I don’t completely understand why it is that we look back as we get older. And I know I am not alone or unique in that aspect of wanting to understand my family background and heritage–entire web sites are devoted to helping us do just that. But why? Is it our change in position on the wheel or circle of life? Having gone past the 50 year mark myself (and I won’t say how far past) I know my place on the wheel has moved beyond the half way point. But this drive to touch our past is more than that.
I don’t intend this next statement to sound trite but it is something I read on a writers page that encouraged me to put down my passion and reason for writing my next book in 6 words or so. I did just that, almost instantly and my words were, “I am the mountain inside me”. I feel in many ways that this will be the passion behind a work I plan to write about my grandparents. But it applies to drive that I have to find out more about the people and lives that “made” me. Ronald Eller, in his book, “Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945” writes, “Rural mountain residents had always been close to the land, although that closeness was reflected more in strong ties to family and place than to any ethic to preserve the land. …As a result, the extended family became a key social institution in the mountains, affecting not only the traditional economy but almost every aspect of mountain culture as well.” (page 10) And I ask myself after reading this, is it the land–the mountain–or the family? Or is it a more amazing union of the three.
I have spent a great deal of time digging through old trunks, reading old letters, and looking at old photographs of my grandparents, my great-grandparents and looking back as far as I possibly can to see the paths they traveled to come to these incredible Appalachian mountains. Within one such trunk I have found many treasures of my grandfather and my grandmother and tiny links to their parents and from there I have found an even deeper link to the area that I now also call home.
Within a cedar chest at my mother’s house I found a brown paper shopping bag from an older department store and within that bag was a white muslin coverlet with a beautiful candlewick stitch pattern of vines and flowers. Taped to the bag and then pinned to the coverlet were handwritten tags stating “coverlet made by Herman’s mother before she died”, and another stating “Grandmother Bailiff’s knotted bedspread”. It was in fantastic condition, though yellowed in places with age. There is no known origin of this stitch, but it was practiced by many women in the early colonial days and civil war era. The stitch is a simple knot and the fabric most often was plain white muslin. The thread gave the stitch its name as these creative women of the time, used the wicking for candles, peeling the individual threads apart to use in this embroidery out of necessity. They etched the patterns by hand with ash or some other type of marking and each knot became a part of the pattern. I received a recipe for the cleaning of antique linen and have washed it and hope to preserve this link to my great-grandmother for as long as I can. Her name was Anna Maude Bailiff Eggers and I am named after her. She died in 1917 making this coverlet almost 100 years old. To be able to hold something she held and made is a palpable link to her.
Her family has roots as well in this area and in these mountains. Her father was Abner Bailiff and her Mother was Christina Stockner. Christina’s family, her parents, and siblings were part of a family and what is known locally as the Stockner Homestead in Carroll County, Virginia. The homestead proper that stands today was built by Christina’s brother Daniel Stockner, a civil war veteran. He built the home after returning from the war in the 1860s. An annual family reunion is held there on the grounds of the homestead and family cemetery every year.
Christina Stockner’s father’s name was Christian Stockner, and his wife was Phoeba Stockner. They are both buried at this cemetery and they were my Great Great Great Grandparents. Daniel Stockner is buried there as well as many other members of the family.
I traveled there over the holidays with my own daughter. It was a cloudy, foggy day and we followed the map and drove down a small dirt road that turned off of the Blue Ridge Parkway to find the homestead and cemetery grounds behind it.
We explored the grounds, the cemetery, and the home from the outside. And I must admit that my 20 year old daughter was not as excited as I was to be at this place. She hasn’t reached that point in her own circle of life I suppose. But I know that within her, there is “the mountain” inside her, just as it is inside of me.
I will close this page with a poem written by my Aunt Izabel Zuber, author and poet. This poem was written in a collection she penned for her father, my grandfather.
I want to put the album
in your lap, ask who is
this child with ribbons
in the back row?
Do you remember the woman on the rock?
Who is that dark-haired man, kneeling,
arms around the two little girls,
one wearing his big straw hat?
the people in your wedding party?
Whose funeral these flowers?
Who did up the braids
that caused such a look of eternal surprise?
Or hung the swing for a young man
to lounge in, one hand
on his elegant narrow boot?
Where does that flight
of stone steps go? Out of the picture
to what trees, what house,
what lifelong love? (Winter’s Exile, Isabel Zuber, 1997)