This might be the remains of the place where my father was born, and lived until he was 4. I don’t know for sure, and neither did Dad when we stood here that summer day in 2012.
When we visited his hometown of Handley, West Virginia, together in 1990, the building still stood. I remember it being painted yellow. But Dad couldn’t find the building on this visit to town, and he just had to guess that this was probably it.
When I was a child my dad sat on the edge of his chair one night as a news report showed a house on fire — the one where he had lived as a teen with his dad. I remember Dad’s face, grave, grief-stricken.
Dad seemed dispassionate as we stood before this ruin. Perhaps he had cultivated a level of stoicism to cope with so much loss.
Dad hadn’t been home to West Virginia in more than 25 years.
And I’d successfully moved into adult life: I’d graduated college, gotten a good job, and had an apartment and a car. I was making it.
I felt it was time to steer my relationship with my father from parent-child toward adult-adult. Because of his greater life experience he would still sometimes have wisdom to offer that I needed to hear. And our shared experience of me growing up under his roof would always shape our relationship. But I wanted to signal clearly that the game was changing: I wanted us to know each other as men.
I proposed that we drive together to Handley, his West Virginia boyhood home. Just him and me in my brand-new car. I imagined him telling me his childhood stories and us bonding in a new way. Son and father sharing an experience and moving into an exciting new phase of their relationship.
It took a little convincing, but Dad finally agreed and we laid in the plans.
I didn’t know much about Dad’s childhood then. It’s strange to remember that now, because the last 25 years or so of his life were so characterized by him telling his life’s stories over and over. Frankly, I was tired of hearing them when he died.
But when we made this trip it was 1990 and he was 49, a year younger than I am now. In his 50s his last child graduated and left home, and his father’s generation aged and died. We lost his uncle William first, then Tom, and finally Betty. It was probably no coincidence during these years that he started to tell his stories. They were rough; details and even outcomes changed with each telling. By 2000, when Betty died and Dad became the oldest member of the family, his stories were complete. He told them the same way for the rest of his life. I am sure that through them he made sense of his difficult youth. They gave him peace. They made it possible for him reconnect with the Greys still in the hills.
Dad had done none of this work when he showed up at my Terre Haute home that summer day in 1990. We drove all day to Charleston, where we roomed for the night. The next morning we drove a half hour down Highway 61 to Handley.
There Dad showed me the place where he was born, the place his mother died suddenly four years later: the upstairs apartment over what had been his Grandma Legg’s general store. He pointed out the place where his Grandma Grey’s tavern had once stood. We drove Handley’s few roads up and down the hill and he pointed out a few other places he remembered. Dad spotted his half-brother John’s big white house up the hill and we stopped in to visit. John and his family were surprised but happy to see us. That’s when I learned that Dad had told nobody we were coming.
We drove down the highway to Montgomery to see Dad’s half-brother Rick and his wife Becky. And we went way out to Mt. Nebo hoping to find his mother’s sister, Zelta. Dad was Zelta’s favorite nephew. Dad had said that, as a kid, one of his nicknames was “Jimbo sneezer.” After getting directions at a general store we found Zelta’s house and knocked on the door. Zelta opened it, burst into tears, and cried out, “There’s my Jimbo sneezer!”
We stayed that night at the lodge at Hawk’s Nest, a state park with commanding views of the lush New River valley. As we breakfasted over those views, Dad told me that he and Mom stopped there for the night on their honeymoon.
It was great to see where Dad was from and to connect with a few family members. You have to understand that I had almost no contact with Dad’s West Virginia family when I was small. John and Rick and their families had each once visited us in South Bend when I was a boy, but I couldn’t remember what any of them looked like. And I’d never met anybody from Dad’s mother’s family before. On that front, the trip was a success.
But I utterly failed in my goal to connect with my father as a person. As we drove, I tried to just talk with my father as men might, sharing what was going on in my life and asking what was going on in his and what he thought of it. But he spoke of himself only briefly, only in generalities. He was interested in my life only insomuch as he could tell me where I was going wrong and needed to do things differently.
So I played tapes of some of my favorite music, hoping to find connection there. He asked if we could listen to talk radio instead. So I switched the radio to AM and found a talk show. Rush Limbaugh. Dad was delighted. Neither of us spoke, except when Dad criticized my driving.
I was frustrated that he and I did not come one bit closer on the trip. But I was not defeated, not yet. I decided to keep at it. He would surely come around.
He never allowed it.
There were times when I needed his help. I always called him when I did. He was a rock when I went through my awful divorce — he showed me powerfully what it meant for your family to have your back. One of my young sons struggled heavily, in part due to mild Asperger’s syndrome, and I fumbled every time I tried to help him. I called Dad frequently through my son’s most difficult years. Dad seemed to understand my son almost supernaturally, and his advice was frequently spot on. In part through Dad I finally learned to give my son the space he needed to be who he was. It transformed my relationship with my son.
But the older I got, the more I built my own capabilities and experience and the less I needed Dad’s help. I ached to know him, man to man, all the more. Yet all he would offer me was his perspectives and teaching, even pushing it on me when I didn’t want it.
I was in my early 40s when I finally realized that this was not going to change. He would not be his authentic self with me. I wondered, still wonder, if perhaps he could not.
With each passing year since then, cancer increasingly robbed him of lung capacity and macular degeneration increasingly robbed him of sight. In the last two years he largely gave up, spending most of his time arguing with people in Internet forums until his failed eyesight took even that from him. And then late last summer, when the cancer came back and spread, he soon became entirely dependent on Mom to care for him. You might not have known it if you saw him in my home last Christmas, holding court, telling his stories. But he was very tired and probably in pain.
Most of the last several years I’ve tried to figure out how to be a good and caring son while asserting my own independent manhood. It’s been a delicate line to walk. I regret that I lost my temper with him a few times over it.
