Before leaving the Virginia Vias to rest in peace in their beautiful valley, there was at least one more family legend I wanted to explore. It had filtered down to me through the grapevine, and I just couldn’t leave it alone.
And so I called Gene Via, Clarence’s son, and asked about the day his sister Yvonne was kidnapped. He told quite a story. It was a story he’d heard numerous times over the years. He’s heard it from his mother, father and half-sister Violet, and it has remained remarkably consistent over the course of time.
Then he passed me on to Violet, who witnessed the whole episode when she was 9.
Yes, she said, Yvonne was kidnapped. Not only that, she was kidnapped by her grandmother, Via family matriarch Cora Belle Via.
Violet confirmed the story in stupendous detail. Sixty-six years later, her voice still radiates anger and resentment. The wounds are remarkably fresh.
“I still remember it vividly,” she said. “That god-awful place in Virginia. People were crazy. Mother, Chester and Curtis kidnapped Yvonne from Aunt Daisy’s house.”
Before getting too deep into the story, there was something else I had to do. I didn’t feel good about it, but I called my friend Shelley Via Smulsky in Virginia to ask her about the kidnapping. I’d heard the Virginia Vias were not fond of remembering the story, and the last thing I wanted to do was alienate her.
I got Shelley on the phone. When I mentioned it, she shifted into defensive mode.
“Clarence was a strange bird,” Shelley said. “He lived out there in Washington. He always referred to us as ‘youse people,’ like we were hillbillies.”
But … did this kidnapping really happen?
“That was so long ago,” Shelley said.
There was a pregnant silence. Then I heard her exhale.
“She absolutely did,” she said. “I do remember it. Poor Gwen, I can’t imagine somebody taking my kid away from me.”
What was it all about? What had driven Cora Belle to kidnap her own granddaughter and then turn her daughter-in-law away at gun point?
“She was not fond of the English wives,” Shelley said. “Jim had a wife from England, too. She was not too favorable of anyone out of the valley or who wasn’t American. She did not understand that.”
The year was 1947. Violet was 9, and Yvonne was 3. Clarence Via was stationed in Italy, where he was recovering from his wounds. He had sent his war bride, the former Gwendolyn Wilkinson, and her two girls to America to live on Paine Run Road.
Born in 1938 in Plymouth, England, Violet is Gwendolyn’s daughter from her first marriage. Her father, John Charles Wilkinson, was killed at El Alamein in 1942. Gwen subsequently met and married Clarence Via. Yvonne was their first child together.
When peace came to Europe, Violet and her family prepared to leave war-ravaged Plymouth for an exciting new life across the Atlantic.
“We were so happy,” Violet said. “We were going to this wonderful country. When the Americans came into the war, the Red Cross came with them. The Red Cross and the soldiers got together and gave us Christmas stockings. They were filled with fruit. Most of us hadn’t seen any fruit for the entire war. Everything had to be sent to the soldiers who were fighting. They needed that food worse than us. That was magnificent. We had that skewed vision. We were so lucky and now we’re going to be adopted by this wonderful, generous people. We won’t have to live in one room without a bathroom.”
By the time Violet and her mother arrived on Paine Run Road, they’d endured their share of hardship. For much of the war, German airplanes had terrorized the people of Plymouth. The Plymouth Blitz killed more than 1,100 civilians and leveled 3,700 homes.
“We had been bombed out of our house twice,” Violet said. “My mother and I were not idiots. We were not fraidy cats. We had gone through one hell of a lot. Plymouth, after London, was the second-worst bombarded city in all of England. There wasn’t much left of Plymouth. All that was left of our house was what had been the living room. That was the only room we were able to use in the house.”
And now things were about to get worse.
“We came to this country in 1947,” she said. “It was night and day. I couldn’t believe it. In England, we were civilized people that helped each other and took care of each other. People loved each other. They kissed each other. If they didn’t like each other, they just avoided each other. They didn’t try to destroy each other.”
For a time, it seemed like everything would work out. The war was over. They’d survived the blitz. And now they were on a ship headed for the land of the free.
“The best thing about coming to this country was the ride over in the boat, which lasted 10 or 15 days,” she said. “The ship was supplied by the American government to bring the war brides and their children back. That was superb. They actually put weight on all of us except my mother. She was seasick the whole time. My sister and I went wild over the ship. It was wonderful.
