Crafting a Home of the Heart

It had been years since I last vis­it­ed the home of my heart, the only place where I can breathe freely. Con­icville is in Shenan­doah Coun­ty in the Val­ley of Vir­ginia, bor­dered by the Alleghe­ny Moun­tains. It con­sists of a church, a ceme­tery, and a scat­ter­ing of hous­es and farms. In 2012, I trav­eled to meet my 98-year-old cousin. His farm had recent­ly been des­ig­nat­ed a Vir­ginia Cen­tu­ry Farm, land that has been in the same fam­i­ly for a hun­dred years. Noah’s farm has been in his fam­i­ly 250 years.

Noah's Grandaddy's place
Noah’s Grandad­dy’s place

Noah lived alone in the orig­i­nal farm­house, still drove, and pos­sessed a mind as clear as the Shenan­doah Riv­er. He wrote out our geneal­o­gy to show where my side and his descend­ed from two broth­ers, lead­ing back to the first Dellinger’s arrival from Ger­many in 1711. He took me and my hus­band to his barn, where we stepped back a hun­dred years. A spring skipped through a con­crete trough in the floor. Every­where were antique imple­ments and equip­ment. Noah demon­strat­ed a wal­nut crack­er his uncle had invent­ed and gave us a bag of black walnuts.

Noah cracking walnuts
Noah crack­ing walnuts

My mem­o­ries of Con­icville were the funer­als of my mother’s aunts and uncles. After­ward, we gath­ered at a relative’s house for ham bis­cuits, cus­tardy corn pud­ding, and mile-high coconut cake. I’d walk down the road to an old stone house and won­dered if the per­son who’d lived there had been mur­dered (I was ten and read too many mysteries).

the Stone House
the Stone House

Each funer­al trip, I felt I was com­ing home. Some­thing about the moun­tains like cupped hands, the green rolling hills, and dirt roads made me want to run for the joy of it. I loved the peace­ful­ness, the way peo­ple talked, and see­ing my hazel eyes in dis­tant kin.

Noah had a map of Con­icville in 1920. I was aston­ished to learn the vil­lage had three under­tak­ers (my grand­fa­ther, my great-grand­fa­ther, and a cousin), a black­smith (who made my moth­er a tiny horse­shoe), stores, post office, phar­ma­cy, garage, bar­ber, tele­phone switch­board, all but the four-room school in the own­ers’ hous­es. Then Noah took me to the house where my moth­er had been born. My moth­er had nev­er men­tioned it.

In 1924, my grand­fa­ther moved his fam­i­ly to Man­as­sas to find work (too many under­tak­ers) when my moth­er was six. Sum­mers, she returned to the Val­ley to stay with her aunt and uncle, and helped bake pies, can veg­eta­bles, serve hands dur­ing the har­vest — hard but hon­est work. The same work Noah did on his land.

My hus­band and I went to Shenan­doah Coun­ty in August to vis­it Noah and take in the coun­ty fair. After Noah turned 102, he moved into his nephew’s home. He still told me sto­ries, though it wasn’t the same. In his last Christ­mas card, Decem­ber 2020, Noah wrote: “I believe I’m mak­ing his­to­ry.” Months lat­er, he died three days before his 106th birthday.

Alan Garner The Stone BookWhen I heard the news, I reached for Alan Garner’s The Stone Book pub­lished in 1976 as the first of a quar­tet of novel­las. It is set in 1846 Cheshire, Eng­land, and tells the sto­ry of a stone­ma­son and his daugh­ter, Mary. Although Gar­ner was a prize-win­ning children’s author, crit­ics lam­bast­ed his new book. Some said it wasn’t for chil­dren at all. As Neil Philip point­ed out in A Fine Anger, Garner’s semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal text is “sim­ple, slow, uncom­pli­cat­ed [with a] med­i­ta­tive qual­i­ty.” Yet chil­dren did read it.

