While teaching at the University of Virginia, William Faulkner once remarked: “’I like Virginia and I like Virginians because Virginians are all snobs, and I like snobs. A snob has to spend so much time being a snob he has little left to meddle with you, and so it’s very pleasant here.” Perhaps Faulkner should have spent more time in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. For, as their inhabitants will rightly tell you, they ain’t got much to be snobbish about, and that’s fine by them.
In late April my mother’s side of the family convened in the mountains of Virginia — near Mount Jackson, if you know where that is — to pay our respects to my grandmother, who died in December of last year in Tidewater at the ripe old age of ninety-nine. My grandfather was buried up there a decade ago in a little cemetery owned by a local Church of the Brethren congregation that can trace itself back to the 1700s. Both he and my grandmother had been living in those mountains, first as a weekend retreat and later full-time in retirement, since the 1960s.
They were not mountain folk by birth — my grandfather was an exile of New York City who fell in love with Virginia while stationed at Newport News during World War II; my grandmother was a Kansans farm girl whom he met when she was working at a diner in Tidewater during the war. But they grew accustomed to it, and it became not only something they participated in, but ultimately bequeathed to their descendents. Our family, as it were, has become adopted Virginians of the valley.
That was certainly the message the elderly Church of the Brethren pastor sought to convey as he offered a few words at my grandmother’s grave. A bit ironic in a way, given that some of the oldest people buried in that plot of land were old German Protestants who likely would have looked askance at two Irish-American Catholics laid to rest in close proximity to them. Indeed, both of my deceased grandparents were given funeral masses a few miles away at the closest Catholic parish. Nevertheless, the pastor emphasized how our family’s participation in that cemetery tied us to his own extended church family, a hearty, humble group of farmers, storekeepers, waitresses, cleaning ladies, and other blue-collar folk. Some of the gravestones had Confederate battle flags on them.
Not long after my grandparents completed building their retirement home in the mountains, one of my aunts unexpectedly died. Her husband was in no position to take care of their two young children, so my grandparents drove down to Stafford, Virginia, where the family lived, and took custody of both kids. Thus my two cousins in an odd twist of fate grew up with the country folk of the Shenandoah Valley. Like many of the other teenagers in that area, they worked at one of the local ski resorts. My male cousin played high-school football (enjoying a storied, if short career playing secondary and sometimes fullback); my female cousin led cheer.
Over the weekend of my grandmother’s funeral and burial, I got to hear one of my favorite stories, so quintessential of life in those Virginia mountains. My male cousin was once out driving through apple orchards with a high-school buddy — not advisedly, given the two were in the Volvo sedan of my grandfather. The car hit something and the entire exhaust system fell off.
This was not going to end well — though my grandfather was an honorable man who loved his family, he was also stern and prone to harsh penalties for misbehavior. My cousin and his friend found a clothes hanger in the backseat of the car, untangled it, and then used it to jerry-rig the exhaust back to the undercarriage of the Volvo. Somehow, it held. He drove it home and never mentioned it to our grandfather.
Years later, when my cousin had moved out of the mountains, my grandfather took his Volvo to Stephens City to have the car serviced. When he came to pick it up, the mechanic pulled my grandfather aside. “Mr. Fitzpatrick,” he began. “Did you know your entire exhaust system was being held up by a metal clothes hanger?” He, of course, did not, and called my cousin to inquire if he might have any knowledge of such things. My cousin admitted his culpability in what we might call redneck engineering. “Well, at least you’re honest,” my grandfather begrudgingly declared.
I loved going up to the mountains to visit my grandparents, something I did at least twice a year as a child. I enjoyed the summers the best, in part because the whole place was so quiet, with few skiing city-dwellers around. I would wander the woods with my toy rifle looking for Yankee soldiers who didn’t belong. We’d make a daily trip to the local general store, and sometimes get barbecue from a little family-owned joint across the street. We would venture out to some of the towns of the valley — Woodstock, Front Royal, Harrisonburg, Strasburg — to get groceries or run other errands, and I grew to love the unique character of each one.
Sometimes my grandfather would take me to New Market, where 257 cadets from Virginia Military Institute fought in a losing battle towards the end of the Civil War. While at UVA, I later roomed with a relative of one of the ten VMI cadets who died that day, May 15, 1864. I still remember walking through those fields, imagining myself one of those young Virginia boys recruited to fight in what by that point was practically a hopeless cause. Would I be as courageous as they had been?
Everything up in those mountains moved slower, and I loved it. People were friendly and had time for long conversations, and were naturally interested in who you were and what you had to say. Snobbery would be the last word I would use to describe Virginia mountain folk.
I took a couple of my kids to a local ice cream stand after the burial. The two teenage girls behind the counter were friendly and courteous, the desserts far larger (and less expensive) than what one can find anywhere in my native suburban Northern Virginia. The next day at Mass I had to take my noisy, excessively ambulatory two-year-old son to the back of the church, where I found one of those teenage girls with the rest of her family. My little boy made flirty facial expressions at her, which she returned in kind, and afterwards she smiled and said that she recognized us from the ice cream stand.
It felt, for a moment, that this was where my family belonged. In a way, it was, and remains so — indeed, one of the stained glass windows in that little mountain church was donated by my grandparents. But it’s also what hundreds of valley Virginians — farmers, mechanics, football coaches, and teenagers working their first job — have been communicating to our family since the 1960’s.
My mother’s extended family didn’t start out as mountain folk. But what’s what we became, graciously adopted by those who can trace their ancestry back to the earliest European settlers of the Shenandoah. It’s a fine (if humble) inheritance worth keeping, and something I extend, however inchoately and imperfectly, to my own children. I pray those who have remained feel the same. And, Lord willing, one day I’ll join them. “Savior, lead me up the mountain.”