When Places Wrap Us Together

As our car turns down the lane, I flash back to Mom in the driver’s seat, the blue Nissan van idling beneath us as we wait for the yellow behemoth of a school bus to mount the hill in the sunrise hour. It’s too far to walk to catch the bus, so Mom drops us off and picks us up each day.

When Places Wrap Us Together
© 1890 The Library of Congress, Flickr | PD | via Wylio

Then, we drive past the entrance to the first plantation house, I think of my cousin Lauren and Dad trimming the boxwoods there. I see the carriage pulling up front, a woman in long skirts stepping out, dismay at her isolation etched into the corners of her mouth. She is white. Behind her, six people step out of the back of a wagon, pulling down trunks and flour, much more than dismay in their eyes. They are black.

A mile and a half further on, I see the stump that Mom and her friend used as their marker to turn back home when they walked every day, filling the forest with stories and laughter. I force myself to see that trunk as a tree, tall and wide; imagine a spot on its trunk where young Tom, an enslaved boy, rubbed his fingers on the way to the fields every day.

We turn and cross into the Chapel Field, and I notice that the first hay will be ready to cut soon and smile at memories of Meander and I walking this stretch when she was a tiny pup and could barely keep up with Dad’s old dog. In a moment, my eyes slide to see men with arched backs swinging axes and pulling saws as they clear this land 300 years ago, land they will never own, land their master, rightfully or not, claims as his.

Ahead, Dad’s house sits tucked into a hollow above the ice pond. As I step from our car, I look down over the hill and imagine a wagon below, this time packed with ice, a young man with numb fingers fumbling with the reins of the horse. Flickering through that image, I see Dad and I walking that trail in the months after Mom died, both of us fumbling through the saddest days of our lives, trying to get our life wagon back on track.

When we talk about linked descendants, we certainly mean, in the most fundamental way, people who are tied together by the cords of history. It is the relationship between master and slave and the interlocking threads that bind them in such unusual but special ways.  But there is another, perhaps even more profound linkage – the way a place can wrap people to each other, fold the space of tree trunks and road beds into the scars we carry in our hearts. I am linked to the enslaved people of the Bremo plantations in this way – through a kaleidoscope of woundings.

I choose to remember my home for all it is – the home in which I was raised; my safe haven that was not safe for everyone who has lived there; a place of enslavement for over 250 people for over 150 years; the land that was cleared and maintained by people who had no choice but to do so; the home in which my father lives; the place where my mother died.

The geography of my home place is complex, painful, beautiful, rich, and hard. Just like humanity. Just like history. Just like home.

Author: Andi Cumbo-Floyd

Andi and Philip live on their 15 acres of quiet at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Andi is a writer and editor, and Philip is an engineering technician and a vehicle safety center. They share their space with 4 dogs, 4 cats, 6 goats, and 22 chickens.

2 thoughts on “When Places Wrap Us Together”

  1. The ‘old home place’ on my Mom’s side of the family came packaged for my generation with visions of grandeur. I don’t think any descendants in that line ever attained the kind of wealth those first-generation Kentuckians achieved … on the back of slave labor.

      First Things First

    In addition to primacy of place, and as first families of the county, we were also to honor those ancestors as ‘pioneers,’ or first into the territory. The D.A.R. enshrined the names of families eligible for inclusion. The pioneer title conveyed risk-taking; rugged determinism, and the success of my genetic stock.

    THEN I read an account of these wealthy Virginians – having ‘scored’ off revolutionary soldiers in land speculation – initially sending slaves out to make ready the land and a crude cabin. These accounts descend from my lofty, childhood visions of gentrification to bare feet on uncultivated earth: I discovered laborers dropped into the wilderness with perhaps a hunter obligated to provision meat on occasion. Native people absconded with them as they would livestock. Not in my ancestral line, one fellow bled to death, unattended following injury from his axe.

    In a blithe account, the family – having taken in their harvest back east – arrived with household goods and prepared to ‘winter in.’ The slave was ejected from the dwelling he had built: he died from exposure in the pig sty.

    And I think of the accolades my great aunts had for their rich forebears; and their awe for noble, pioneering spirit. I had to expand my scale of ancestral sacrifice and determination, to fit the contributions of those who had almost nothing of their own but labor. Not even companionship. Slave investment lies at the foundation of the great house. It recreates itself in the jonquils which remain … from my grandmother’s grandmother’s mother’s time.

    I’ve found no term to depict those invisible lives, which actually preceded our ‘pioneer’ set.

  2. In one of my slaveholding families, land and place have been the symbolic centers of denial of linked ancestry through slavery and insistence on acknowledgement. The enslavers’ European American descendants made their privilege, their denial, their disrespect and their race-related fears vividly public by denying descendants of their formerly enslaved kin the right to bury loved ones in the “family” graveyard. The descendants stake their claim to belonging and acknowledgement by gathering regularly at the enslaved people’s graveyard elsewhere on the property. We talk about the land, we claim the sacred space, but the real conversation needs to be about how our ancestors were related and how we are related and relate in the present.

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