Mary climbs the church steeple where her father is work­ing to deliv­er his “bag­gin,” his lunch (I won­dered if Tolkien bor­rowed this Cheshire word for the food-lov­ing hob­bits). Mary craves to go to school and work as a maid at the manor house:

I’m fret­ted with stone pick­ing,” said Mary. “I want to live in a grand house, and look after every kind of beau­ti­ful thing you can thing of — old things, brass.”

By God, you’ll find stone picking’s eas­i­er! Lord Stan­ley doesn’t like his maids to read,” said Father.

In this “Nick­ety, Nack­ety, Mon­day-come-Sat­ur­day” life, work car­ries pride and mean­ing. Mary’s father breaks a peb­ble clean­ly, then pol­ish­es it a cer­tain way so that the “peb­ble came out with its bro­ken face green and white flakes, shin­ing like wet … It was a stone-cutter’s secret, one of the last taught.” Lat­er he takes her deep into the quar­ry, gives her a can­dle, and tells her to slip through a crack. She fol­lows the pas­sage until she sees a bull daubed on a wall. And hun­dreds of foot­prints. The secret place is her family’s alone, and like gen­er­a­tions before her, Mary is changed. If she can read stone, she’ll know all the sto­ries of the world.

When­ev­er I vis­it­ed Noah at his farm, I noticed crafts­man­ship every­where: in the stur­dy pig­pen, hand­made tools, fur­rows of corn straight as die. I’ve lost that con­nec­tion now. One day I hope to tell Noah’s sto­ries, the way Alan Gar­ner cel­e­brat­ed his family’s cul­ture: “A fam­i­ly of man­u­al crafts­men … served by a dif­fer­ent craft of the hand.”

Writ­ing will let me fol­low the foot­prints of gen­er­a­tions before me. Writ­ing will keep the home of my heart close.

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Lynne Jonell
2 years ago

I love this, Can­dace; thanks for shar­ing your heart and his­to­ry. And now I’m look­ing for­ward to read­ing The Stone Book!

candice ransom
Reply to  Lynne Jonell
2 years ago

Hi Lynne! The book might be hard to find – I had to order my copy. There are three oth­ers in the quar­tet, each cov­er­ing a dif­fer­ent time peri­od in Gar­ner’s home and fam­i­ly his­to­ry. All are gems!

2 years ago

This is a love­ly essay! I also come from a fam­i­ly of under­tak­ers, so nice to know anoth­er author who has those same fam­i­ly expe­ri­ences and roots! I also have a spe­cial fond­ness for any well-writ­ten adult fic­tion set in that Appalachian/ south­ern Alleghe­ny area. Such a cul­tur­al and geo­graph­ic rich­ness there and pride in craft that seeps into their prose and is embod­ied in their char­ac­ters. Your cousin cer­tain­ly has those qual­i­ties and what a gift to have met him. Thanks for sharing!

candice ransom
Reply to  jenbryantauthor
2 years ago

My favorite sto­ry my moth­er told me was how she and her cousin Ray­mond, called Hap­py, played “dead peo­ple. Hap­py was a few years old­er than my six-year-old moth­er and should have known bet­ter to let her lock him in one of my grand­fa­ther’s cas­kets. Mama skipped off to play and for­got about her poor cousin for a long while. I sus­pect Hap­py was­n’t so hap­py when she final­ly let him out! And yes, I men­tal­ly need this place I’ve nev­er lived in because of the peo­ple who worked the land, respect­ed the land, and loved it, as Noah did.

Connie Van Hoven
2 years ago

Won­der­ful writ­ing and pho­tos, a love­ly way to start my day! Made me think about fam­i­ly I nev­er got to know in W.Va — some under­tak­ers there, too. Thank you, Candice!

candice ransom
2 years ago

I don’t know why under­tak­ing was such a pop­u­lar pro­fes­sion. When times were hard my grand­fa­ther used to say peo­ple were too poor to die (he meant they died but could­n’t afford to pay for funer­als). He kept his embalm­ing cer­tifi­cate up to date, even though he went into an entire­ly dif­fer­ent business.