Raised on a tobacco farm at the edge of the Chinquapin Forest in Southern Maryland, my Aunt Elizabeth for much of her life attempted to divest herself of her rustic upbringing. When she graduated from nursing school, she married and subsequently lived for long spells in South America and Europe. In spite of all this, fortunately, she never succeeded in ridding herself entirely of her downhome “paucities.” And though she considered me an unreconstructed hayseed, as I grew closer to my aunt, when she was in her eighties and nineties, I flatter myself that I convinced Elizabeth, after having denied her roots for so long, to be proud of them. I respectfully suggested that she needn’t be so taken with the opinions of rootless and unschooled poseurs. In the years right before she passed away she had begun, I believe, to feel a greater affection for the county of her birth and for her people. Elizabeth Maria (pronounced Mah-rye-ah in the Southern fashion) and I had long conversations about these things on our frequent junkets together, our destination often the hills of the Old Dominion.
The great granddaughter of a Confederate soldier from the Northern Neck of that state, my aunt, her world travels behind her, made her home in Washington D.C., eventually residing in an apartment on Tilden Street just off of Connecticut Avenue—she had to submit a curriculum vitae for residency approval. When she was found worthy, she told me that she couldn’t have imagined years ago living in such upmarket environs. It was a dream come true, she said, for someone who had once been a little barefoot country girl who had to resort to selling huckleberries down at the town wharf in order to buy a ticket to see that afternoon’s performance at the James Adams Floating Theater. I pointed out to her, uncharitably it could be argued, that most of the residents of her building wouldn’t make a patch on her britches and were probably unremarkable carpetbaggers who were putting on airs whereas she was born to impoverished but proud Tidewater aristocrats, perhaps a slight exaggeration on my part.
Suggesting that there was little cause to be so impressed with these newly arrived, I also reminded her that we were descendants of one of the earliest governors of Virginia, and kin to Robert E. Lee, which I later found out might not be entirely true. The governor’s grandson Richard Henry Bennett III was somehow collaterally related to the Lees, but Richard Henry III had “no issue” as my genealogical research had revealed. When I broke the news to Elizabeth that we couldn’t be RH III’s direct descendants, she replied, “Oh, Joyce,”—which she correctly pronounced in two-syllables—“I’ve already had the coat of arms framed. “ And she insisted that Aunt Jenny had said that we were descended from the third Richard, Aunt Jenny’s notes on the family history considered by my kin to be incontrovertible (even though Jenny was a little vague about one or two generations).
Despite her interest in that aspect of her genealogy, Elizabeth never seemed to take pride in her heritage in all its glory. There was, however, no denying that heritage: She still had a hint of her ancestral accent, though she sadly refrained from using “I’m fixin’ to,” “over yonder” and the other lovely turns of phrase her forebears had used and which she considered countrified, and, hence, déclassé. It took some doing on my part to help her understand the tragedy of our deracination and why our acquiescence had been so shameful. On one occasion, when she made fun of the way my Uncle Woodrow, her tobacco-farming brother, said “There ‘tis,” I explained that his speech was not backward, but beautiful, the speech of the colonial Upper South.
In spite of her lack of appreciation for her linguistic inheritance, my aunt, a gracious hostess and an accomplished country cook, was at heart an old-fashioned Southern lady—she never did anything as mannish as obtaining a driver’s license. She was oblivious, however, it seemed, to the fact that she resided in the New Washington, the Northernized and indecorous D.C. of the 1990s and the 2000s, not the polite D.C. of the 1940s and 50s. We once took a metro bus to the town’s infamous Northeast to visit the graves of Elizabeth’s mother—and my grandmother—Blanche Irene Nash Bennett, and Blanche’s parents, Bushrod Smith and Maria Dyer Nash. Bushrod’s father was the Confederate soldier. They had all been spirited away to “The District” to live with their citified kin, who had kindly taken care of them in their final days. Mount Olivet Cemetery, also the burial place of Mary Surratt, is, sadly, now surrounded by an unspeakable slum. I was nervous about our visit that day and the bus ride to that troubled part of town, but Elizabeth never seemed to see the dangers of the new D.C., the perils of even her stylish NW neighbourhood.
To Elizabeth, Washington was still the well-mannered, magnolia tree-festooned town David Brinkley, a North Carolinian, wrote about. Populated mostly by the descendants of those who settled Virginia and Maryland, that D.C. moved to the tempo of a Nat King Cole tune not at the hurried pace of the present day. But Elizabeth never seemed to hear the brusqueness in the voices of the fast-talking New Washingtonians as she tried to engage them in pleasantries in a department store or antique shop or to ask them for directions to some place or other.
As much as she was enamored of urban, sophisticated living, my aunt really loved getting away for a few days to the countryside. On one of our weekend trips, Elizabeth introduced me to Highland County, Virginia. She and I subsequently made several visits to McDowell— the site of the famous battle—and to Monterey, a pretty little town ten miles away. This area for the most part has not been spoiled by upscaling newcomers. There is a lot of switchback there to negotiate, and it is a long way from urban centers—not conducive to a daily commute to work.
If you look off into the distance from the veranda of one of the charming homes that sit up on the bank along Spruce Street in Monterey, you will see an extinct volcano. There are spent volcanos all over Highland and nearby Bath County, where Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee took the waters. Elizabeth and I would often stay in Monterey at the Highland Inn. When we were lodging there, we would have breakfast and supper downstairs at the Black Sheep Tavern, a cozy room with a wood stove and wood chips on the floor, its décor wonderfully threadbare carpets and furnishings. I was content sitting in the Black Sheep having coffee—or wine in the evening—and talking to my aunt. I felt right at home.
The Highland, undergoing renovations at present, which is somewhat troubling, has its ghosts and its legends. One morning, very early, I heard what sounded like little girls running up and down the hallway outside my door. The folks at the front desk told me that no children were lodging or were in residence at the inn. Regarding legends, my aunt and I learned that among the Highland’s lodgers in the early 1930s was the tragic Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, The Desert Fox, whose opposition to the Third Reich cost him his life. It is said that he traveled to Virginia in order to study Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign.
If Jackson is nowadays dishonoured in Charlottesville and Richmond, he is yet well loved in this part of the Old Dominion. At least I hope that is so. One of the reasons that I had always loved McDowell was the town’s Stonewall Grocery Store. The last time I visited, however, it was Grant’s Grocery, a depressing discovery. While I attributed the name change to political correctness and woke ideology, I later learned that the new owner, a very nice lady, is a real native who happens to have an unfortunate last name. I wish, however, that this little market were still a little rundown—it has been fixed up—and still called Stonewall Grocery. I hate to see McDowell or this part of Virginia change. Though they are not, some might say, as legendary or as picturesque as the Blue Ridge, there is something about the Alleghany Mountains, especially in the springtime. And I will always associate them with Elizabeth Maria, my dear aunt and traveling companion, who introduced me to them many a year ago.