Thursday, October 4, 2007

Those West Virginia Hills

Oh, the West Virginia hills! How majestic and how grand,
With their summits bathed in glory, Like our Prince Immanuel's Land!
Is it any wonder then, That my heart with rapture thrills,
As I stand once more with loved ones On those West Virginia hills?

--Verse One of the West Virginia State Song, Lyrics by Mrs. Ellen King

Those West Virginia Hills
View from the Pool Deck
Taken 9/30/07 at Roseland, West Virginia

In 1944, my parents, both West Virginia natives, left the mountain state so that my dad could attend seminary. While my parents had every intent of returning to their birth state, in 1946, upon graduation from Boston University School of Theology, my dad was lured west to Montana, and that was that. In 1949, I was born in Montana. Although we made several trips back when I was an infant and toddler, the last trip we made as a family was in August 1953. Some of my earliest memories stem from that trip. When my grandmother was hospitalized in October, 1953, Mother returned to help care for her own mother, and spent the next six weeks in Parkersburg, her home town. After Grandma’s death, Mother’s siblings chipped in to upgrade her ticket, trading her train ride for an airplane flight—undoubtedly on a DC-3. As they saw her off, they said “We know we’ll never see you again.” And they never did.

I made my first trip to West Virginia in 1987, for an extended weekend after presenting a paper at a literature conference in Cincinnati. Gary and I returned in 2000 on our way to a conference in Lexington, Kentucky. Until this trip, that was the extent of the time I have spent in West Virginia. But, my roots are here in the West Virginia hills. The stories I grew up with all take place in West Virginia. When I started my genealogy research, I learned just how deep those roots go. In one case back to the late 1600s. Perhaps that explains why as I drove west on WV Highway 88, I felt as if I were back home again—in a place I’ve never lived.

All five of my mother’s siblings died in the town where they were born: Parkersburg. To date, three of my twelve first cousins on Mother’s side have also died in the same town. Most of the cousins still alive live in Parkersburg. The family didn’t move far once established.

My dad was born in the next county south, Jackson County. He lived at various times in Ripley, Ravenswood, and Cottageville where he graduated from high school in a class of twelve. His mother died when he was twelve and his father remarried almost immediately. Eventually Grandpa Spellman and his second wife, Pearl, had two more boys. I have (half) first cousins on that side as well, but I don’t know them. Most of them now live in Florida.

My Grandfather's Eldest Brother
Taken 10/1/07 in Jackson County West Virginia

My dad’s stories centered on landscape—the steep hills, narrow roads, and broad waters. Mother’s stories centered on family members. In both cases the stories were about West Virginia, “my home far away”—as John Denver put it. Driving from Wellsburg through Bethany and West Liberty into Wheeling, I saw what my father had been talking about. The hills were steep, the roads narrow and twisting. As I left WV Highway 2 to take Emergency 2 at Moundsville, I doubt that I was able to get above 25 mph and rarely out of second gear.

The directions I had been given so that I could find Roseland, West Virginia’s Best Kept Secret, according to one friend, told me to drive ten miles then to take the right fork and continue for another ten miles. At one point, a school bus I had been following pulled over to let me pass and as I did so, I noticed that what allowed the bus to pull over was a road that took off to the right. For several miles I wondered if I was supposed to have taken the hidden fork, but eventually I found my way to the poshest, best appointed gay resort I’ve ever seen.

Roseland is set on 222 acres of mountain ridge top in the northern West Virginia panhandle. Formerly a large farm, many of the old farm buildings have been restored and refurbished to provide lodging for the guests. There is one house with an institutional kitchen, dining room and living room open to all guests, and bedrooms upstairs for those willing to pay the fee to stay in the house. I opted for the barracks, an attic room in another building with eight twin beds and a shared bath. There are hundreds of tent sites and places to park your RV or camping trailer, and more individual cabins than I could count. Friendship Hall has a store, a bar, and a rec room/dance hall with fireplace, large screen tv, and pool table all on the ground floor, and sinks, showers and toilet facilities for campers downstairs. There are over ten miles of hiking trails and flowers planted in every available space. Most of the flower beds had signs asking the guests not to pee on the flowers. Well, for most of the season there are just men on the grounds.

This particular weekend was “Country-Western Weekend,” and I made good use of the clothing I’d brought along for line dancing in Portland. Friday night I danced the night away, closing the bar for the first time in I don’t know how many years. Saturday night one of the “seasonal” guests gave a two-hour line dance class, which was followed by the big dance of the weekend. I’d like to say that I danced my booty off, but in fact, by the end of the class my legs were hurting so much that I took a nap then spent the rest of the evening in the hot tub.

