There was screaming all around me, and my vision was filled with the sight of my oversized snow boots being chewed and swallowed by the old wooden escalator. The toes were already consumed by the wide space at the end of the stair treads, and my feet were about to be crushed. Suddenly, I was whisked upward, right out of the boots, and I watched in horror as they disappeared under the machine, devoured by the wide, wooden slats.
This is my earliest memory. We were in Rhode Island for my grandfather’s funeral, and since I was a Georgia peach, I had never even seen snow. Fortunately—in many ways—my older cousin lent me a pair of her boots, and my toes remain intact.
My mother’s beloved father had shoveled out his driveway before going to work one January morning, and then he had a heart attack and drove into a snowbank. His body was robbed before the police arrived.
Some may say that his smoking contributed to his early death at only 54, but my mother believed that it was his stress over her brother, Ralph, whom they always called Sonny. My uncle is the shadowy, ne’er-do-well character on the periphery of my childhood and the father of my generous, boot-lending cousin.
Mom and I stayed in Rhode Island with my grandmother for a month or so, while my father and brother went home. After we returned to Georgia, my mother plunged into a year of mourning: no entertaining, no music, no laughter. The lynchpin had been pulled out of her life. She rebuilt, but the space was never filled. She told me later that Granddad had doted on me, and she regretted so much that he never saw me without the tumor that disfigured my toddler face. I wish I could remember him.
To this day, I give a surreptitious little hop at the end of every escalator.
No grocery stores for miles, flat tires, little boys running around with guns, and gale-force winds. It was a perfect vacation.
Our extended family, or at least five old people and a teenaged boy, spent a week in April in Surry, Virginia, touring the historic towns of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, besides hanging out on the front porch watching the James River flow by while a pair of bald eagles feathered their nest in our yard. Unfortunately for our teenager, no one would agree to ride the roller coasters at Busch Gardens with him, so his week may have been quieter than he had hoped.
It is true that there was no internet connection, but it only took a few days for my hands to stop trembling. The ferry, however, was only a mile away, and it was our connection to civilization. It was free, ran on the half-hour, and landed right in Jamestown. We began to arrange our lives by the ferry schedule. Mornings were easy, as we always slept in, and evenings were spent bundled in afghans on the porch in this ridiculously interminable winter. In between, we soaked up history.
Jamestown is the oldest successful English settlement in North America. “Successful,” because Roanoke, North Carolina is older, but it disappeared. “Oldest,” because the tour guides want you to know that it was around for thirteen years before the Pilgrims of Plymouth, and if you forget, they will continue to remind you. Although the original museum is interesting, and the replicas of their ships are fun to climb on, if you drive one more mile to the original settlement site, you can see the monument of their landing and the archaeological digs that are underway. Here there is a second museum with skeletons and other morbidly fascinating artifacts.
If possible, join a guided tour by a ranger or a reenactor. We were fortunate to have the same tour guide, Dick Cheatham, at Yorktown and at Jamestown, where he dressed as John Rolfe, the man who married Pocahontas and introduced tobacco to Europe, which finally made the settlement self-supporting. The tour guides can help you to understand the movement of thought behind the physical structures, the reasons for the rejection of European models and the growth of the American worldview that resulted in the Revolutionary War. In Jamestown, the settlers suffered through and abolished the rigid English class system, tried socialism and died by the hundreds, and then settled on hard work and egalitarianism. The words of the Declaration of Independence didn’t descend from an ivory tower.
The capital of Virginia moved to Williamsburg in the 1690s because, as Powhatan had told them decades earlier, the water in Jamestown was unhealthy. The village in Historic Williamsburg now shows colonial life at its height. In the governor’s palace, we learned that the colonial leaders were strong monarchists and had no use for Parliament, which did nothing but levy taxes on them. Therefore, there are huge portraits of English kings hanging all over the palace. The maps on the walls show North America divided into horizontal stripes, with the holdings of the English, French, and Spanish in pastel colors. The existing residents were ignored, of course. The pink area of Virginia was carefully detailed on the east coast, with a straight-edged stripe leading off to the west coast, which is not shown. The crown of England was not sure exactly what the western edge of North America looked like, but they claimed it anyway. Although the governor kept a standing army, every male person above the age of sixteen had to have a weapon with ammunition and know how to use it. The army and the militia were separate, and the governor did not support the militia in any way. Interesting tidbits for our contemporary discussions of the second amendment. Wooden muskets and tri-cornered hats are sold in the market, and every little boy in town was running around in a red-state euphoria. I can still remember touring Williamsburg when I was a teenager, going from building to building, watching colonial craftsmen and -women plying their trades: candle making, book binding, and tailoring, to name a few. They are all still there! The very beautiful Episcopal church is still an active congregation and seems to have a rather prickly relationship with Historic Williamsburg.
After a quiet day of reading, we went to Yorktown on Thursday. For some reason, I was less enthusiastic about this one at first, probably because it was military history.
But ah, here was Dick Cheatham, this time dressed as Thomas Nelson, one of the many Thomas Nelsons in his illustrious family. He led us around the village, telling stories as he went, and what became clear to me was how providential our history is. There were so many times, from Jamestown to Yorktown and beyond, when we very nearly didn’t make it. It is as much a wonder that we are not British subjects today as that the whole world is not speaking German since World War II. While ordinary people are working hard to put food on the table, their leaders are busily arranging history. If it had not been for the French, we could not possibly have won our war for independence. If it had not been for the resistance at Yorktown, we would be watching The Crown as our own story. The Moore House, where the Articles of Capitulation were written, is nearby. After walking through the village and admiring the York River, you can jump in your car and ride around on the driving tour, where you will see berms built for cannons, battlefields, and the Surrender Field, which is— May I just say it since I refused to leave the car?— a field.
We returned to Jamestown a second time on Friday in order to learn more about the extensive diggings going on in the church and all over the grounds. Since the vast majority of the settlers died in the first ten years, the place is one big unmarked grave. It also took that long before the first group of women arrived, apparently after the investors figured out the answer to the problem, “I wonder why the population in our Virginia settlement never seems to increase. Hmm….” Had it not been for the friendship between ten-year-old Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, no one would have survived the harshest winter. Pocahontas risked her life to smuggle food into the fenced-off compound. In addition, John Smith was the first commoner to lead the settlement, and he had very different ideas about manual labor than the gentlemen who preceeded him.
Although John Smith and Pocahontas both have statues at Jamestown, they were never married or romantically involved at all. Sorry, Disney.
Our house in Surry was perfect for our group. Lots of common space, but generously sized bedrooms, as well. Deer in the backyard, eagles in the front. There is also a front living room, so there are two separate conversation areas. In this picture of the family room, dining area, and kitchen, we had taken a leaf out of the table to fit a birthday party tablecloth for my brother-in-law. My sister found the house on Home Away: https://www.vrbo.com/993515.
In the midst of the current madness, historic Virginia is a bracing reminder of the unique character of our nation. From struggling settlement to proud British colonists to rebellious subjects, these three towns will teach you and your children about the cost of freedom, the need for a thoughtful and informed citizenry, and the perilously fragile nature of liberty.