displayed around the room. My uncle David opens the service with a sermon and then the relatives eulogize my grandfather. Their stories touch on similar themes: my grandfather’s unmatched work ethic, even at eighty-six; his love for my grandmother and his family. They speak of farming and animals and all the old ways Donnie embodied all the things they too have come to embody because of him.
I sense the swirling of time, the circling of tradition, the restless entanglement of inheritance, land, memory, and tradition. All that binds and unbinds me sinks in the spaces between us. All I didn’t learn, all that I could have become hides behind the tacky custard drapery and scutters across the ugly carpet. I try to absorb the details of the funeral, the stories and side conversations, the photos lining the walls. I try to muster inspiration from the depths of grief, to bring the meaning that death is supposed to endow on life and transform it into a story. Yet when my chance to speak comes, I fail to summon a memory of him that would mark me as the receiver of all he planted in us. Bearing witness would expose my shortcomings. Instead, I soak in my silence.
I want to insert into the narrative a tradition or artifact passed down to me to use as a metaphor to fill the void of experience, to wrap up the logic of the essay and impart a feeling. Again, I’m left wanting. I’d have to contrive or stretch a memory, which is why I often turn to the dead past, to the convenience of newspapers, where I can swiftly find accounts of German Appalachian traditions to suit my needs.
In the 1880s in Cincinnati, a boy was inexplicably dying. The women of the neighborhood diagnosed the boy as having been cursed by witches, as they had found a mysterious wreath made of straw and feathers in his bed. They salted and burned the wreath, and the boy recovered.
A few years later, another newspaper recounts, a man in Pittsburgh who had been ill for months threw his pillow away, claiming it was what made him sick. His wife, who had made the pillow, dismissed his claims, but after his death, she found a hard lump inside where a nest of feathers and straw had formed.
These mysterious nests found inside the pillows of people on their deathbed were called witch wreaths, death feather crowns, angel crowns, or death feather nests. They were often discovered by a family member noticing a hard lump in a pillow. Depending on the kind of nest, they portended different things. The circles of straw and feathers served as evidence of bewitchment and omens of death. Conversely, the crowns were symbols of salvation. Those who were fortunate enough to find them in their pillows were believed to have had their sins absolved. The wreaths meant that they were deserving of God’s grace and would soon enter the pearly gates. It was believed that only the most deserving, those whose character and deeds in life were unparalleled in the community, those who held fast to faith and tradition, would merit these wreaths.
The tradition of pillow nests has disappeared almost entirely, possibly because the advance of scientific knowledge and rationalization brought an end to the belief in witches and curses, or because the industrialization of manufacturing pillows made of synthetic materials rendered handmade pillows unnecessary. Others claim that there are too few people left who keep the old ways, whose characters can hold the weight of tradition. The pillow nests that remain have ended up as family relics kept in boxes in closets and attics or inside glass domes on shelves, collecting dust.
In the funeral parlor, I consider the relatives who surround me, those who were raised right, maintained the old ways, and inherited the family line. All that our ancestors knew and passed down emanates from them. I’ve spent years reading and researching to learn all they know, hoping to meld with them. I turn to relics, photographs, and newspapers so that I can pull tradition out of the closet shoebox and hope that after years in the darkness it will imbue me with its powers. Writing has been an impulse to keep this past alive, to narratively construct myself as the inevitable inheritor of all that my ancestors created, all that I never learned. But I know my attempts are futile. I wouldn’t need to work so hard to be convincing if I was there in the archive beside them. But I’m not there, and even if I stand on the highest peak in the county and scream my family name until the sandstone cliffs scream it back, my bones don’t hold all my ancestors knew and it’s too late to inherit it now.
The family testifies to Donnie’s character: his unmovable kindness, generosity, and joy, his unyielding faith. I imagine that a witch wreath appeared in his pillow, that while lying in bed in the live-in barn on his daughter’s farm, he smiled, realizing he’d soon reap the reward for his good and long life. I hope to find a witch wreath in my pillow someday. But I never learned to make pillows of feathers and hay.
Stacy Jane Grover hails from Ohio’s Appalachian region. She is the author of Tar Hollow Trans: Essays from the University Press of Kentucky. Her essays have appeared in numerous magazines and print anthologies and have garnered a Notables mention in Best American Essays anthology. She holds an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Cincinnati