Editor’s note: About three months ago, I posted the fourth installation in a rambling series chronicling the the life and times of the colorful Via family of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It is, particularly for this humble little journal, a sensational piece focused on Violet Boe’s agonized memories of her transition from war-torn England to the Via homeplace on Paine Run Road. The story upset more than a few of Cora Belle Via’s Virginia kin and produced an unusual volume of commentary.
One of the more passionate responses came from Joyce Stickles. Joyce is the daughter of Alice Via Garrison, the first of Cora Belle and Shake Via’s three daughters and their sixth child overall. I asked Joyce if I might share her evocative recollection of her time spent at the family homeplace in northern Virginia here. She said yes. That was one month ago exactly.
I apologize to Joyce for taking so damn long to follow through on my promise. The photographs and video links were provided by Joyce.
One diminutive woman with the strength to bear 12 children (all at home and all surviving to adulthood).
Being too young to know any details of the Shenandoah Valley kidnapping story, I can only speak of my grandmother from my unique position in the family.
Grandmom delivered nine sons and three daughters. It took her three daughters together to produce their nine sons. Those same three daughters produced just one daughter. My perspective comes as the only female cousin in the family to descend directly through the female line.
Like many cousins, I had the fun of visiting our grandmother during summer vacations. I also lived with her several times. I spent one entire summer living with her, Shelley and Hessie.
That wonderful summer I dogged her every step (as only a 5-year old could). I followed her to the strawberry patch where Herbert’s home is now, to the woodpile where she worked a two-man saw with Hessie in the heat of summer to cut wood to fire the cook stove for making that season’s strawberry jam.
I followed while she pumped water to fill large tubs in the yard to wash clothes and followed when she hung them to dry. (She used one of those same tubs to bathe the dirty, little 5-year-old I was then).
I followed her up and down garden rows in the hot summer sun where she weeded and picked vegetables to feed the steady stream of summer vacationers. Whichever family was visiting, she somehow always whipped out a favorite jar of pickles, jam or other delicacy she had made for that special son; one for eating then, and of course, some as a “take-home gift.”
In those summers of my childhood memories, the only happy meal I knew was provided by Grandmother’s back-breaking work and eaten on the “bench” surrounded by visiting family.
That summer, each trip to the garden began with a stern warning: “Don’t step on the ground cherries.” They grew wild and though they were in the garden they didn’t stay in her neat, straight rows that all her weeding and hoeing gave to the rest of her garden.
Why ground cherries? They were for Uncle Clarence’s favorite jam.
Some of those family heirloom quilts that are so beloved and coveted now are what she made while she “rested.” At least that’s what she would tell me. In the heat of the day she would say, “I’m going upstairs, to rest.” (I think that meant, don’t follow me). I was supposed to be “the kid napping” downstairs, and I would fall asleep with the old treadle Singer humming above my head.
By that childhood summer of 1956, Grandmom had survived being evicted from her home in Sugar Holler and birthing 12 children over 25 years, a span that stretched to include two world wars and one Great Depression. She had sent her five sons off to fight in war and buried another son and her mother just months apart.
I knew little of these things; all I knew was it was a wonderful, fun-filled adventure for a 5-year old.
Grandmom turned 60 that following winter after I had gone home. Was she thinking of retirement? Maybe. But, her meager Social Security check was still a few years off. She still had two teenage daughters to raise and she was still pumping water, planning her next garden and hoping the wood supply would last the winter.
And she had a job in Waynesboro. I don’t know if she was this family’s first single, working mother, but I know she wouldn’t be the last.
Did she smile much? Hell no! I often wondered why. Sometimes, with my 5-year old mentality, I tried to produce a coveted smile.
To all of those who would seek to distance themselves from these humble beginnings by pronouncing Via (till I die!) so it rhymes with diarrhea, I would say this:
Grandmom began life as a Harris. Whether her strength came from her family line or began with her own determination to be a survivor (long before Hollywood made it a reality show), I believe our family members owe their strength to her.
Her incredible survival skills prove strength has nothing to do with gender and smarts have little to do with education. She survived all this and so much more without ever seeking the joy of relief at the Via moonshine still.
As I have aged, some have suggested they recognize similarities to Cora in me. It might be my undyed, waist-long hair, my southern cooking style, my somber demeanor or my prohibitionist ways. Perhaps they have seen my basement outhouse (the only place I didn’t follow her) with the original “Go ‘way Bee” sign hanging on the wall. It was first hung by Arnold in the newly dug outhouse that summer in ’56. Maybe they’ve heard my answer to the question: How do you live alone in the heart of a Baltimore inner-city ghetto? THEY GROW ’EM TOUGH WHERE I COME FROM!
I should be lucky as to possess even one of Grandmom’s qualities. If there is any similarity, likely it’s our unapologetic, contentious way of dealing with those who don’t live up to their potential or our expectations.
As for me, I still try to visit her each summer in the place where she finally learned the meaning of “rest.” There I quietly thank her for all that she gave to make this family what it is; to thank her for my very life. For without her, none of us would exist.
I’ve been thinking of adopting a new slogan to honor Cora Belle Harris Via:
Harris till I Perish!