Gary and I just returned this past week from a most wonderful trip back home…home being the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, and the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia. We are both mountain born and bred. Now we live in a different kind of beauty surrounded by southern Kansas farm fields and beautiful skies. But when we go home to where we were “reared,” as we say back there, our hearts are stirred by our mountains…and more so, by the family we love even more than those hills and valleys of home.
The reason for this trip began because of my one and only brother, John. We four sisters love blaming our only brother for lots of things, so we’ll lay this one on him as well. John has retired from 45 years of pastoring, the last 28 years being at our former home church in Princeton, West Virginia. Johnston Chapel Baptist Church is where all five of us King kids grew up, both physically and more important, spiritually. So there were many, many reasons why going home on this trip was so special to all of us. And as I said before my sisters and I sang on Sunday morning, “Any time there’s a celebration about getting rid of John, we’ll be there!!”
But as we all planned this special weekend, the trip morphed into much more than only John and Jeanie’s celebration day. We added on a Hollandsworth cousin’s reunion on Saturday before the Heritage Sunday service. Then Gary and I tagged on a couple extra days so that we could spend time with his sister and family in western North Carolina. Aaron stayed home in Kansas with our friend, Casady, watching over him.
Gary and I flew into Atlanta, and then drove up to Bryson City in steady rain. Even with the rain and the low-lying clouds, the mountains were so pretty. I love the drive, and I love the stories Gary tells as we pass by little old mountain roads that wind up to sights unseen from the highway. Stories of his youth, with certain details untold, I’m quite sure.
How good to see his sister, Sandra, and his Aunt Mary Leah! We had two nights there, the second evening being joined by Gary’s cousin Nita, and her husband Charles. Such delicious country cooking, Sandra’s specialty! And such fun conversation and sweet fellowship!
On Friday we made our way to Weaverville, NC, where we visited the dear woman who was married to Gary’s dad – twice! – and about whom I wrote a blog earlier this year. (The Last Puzzle Piece ) Leo is so dear to our hearts, being responsible for getting Gary and his dad to finally meet after decades of never knowing each other…and allowing our children to know their other Grandpa. Ray died two months before my dad passed away.
Gary and I were very happy to spend a little time with Leo and her daughter Jonni, along with Sandra and Mary Leah. Leo is on Hospice, so our time with her was extra precious.
Then up to Winston-Salem, NC, to visit with Gary’s Uncle Jay and Aunt Teetle. We love them so much! Jay and Teetle added Gary to their family of four boys during Gary’s junior and senior years of high school. Oh, the stories they could tell! They hold a very dear place in Gary’s heart, and mine as well.
We then drove a few miles to spend some time with our wonderful friends from way back – Bucky and Janet. Janet and I were college roommates but knew each other before then as we went to summer youth camp together. How fun it was to get together, to catch up with life and kids, to laugh a lot, to see their son Whitson on his dinner break from the Sheriff’s department, and to thank the Lord for healing Janet’s cancer.
Next we headed for West Virginia, taking a detour on old curvy mountain roads in the dark so that we could avoid long waits on the interstate due to construction. Those roads brought back many memories to me of multiple trips to college, the many turns and the small towns and the rock cliffs all a part of me from decades gone by. But before we left the interstate, Pilot Mountain loomed before us as always – this time its top covered with clouds, making this old mountain sentinel look eerily beautiful.
I began the day on Saturday with my dear high school friend, Karen. We caught up over breakfast, somewhat. Time always goes too fast but how much it meant to both of us to see each other again!
Saturday was a wonderful day – our Cousin’s Reunion! Bob and Jan, my sister and her husband, did a fantastic job of orchestrating this day. First we drove in a large rented van to Welch, West Virginia, through small mountain towns…towns ravaged by the downturn in the coal industry over the years.
Trains are the lifeblood of this state. My dad spent his life working for the railroad, and my niece’s husband is carrying on that tradition. Coal is coming back, so maybe hope will return as well to these little struggling mountain towns.
We cousins have reconnected due to Facebook. It’s been so much fun to get to know one another again and was especially sweet to actually hug one another on this day…and talk and talk and talk. Our grandparents, Guy and Lillian Hollandsworth, raised their children…our parents…in the town of Welch.
Their house no longer stands, destroyed by one of Welch’s many floods. But the school where Grandpa was the principal is still there. We talked about how amazing it was that so many of his grandchildren were now standing in view of his school…the school our parents attended.
That evening, more cousins came into town. We enjoyed dinner together, and desserts at Bob and Jan’s house. So much laughter, catching up, shared memories, and new ones being made!
Sunday was Heritage Sunday for the church, as well as celebration day for John and Jeanie, and their family.
What a very touching service, listening to so many testimonies about how John and Jeanie have cared for and shepherded this dear church.
Jan’s girls, two sets of twins, sang beautifully.
And we King Sisters tried to, as well, after many years of NOT singing. We so missed our youngest sister, Kathryn, unable to come because of health issues.
There was dinner on the grounds after the service. No one puts on a spread like church members, especially in the south!
It was just awesome to see so many old friends from my growing up years at Johnston Chapel! So many hugs and smiles and memories! Won’t heaven be wonderful?!
It was over all too soon. Everyone had to go back to their homes and jobs. Gary and I drove back to Bryson City, relishing our sunny mountains on this drive…and relishing time with Sandra before flying back to Kansas…our other home.
There is a bond with family that is unlike any other. No amount of time apart or number of miles between can take away the shared connection of family. And old friends have a connection nearly as strong as family.
It’s largely a matter of roots. Our roots are imbedded in the ground of our youth…our growing-up years…our family and friends. It’s where we are from, and it’s also who we are. It’s the part of us that only our family and old friends truly know. Going back to the place of my roots…to the people whose roots are entwined with mine…was, and always is, a nurturing time for me. A time of thankfulness, refreshment, and peace. A time never lasting long enough.
I love the song about home that Celtic Thunder sings.
“Home, I’m going home. Home to the people I left behind.
Home to the love I know I’ll find. Oh, take me home.”