On Finding Community Through Reconciling Our Past

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Sometimes it’s difficult for me to reconcile not having my elders around me anymore. When you’re young you look up to your great-grandparents and grandparents as being strong pillars of memory and strength. They aren’t perfect people. Actually, they often make terrible decisions and can be cruel. But still you feel safe knowing that there is someone to stand and depend on. Someone who won’t let you fall when you are in trouble or need help. All of my grandparents are gone and I often find myself feeling lost or in exile. Alone. Abandoned. There is a part of me that is angry for not being accepted into a doctoral program because that was my ticket out of my native place of south eastern Virginia. A place that I love more than anywhere else in the world, but the site where I have experienced so much pain and damage to my spirit. I sometimes long to leave this place where my family’s dysfunction is connected to its geography. We’re a fragmented, broken family. We often feel as though we are wanderers through the desert. Who are our people? Where do we belong? Where is our place in this world?

This is my home. I can feel in my blood when the tide comes in and goes out. I know exactly the time when the thick summer air begins to chill and fold into autumn. When the daffodils begin to bloom in early spring, I know that it’s time to start preparing the garden beds for peas and beets. It’s not until after the azaleas bloom that the blue crabs begin to emerge from their deep marshy beds and the bay is dotted with pots. And with each change of the season I remember my girlhood and the spaces where I walked and where I cried. But this has not always been. My family’s ancestors are from the hills of Virginia and West Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley. The Blue Ridge Mountains. They left the deep mountains to find work, to get their children a better education, and found themselves in the tidewaters of the coast leaving behind generations of stories and memories. I’ve always wondered if our family’s dysfunction and fragmentation is a generational chasm that was in some way caused by our separation from our ancestral land. It isn’t until now that my generation and my children’s generation, who were born on these marshes, is beginning to heal. That staying on our native born land, where we have walked and grown plants and begun to form new memories of place and time, has caused me to begin reconciling the pain of my family’s past.

I wonder where I will want my body to be returned after I die. I have always thought that I want my remains to be buried in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Where my ancestors are. But as I grow older and my children inhabit this land, we are slowly moving away from the dysfunction of generations that have haunted my family. I feel a belonging here that I have never felt. Maybe it’s been that I’ve found a community of friends and neighbors who have come next to me and loved me as sisters and brothers and parents. Maybe that’s why I’ve come to love this place as much as I do and am glad that I didn’t leave. Norfolk is my home and my people live here. It’s where I belong.

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