“And then our balloon was punctured when we landed in Grottoes and saw all these disgusting people who thought we were the enemy. The first month we were there, my mother and I, we were not allowed to sleep in the house. We had to sleep in the smokehouse. It was horrendous. I prayed every night I would wake up the next morning in England and bombs would still be falling, and I’d be a lot happier.”
After a tumultuous period of butting heads with Cora in Virginia, Gwendolyn took Violet and Yvonne to live with Cora’s sister, Daisy Raynes.
“Two different people you can’t imagine,” Violet said. “She was loving and generous to a fault. She constantly apologized to us about the treatment we got all the time.”
Coming from a major English port, a city that had more 200,000 residents when World War II began, and moving to the Virginia countryside to a relatively primitive existence triggered serious culture shock. No running water. No electricity. No cars.
The years have done little to soften Violet’s feelings about her time in the Shenandoah Valley. It is burned into her psyche.
“When we got to this country, it was like we had gone back five generations,” Violet said.
“They were nasty people. I would love to have killed any number of them. That’s an awful thing to say, but that was the worst part of my life.”
As for the kidnapping, Violet remembers it as if it happened yesterday.
“We were all in the house getting ready to have dinner,” she said. “I remember it was a Sunday night. I heard a car. It was a Model T. When I first saw it, I thought it was fantastic. They had covered all the seats and ceiling and everything with red velvet. The Via father worked in the DuPont factory, and he would bring home fabric from there.
“I was sitting out on the front porch, swinging there while I waited for Aunt Daisy to say ‘Come in.’ I saw the car coming up the road. I ran in the house when I saw it was the Vias.
“One of the boys, I think it was Chester, or it might’ve been Curtis, came to the door. Mother (Cora Belle) was in the car. She wasn’t going to come in the house, but she wanted to give Yvonne a present. I know it was a holiday, I can’t remember which one. Yvonne went out to the car. She got in the car and was sitting on Cora Belle’s lap and was talking to her. The next thing we knew the car was backing out the driveway going hell-for-leather down the street away from Grottoes.”
All hell broke loose. Gwen set out immediately to retrieve her daughter.
“We drove up there,” Violet said. “Aunt Daisy drove. Mother did not drive. Daisy drove us up there in her Model T. We got as far as the end of the driveway. It sloped up to the house, which stood up on a big embankment. As soon as they heard the car, Cora Belle came out of the house with Chester and Curtis on either side of her. All three of them had a rifle or a gun. Mother was crying. I was crying. Get the hell out of here you whore. I’m surprised she didn’t shoot, but her sister was driving the car.
“Every time they went up there, the brothers were armed with rifles and guns. The sheriff wouldn’t go up to that house. They were afraid of those people. The state police finally connected with the Army to get a hold of Clarence. He was brought home. He was not a happy camper. He took Aunt Daisy’s car and went up to go and pick up Yvonne. When his brothers saw him coming, they took off like bats out of hell. They knew their older brother did not take to that kind of crap.
“As far as Clarence was concerned, Cora was dead to him. It was many years before he finally went to see her again. I never, ever, talked to her again.”
Cora Belle’s been dead since 1982. Violet hasn’t made peace with her memory. She has no interest in peace. Her anger seemed like a tiger that had been pent up in a cage. The more she talked, the more rein she gave it.
“I could never forgive that woman for the things she did,” she said. “Cora Belle was a bitch. She went to church every Sunday, but oh my, she had a different idea about what was right and what was wrong. From day 1 she kept referring to my mother as ‘that Limey whore.’ Mother was supposed to be a whore. That’s what she called her constantly. I didn’t even know what that was. I just I cannot answer for that woman. She could make wonderful bread from scratch, but that’s the only thing I can think that is positive about that woman.”
A few years back, when Yvonne passed away, Shelley and her little sister, Hessie, flew west for the funeral. Violet acknowledged the gesture.
“I’ve met Hessie and Shelley again a few years ago when my sister died,” she said. “I didn’t recognize them at first. I didn’t know if I wanted to talk to them. They seemed to be nice people. From the little I saw of them, they weren’t bitchy and horrible like their mother was. It was nice of them to come all the way across the country for her. She was always accepted by the whole family. Because she was a Via.”
Which is the one thing Violet never was. It was the thing that made her time on Paine Run Road a living hell.
“It was just a very bad, strange trip,” Violet said. “I guess we survived. I’m not sure my psyche did. I had nightmares for many years. I’m sure there were many people in this world that had it much worse than we did. But this was so deliberate. We expected to look forward to being welcomed to the family. And we found none of that.”