I am the youngest of four children, and a big gap in years exists between my siblings and me. It worked well for my mother, as my two sisters helped watch me (and dress me up, and cut my hair, and put makeup on me…) but as their activities took up more and more time, my father got the dubious pleasure of taking me around with him on the farm more often. If he needed that time for quiet reflection and solitude, it didn’t happen. I chattered constantly as we rode about in one of a succession of Ford trucks. Occasionally, though, I did pause to listen, and my father also paused his work to take small detours, and show me a bit of the rural world we occupied.
My paternal grandfather grew up in Owingsville, the county seat of Bath County. He died four months before I was born, so all I know of him are stories. He inherited a farm there, where he would go and walk for hours on the weekends. A trip to Bath County on a Saturday morning was a thrilling prospect for me as a child.
The farm there was different – hillier, less tamed, more “wild.” There was a circa 1840s house occupied by tenants, and then left empty and open to the elements. Down in one of the creek valleys there were piles of stones, and I informed my father that it was the remains of a stone house, and proceeded to create a family to go with the house. I remember that he mildly interjected it was likely just a chimney from a log or frame house, but I was having nothing so mundane in my story! The gift of my first camera meant that I could supplement the drawings I made to go with those stories with actual photographs – really bad, blurry, poorly lit photographs of rocks almost subsumed by vegetation, but still – it fed my imagination.
Many times our trips were just to the farm in Bath County and then back – being a farmer means your free time comes when the sun goes down or it rains. But sometimes, we would drive through town. Owingsville sits on a ridge, and our farm on a neighboring ridge. It is smaller than my hometown, and since I didn’t know it well, the streetscapes appeared exotic and mysterious. (As an adult, I appreciate the built environment even more – Bath County has a wealth of amazing 19th century architecture that few people know about and appreciate.)
My grandfather served in World War I, and was already living in Mt. Sterling by that time, so no direct (and living) family remained in Bath County. But we visited family at the cemetery, which occupies another ridge on the southeast side of Owingsville. (I grew up visiting cemeteries all over Kentucky. As a child, I thought every family made pilgrimages to these resting spots to visit distant relatives.) Wandering through the cemetery was another story opportunity – and when my father wasn’t pulling my leg and making up an outlandish tale, (I was gullible. I found it very believable that my cousins were raising Ethiopian water buffalo in the Bluegrass) he related all the stories he knew from his parents.
I am incredibly lucky to still have both of my parents. My desire to tell the stories of places I visit can be traced back to those magical Saturdays when we needed to check on the farm in Bath County, or the times I joined my mother in her rambles in Mercer County. Over Memorial Day weekend, as I tended to family graves in the cemeteries in Mt. Sterling and Owingsville, I took my youngest nephew along. After we finished planting zinnias for Sally Dawson Brother and Robert Barnes Brother, we strolled down Main Street in Owingsville, both of us with cameras in hand. Every time I stopped to take a photo, so did he. And I told him every story I knew about what we were seeing.