Monday, February 01, 2010

Go Rest High On That Mountain

My father's sister passed away this morning. Dorothy was a wonderful sister, mother, grandmother-- simply a genuinely good woman. I had very little time with her over the years since most of my Papa's siblings stayed in southwestern Virginia, where they grew up. Because my own world was so different-- a small town in Massachusetts that was still a short drive from the city-- my awe of their mountain life has always been deep and tinged with magic.

If you have never been to the Rich Valley area of Virginia, you should consider it. The word "breathtaking" doesn't cover it. It is misty-blue, a water-color painting at a distance and a slice of Americana up close. My father is very much a product of this part of the world that was his home until he enlisted in the service. These are country people in the purest sense: both bone-deep honest and gleefully cantankerous at the same time. You might be teased or stared at because there are Massachusetts plates on your car, but a stranger will stop to help you with a flat. (Then make fun of the way you talk as you drive away.)

Aunt Dorothy was one of those women who inhabit their space on earth with quiet, domestic miraculousness. I didn't have enough time with her because of geography, but my sense of her-- as a strong, warm force of familial power-- goes to the bone. Memories, though they are far too few, come to me in a soft blue whirl of chocolate cakes, big pots of beans, hand-me-down clothing to take back home after a visit that was never long enough. As with all Olingers I think of laughter... a head of dark red hair thrown back, a deep throaty chuckle, the characteristic Olinger voice, filled with smoke and hickory and good humor.

My father had 11 siblings: 8 sisters, 3 brothers. Some of them I knew or know only marginally. Dorothy was quite a bit older than my Papa and I believe that sheer necessity and birth order predestined them to have a relationship that was as much of a mother and child as sister and brother. Poor Granny only had two hips to prop a little one on. I think large families-- particularly those who have little to go around-- create parents who are "naturals." Dorothy was certainly that way. I never entered her home that she didn't have an eye-twinkling smile and "sum'teat" for me. Like all the Olingers she had news, and the news was delivered in sparkling, humorous conversation. Story-telling comes with the bones we are built around. It's a parrion of great joy in my family.

I was an adult before I realized that my father had grown up without simple luxuries. To me, his childhood had been magical-- a grand adventure in a distant mountain kingdom that was one part Huckleberry Finn and two parts Waltons. In a way, I suppose, the alchemy of time has transformed it. This has always been the way of his family. They might remember a hard time, but the memory is softened with humor, packaged in acceptance. Soon enough even the hardest memories-- of losing their father when they were very young, or of going without in the meanest times-- always gives way to better stories. Always, after the sigh of remembered pain, come tales of rascal-exploits and belly-deep laughter.

But woman-grown, seeing my father stiffen with age and feeling the deep ache of this loss, I can appreciate the hard edges that had to be smoothed by time. I admire him, his siblings, his parents so much more knowing how hard they had it. It makes their characters even more miraculous. It has made my love for them deepen from something warm and gleeful. It has made me fiercely proud. From humble and harsh beginnings in the mountains 12 children emerged to create small tribes of their own, and passed on to them-- to me, my brothers, my cousins-- the ability to accept adversity, embrace it, melt its hard edges down with a warmth that comes from knowing we are always loved, will always be loved, and can ride it out until the laughter comes.

Dorothy leaves behind her remaining siblings, children, grand-children with that gift. She is missed. She always will be. But she will also always live in the echoes of their laughter, in the magic of their stories, and in the misty blue magic of the land itself, grown up from bones that are always anchored there.

Go rest high on that mountain, Dorothy, and thank you for the gift of your life.

6 comments ]:[ Add your comment:

Elise Logan said...

She sounds like a lovely woman, and I am sorry for your family's loss.


Romantic Heretic said...

I'm so sorry for your loss, Chrissy.

KB Alan said...

My sympathies to you and your family on your loss. I'm glad you had such a beautiful presence in your life and that she has you to describe her so well and remember her always.

Jeannie Lin said...

A wonderful tribute to a beautiful woman. It's clear she will be remembered by many. My thoughts are with you and your family.

Anonymous said...

Chrissy, this is a beautiful tribute to Dorothy. She would be very proud of you for writing so eloquently but she would also laugh that someone spoke that way about her!
I spent a while talking with your Mom at the funeral home tonight. She has always been and will always be one of my favorite people. She and I share the same wicked sense of humor!
Hope you will be able to make it in this summer for a reunion. I'd love to get to know you better.
Bunni Olinger

Ahmed J El Anjanar said...

Oh, Badjia. "the alchemy of time." Honestly, how do you do that?

I love the way you write.

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