Handley is a tiny West Virginia town 20 miles south of Charleston on the Kanawha River. It served the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad back in the day. Cars full of coal still constantly pass through town.
This is where my family is from. My great grandmother Grey owned a tavern next to the rail yard office. My great grandmother Legg owned the town’s general store; my father was born in the apartment above it. Everybody in town owed money to my two great grandmothers, who therefore owned the town. My father, being from the town’s two most prominent families, might as well have been royalty.
You probably never could have called Handley a well-to-do place even when the rail yard was still operating. Today, there’s not much left. The tavern and the general store are long gone; no real commerce takes place here anymore. It is a place where people quietly live out their lives. But Handley remains the one place in the world where it means something to be a Grey.
In the 1950s some of the family left the hills to seek work in South Bend, Indiana. My dad, as a boy, was among them. He met my mother there and so there he stayed and made his life. All I ever knew of Handley was the occasional story Dad would tell, and from them I learned that the West Virginia Greys were one ornery and rowdy bunch. I was never quite sure if I could believe Dad’s stories, because he was seldom ornery and never rowdy. When Dad settled down with my mother, he truly settled down!
Dad’s 71 now. Several years ago became the oldest living Grey, which gave him pause and caused him to reconnect with his family. He’s organized several family reunions since then. We met in South Bend every few years at first, but the West Virginia contingent kept enticing us to come visit them. Last summer, Dad and I and my brother and my sons all drove to Handley to visit – and 50 people showed up to meet us. It was such a good time that we planned a reunion this summer in Handley. It was the weekend before last, and it was as much fun this year as our visit was last. Relatives I had only ever heard of welcomed me as if I had always been known and long been missed.
Two things happened in Handley that made Dad’s stories seem a lot more real.
First, at the reunion I watched from across the room as my youngest son walked over to where cans of soda were set out for everyone. He picked up one of the cans, shook it vigorously, and put it back for some poor sap to find later. I made a beeline for him and led him outside, where I read him the riot act. When I got back inside, three elder men took me to serious task for not letting my boy have his fun! Clearly, orneriness is still prized among the West Virginia Greys.
Later, I led that same son up the hill to visit the four-room school building my father attended as a boy. As we neared the school, now abandoned and dilapidated, a fellow out tending his yard called out to me: “Are you a Grey?” I think I favor my mother’s family, so I called back, “Do I look like one?” “You do!” he exclaimed, and asked, “Whose boy are you?” So I explained my heritage back to my grandfather, after whom I’m named but whom everybody knew as Wilson. The fellow remembered old Wilson and, quite satisfied I belonged wandering around his town, waved and turned back to his yard.
I once wrote a personal story about joy that includes a photo of my dad and I when I was a boy. I hope you’ll read it.