This essay is part of a series that explores my personal history of queerness through the songs of the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Sailers. For details on the project and links to all of the essays, check out this introduction: “My Queer History: Me and the Indigo Girls.”
My time visiting Granddaddy and Grandmother in the Shenandoah Valley was split into two time periods: when they lived on Rt 4 and when they lived on Laing Road. They didn’t move, but Warren County renamed their road, probably to make it easier for ambulances and fire trucks to find their house. Pop (my grandfather’s father) had split up the family land and given a parcel to each of his children. (Something like 9 of the 11 children survived into adulthood.) Along that part of Rt 4, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a Laing, so that’s how the road got its name.
I drove out there just last month and found the place hasn’t changed much. Not many Laings live on Laing Road any more. Granddaddy and Grandmother died the year before my father did, and all of Granddaddy’s siblings are gone. Uncle Mike, my father’s brother, moved back to Texas after his parents died, a promise to his wife after they spent years watching over Granddaddy in a house he built just steps from the one he grew up in. The road hasn’t changed much at all. No one is buying up land for suburban sprawl, and that’s probably thanks to “The Bumpy Road,” a stretch of asphalt that if you drive fast enough feels just like a mini-rollercoaster. The pond is still there, and the woods behind my grandparents’ cracker-box house look full of deer and fox and maybe even a bobwhite or two, though I’ve heard that populations of those lovely ground birds are struggling.
I didn’t grow up in the country like my dad did, but my hometown at the eastern-most edge of the southern Appalachian Mountains of Virginia is relatively small. I graduated with most of the same folks I went to kindergarten with. And when I see my best childhood friend and neighbor on Facebook, my head and heart fills with memories of us running wild in our neighborhood and on Main Street. My mother’s church friends still ask about me and occasionally comment on my Facebook posts. One thing I’ve learned about living in a small town, where people stick, is that you can generally get to know people over long stretches of time. You don’t have a choice, for good or bad. It’s not like I have really fond memories of high school, but I do like my hometown a whole lot now.
Before college, no one knew I liked girls, least of all me. I think I had a sense I was different, but I figured I wasn’t “popular” because I was more interested in books than people. In a small town, there are degrees of belonging. Dating a dairy farmer for almost all of my high school years, I felt connected to the farming culture, which gave me a pride that I can still feel more than 30 years later. I didn’t belong in the halls of George Wythe High School, but I understood my place on the farm. Were I not queer, I’d have been quite happy living there, but that didn’t turn out to be my story.
I did make the choice to leave my rural roots, partly because of who I love (a city girl) and partly because I feel somewhat safer in urban spaces. It’s like I made a life-long decision when I graduated from college: city mouse, not country mouse. In 1990, urban life was a much better bet. I envy those, like my brother who works on a fish hatchery in Brevard, NC, who feel they’ve made no compromise in where they live. It’s nothing to cry over, but I’ve learned I’ll never feel complete no matter where I live. In the city, I long for the country; in the country, I want to be in the city.
In the 80s, life in my hometown was relatively idyllic. Opioids hadn’t taken hold and small family farms, while struggling, weren’t facing the same pressures they do today. But times have changed. After Daddy died, a childhood friend of one of my brothers stole Momma’s jewelry (including their wedding bands and the strand of pearls that Daddy gave her on their wedding day). She had hired the young man to do some work around the house, because he was struggling with addiction and hard up. She still doesn’t lock her doors, and she’s worked hard to forgive that boy, who I believe has done some time. I hope he’s not using any more. And I hope Momma’s strand of pearls is being worn by someone who loves them as much as she did.
If I lived in a rural place, I would have first-hand experience with what Amy Ray describes in “Dirt and Dead Ends” (Despite Our Differences). Still, I feel the pain of that song like a punch. Maybe its my age or the fact that my grandparents and father are dead or that I have to give up so much to live in the city (and would have to give up so much to live in a small town), but the thought of rural places being run over by development and drugs breaks my heart. We lose things when the world changes, and mostly there’s nothing we can or should do about that. But it’s the lack of intention and attention that makes my heart hurt.
The poet and essayist, Wendell Berry writes considerably about this loss. He’s been warning us for more than 50 years that the end of rural life will mark the end of America. This is frightening stuff, y’all. We’re not just losing a way of life; people are dying, communities are dying. “What has happened to our agricultural communities is not exceptional any more than it is accidental,” he wrote in The Economist in 1999. “This is simply the way a large, exploitative, absentee economy works.” I wish I could be on the frontlines of this fight. I feel shame that I’m not, honestly.