From the driveway, it was obvious over Independence Day weekend that things were going to be different throughout my mother’s blanching beige house. Gone was the ramp that plagued the front porch and its slate blue paint earnestly attempting to blend in with that of the wooden balustrade. In its place, the brick stairs I spent countless hours sitting on with Theresa returned. Vestiges of my late childhood and early college years finally had been cleaned from a metal and glass étagère in the corner of my former bedroom. A box of relics from 2001 to 2005 await my perusal.
Downstairs, traces of the past several years have all but disappeared. A dining room that became a den and then a makeshift bedroom before its conversion into an improvised hospital ward has become a dining room again. Strategically placed, sun-bleached school portraits now hang with a slight incongruence. A temporary kitchen island sits a little too low in the sea of linoleum.
My mother mentioned that one’s voice echoes in there when the central air unit’s deafening roar abates. It’s one of the reasons at least one downstairs TV blares during most waking hours.
Talk of how enamored mom has become with an assistant living home in her hometown repeated as I returned the china cabinet to the dining room, moved the picnic table to the other side of the backyard, dug through Theresa’s poorly shot wedding photos in hopes that there was a good one of Uncle Wilson.
We then headed to North Carolina.
According to Grandma Elliott — one of two grandparents still living when I was born, the only one I can recall seeing more than once, the one who was the eldest after Grandpa Elliott, the one who outlived them all — my great-great-great grandmother’s family, the Georges, were from somewhere in North Carolina. My recent bumbling around ancestry.com supported that story, but trying to find records for a somewhat common name in the time between 1830 and 1850 is like trying to find a haystack in a needle.
Some of my cousins who settled initially in Newport News’ East End moved en masse to North Carolina over the past four years or so, gravitating toward Ahoskie. One of them planned a Fourth of July cookout, and there’s been a renewed push to reconnect before there are more questions on this family tree I’m constructing.
We stopped on Newport News 16th Street on our way down to pick up a matriarch of those folk. She lived mere blocks from a fatal police shooting that happened just hours before. When all those cousins first moved to the East End, it still was at its zenith. Its continued slide prompted some of the migration. For others, it redoubled their resolve to stay.
Ahoskie, population 5,000, is the largest town in Hertford County, population 24,500. Where we were going wasn’t exactly near Ahoskie. It was closest to the village of Cofield, population 400. Although it isn’t terribly far from Hampton Roads, my mom decided we’d stay overnight. She is adverse to dark country roads because of wild animals and other stories from her childhood in the 1950s and ’60s and her parents’ at the dawn of the 20th century.
“That’s the price for one room?” Ma asked after I told her the quote from arguably the best hotel for miles.
“No, that’s for both,” I replied.
For several reasons, my mom was ready to leave the festivities before they set off their North Carolina fireworks. I briefly considered going back. I grew up with some of them but we haven’t been close in years. There used to be yearly reunions, and up until the late 1960s, everyone at least spent one night at my great-grandfather’s post-Depression homestead at 5 N. Curry St. in the former town of Phoebus. Who knows the next time we’ll be back in some combination like that again.
Before Renée and I headed back to Charlottesville that Sunday, we visited the cemetery in Hampton where some of our family is buried. That weekend was the earliest Theresa’s headstone could have appeared. It wasn’t there yet.
While we were there, my mom wanted to see Uncle Wilson’s grave. Uncle Wilson, Grandma Elliott’s little brother, was my favorite family member. In grade school, I would sometimes miss the bus so he could give me a ride to school. I visited his grave monthly from 1999 to about 2002. I plan on giving my son the middle name of Wilson and calling him that — Wilson was Uncle Wilson’s middle name.
Because of the amount of time since I decided my monthly sojourns were unnecessary, I remembered a landmark to find his grave, but I forgot exactly where it was. Once we found it, the discussion turned to his wife, whom we called Ms. Louise. She had her name installed when she purchased the headstone so all that was left was adding the date of her death.
My mom said she regularly visited Ms. Louise until it became stressful for them both recently. She completely forgot who my mom was.
Ms. Louise died that following day.