In the last couple years before he died, I feared that I would grieve losing him less than irrevocably losing the relationship I always wanted with him. And to a large extent, that’s come true.
But I see now that I did know him, deeply. And it’s because of his stories.
In my 40s, to make sense of and find peace with my own past difficulties I began to write my own life stories. You’ll find some of them sprinkled about this blog; others I keep close to the vest. But as I did that work I kept thinking about my father’s stories. As I arranged them into a timeline I came to see just what tragedy and pain he suffered and how it shaped him. It allowed me to have great empathy for him. It showed me how astonishing it was that he did as well as he did by me and my brother.
I wish we could have spoken of it.
See more photos of Handley here. Read about his Grandma Grey, who I was fortunate to know, here. And here’s a story about a time Dad gave me good advice.
I’ve been looking through old photographs as I’ve thought about a subject for the photo book I’d like to produce. Reviewing photos from my Pentax KM, I found this 2013 photo of my dad. I used a 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax lens and Kodak TMax 400 film — which I mistakenly shot at 100. Fortunately, Photoshop rescued it and brought out strong contrast.
Dad’s walking down the steps of the four-room schoolhouse where his education began, now abandoned and decaying, in the coal-and-railroad town of Handley, West Virginia. As I grew up, he told stories of how he had to repeat the first grade because the first time through he simply refused to speak to the teacher all year, and of how that teacher used to delight in sadistically pushing children so they’d fall down the hill on which this school stands. Oy! Visiting Handley made all these stories I’d heard since childhood so much more real.
Please enjoy this story again, which I first told 11 October 2010.
Everyone in the family called her Mom. She was my father’s father’s mother, my great grandmother, and her time overlapped mine by a handful of years. Filet-O-Fish sandwiches will always make me think of her.
She was born in the West Virginia hills at a time when indoor plumbing wasn’t yet widely available. She is said to have been determined, ornery even. Her pluck served her well; she owned and ran the local tavern and roominghouse in the little railroad town where most of the family lived. My father slept in a room upstairs; Mom Grey did most of the work raising him.
Much of the family moved to South Bend in the 1950s looking for manufacturing and construction work. Mom Grey eventually closed the tavern and moved north, and by the time I came along she had a house on an alley near downtown. We visited most Sunday afternoons. She always had Hershey bars in the refrigerator just for my brother and me. We’d sit on her wide, wooden front porch and play with empty aerosol cans she kept in a cardboard box. Or we’d get the rag off the kitchen sink and try to rub the age spots off her legs. I can’t imagine now why she tolerated that!
She had a very old TV, and behind this panel right at little-kid height were about a million knobs. I was obsessively drawn to knobs and buttons, and so when nobody was looking I’d pull off the panel and twist them all. If she ever cursed my name Sunday night when she settled in that night to watch Gunsmoke, I never heard of it.
My brother and I were fascinated with a conch shell she used to prop open a door. The first time one of us reached for it, Dad quickly intervened — it had been strictly off limits to him as a boy. But Mom Grey would have none of it. “You let those boys play with that shell!” Dad stood down. When the family matriarch spoke, everyone fell into line.
Whenever our stay slipped into the dinner hour Dad would drive over to McDonald’s to buy us all Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, since Mom Grey enjoyed them. It was a testament to Dad’s devotion to his grandmother, for Dad was tight with his money and his wallet would not open so easily for anyone else.
Filet-O-Fish Sundays lasted only so many years, though, as Mom Grey passed on when I was six.
I haven’t had a Filet-O-Fish sandwich in years, thanks to the gluten-free diet I have to follow. But I used to order them at the drive-through all the time after church, just to feel that Sunday connection to Mom Grey.
We returned to the hills of West Virginia a couple weekends ago for a family reunion. The world headquarters of the Grey family is the tiny town of Handley, population about 400. It lies on the Kanawha River about 25 miles southeast of Charleston.
But Charleston is where we laid our heads each night. My uncle John lives there, on Capitol Hill overlooking the city. He and his wife Robin recently bought a second house on the hill: the Savage House. Built in 1894, it was the first house on the hill. “We’re converting it into a bed and breakfast,” John said. “You’d be the first guests. You can have the run of it all weekend.” It would be quite a step up from the Motel 6, where we usually stay, so you’d better believe we accepted.
Charleston is West Virginia’s capital city. You can see the capitol dome from the house’s east windows. But when the house was built, the capitol lay at the foot of the hill directly below; it’s how the hill got its name. Jesse Savage, a prominent Charelestonian who owned the Charleston Lumber Company and the Savage Quarry, built this house for his family. Here’s a photo of the house from shortly after it was built, showing the Savage family.
The Savages had quite a view from up there. In the intervening 117 years, the city has been built up considerably. Of course, the Savages’ view was not hindered by utility poles and lines.
Uncle John and Aunt Robin are the fourth to own the Savage House. It stayed in the Savage family until about 1980. The next owner apparently modernized the house; the owner after that restored it to its Victorian glory. John and Robin have owned the house only briefly, and so far they’ve just managed to furnish it sparsely. This is the sitting room just off the front entrance.
This is the bedroom where I slept. The big house was peaceful and quiet, a perfect place for this introvert to recharge after a day of driving or a day surrounded by the extended family.
The room is upstairs and faces the city. As the sun sets, the light inside is fantastic.
All night, the city lights bathe the room in a soft glow.
On our first evening in town we walked down to John and Robin’s to visit. A gentle rain shower had just let up and the sun was setting.
I took all of these photos with my iPhone, but took a bunch more photos on film. I’m sure I’ll share some of those photos here and there after they come back from the processor.
I’ve also been inside the Glossbrenner Mansion in Indianapolis; see it here.
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.