Calvary United Methodist Church
Formerly the Ripley United Brethren Church
Many generations of Spellmans and Spellman relatives worshiped in this church
Taken 10/1/07 in Ripley, West Virginia

Between lounging in the hot tub and laying out on the deck chairs by the pool, I was able to get past most of the ache in my lower limbs—but not all of it. I met many men with whom I had great conversations, and enjoyed the meals that were part of the price of my room. In fact, Saturday night is pot-luck night at Roseland, and I really didn’t think the ramen noodles I had in the car would be an acceptable covered dish. But, as anyone with any gay friends knows, you’ll never go hungry around a group of gay men, and the pot luck dinner had more delicious food than a group twice our size would have needed. It never ceases to amaze me what these magic fairies can whip up in their tents and campers—but then my first partner Steve said that I was the only person he knew who took a soufflĂ© dish along on a camping trip. What? Don’t you all do that?

Sunday dawned bright and clear and even though I knew that I would have to leave, I decided to get as much out of the experience as I could. Accordingly I took my book to the pool and spent most of the day sunning and reading. Around four I finally got in the car and began the long trek back down the mountain, meeting West Virginia Highway 2 near the town of Proctor.

The one thing that did not happen while at Roseland was a massage. There is a massage therapist who spends most weekends at the resort, offering his services to the guests, but it was my luck that the one weekend I’m in residence, the masseur is not. I asked one of my hot-tub companions if he thought I’d be able to find a gay masseur in Parkersburg, and he told me that the fellow normally at Roseland was from the Parkersburg area. My friend thought the masseur was named Ron Stephens, but I figured that he was mistaken.

My mother’s maiden name is Stephens. Her baby sister married a man named Stephens—one way to get out of having to change your name. Aunt Ruth is the only one of my uncles and aunts to have more than two children. She had eight. One was named Ron. I have his fourth grade school picture in my family album in Missoula. But neither Ron, nor Stephens, are terribly uncommon names. What were the chances that I was related to this guy? I picked up his card at the front desk as I was leaving the resort, with the idea that I would call for an appointment and a genealogy check once I got to Parkersburg, seventy miles down river from Proctor.

Those West Virginia Hills, Part II
The Spellman family farm
Taken 10/1/07 in Jackson County, West Virginia

West Virginia Highway 2 follows the Ohio River from Chester in the extreme north of the state to Kenova, the point where the Ohio turns westward and the states of Kentucky--KEN, Ohio—O, and West Virginia—VA, hence Kenova, all come together. I followed WV Highway 2 from Proctor to Parkersburg, passing through New Martinsville, Paden City (where I passed by Paden Place), Sistersville, Friendly (home of the Friendly Christian Church and other such institutions), St. Marys, Willow Island and Waverly. Eventually I arrived in Parkersburg, and I drove through town on WV Highway 68 knowing that I would have to cross the city to reach my cousin Sharon who lives just by the sign announcing “Lubeck: Unincorporated.” As I drove by Sharon’s drive way, I told myself “She lives up there.” I kept driving. As I passed through the town of Lubeck, my cell phone rang. It was Vikki, one of the daughters of my dad’s half-brother, Ralph. “Where are you?” she asked. “Lost in Lubeck” I replied. Eventually I turned around and drove back turning into Sharon’s driveway on the second go-round.

On Monday, Sharon and I drove to Ravenswood to meet Vikki, and Vikki and her husband Mike drove us all over Jackson County, starting with the family cemetery. From there we drove into Ripley, the county seat, where I found the former Ripley United Brethren Church—the church my grandparents, great-grandparents, and I don’t know how many generations back attended. The United Brethren ceased to be a denomination in 1946 when they merged with the Evangelical Association, and the “new” denomination, The Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) were absorbed into the Methodist Church in 1969 becoming the United Methodist Church. I was surprised to find such a large building for what I had always thought of as a rural church, but West Virginia is the land of churches—lots and lots of churches and most of them quite large, at least in the western part of the state.

The Little Kanawha at Sunset
The Little Kanawha flows into the Ohio at Parkersburg
Taken 10/2/07 in Parkersburg, West Virginia

On Tuesday I had a session with massage therapist and first cousin Ron Stephens, and we spent twice as much time catching up on family news as we did at the massage table. That said, I did have a massage that lasted at least ninety minutes. It was one of the best I’ve had, but we continued catching up throughout the entire experience.

I first met Sharon, the grand-daughter of my mother’s brother Brady, when I was in college and her grandmother brought her west as a High School graduation present. Sharon and I were immediately aware of a connection, and I have often since referred to her as the sister I never had. Up until now she is the one person I would come to West Virginia to visit, the only one of my blood relatives I felt close to.

Spending five hours with Ron, I had the same feeling. This is a man I have known all my life, even if we only met on Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007, with me approaching 58 and Ron just turned 53. I’m still staying at Sharon’s home, introducing her to the movie Sordid Lives (which I borrowed from Ron), and continuing to catch up on our lives. I will be spending more time with Ron and his partner Derwin as well. I do have family. I have come home.


Carl said...

Wow! What a wonderful and moving experience! Thanks Bryan!

Renee & said...

how fun is this!!!
I am so happy you are finding real family and sharing it all with us!!wow...can't wait for each new day!!

Mike said...

Hi! Your post came up on a google search for "United Brethren". It sounds like you are having a neat journey.

Fwiw, a minor point of info: The United Brethren had minor splits, and one major. Only one branch merged with the Evangelical Church in 1946. The other branch continues as a denomination at this time.