Happy Birthday, Virginia

The kodachrome has clouded with age, the vivid yellow of my mother's bathing suit refashioned into a soft and muted tone, and the sharp whites of the boat now paled and blended into a once blue sky.

But as the custodian of my young yesterdays, this kodachrome has done its primary job of locking in on my mother as a 30-something woman who wears a chic bathing suit and perches her youngest child, her sixth child, upon her hip. The two of us are next to the captain's wheel on Uncle Walter's boat; she holding me, smiling placidly and expertly into the camera, me in my little blue dress, squinting my eyes at the bright sun, unsmiling.

Uncle Walter had a stately home on meadow green land that rolled right down into the Chesapeake Bay, where he docked his boat just to the left of his boathouse. Up the hill was stationed an old tree that held on its branch a yards-long swing, upon which I would stand, knees knocking, hands sweating, heart slamming furiously against the inside of my chest wall as I swung high above the hill, above the boathouse, ready for flight into a bay which seemed to hurry by beneath me, until the swing withdrew and lowered over the grass again.

That old wooden swing is as definitive of my Virginia summers as iced tea sipped on front porches, sand-speckled suntan lotion lathered on, a salty ocean, goober peas (peanuts) eaten from huge burlap sacks, the shade of weeping willows, sweet corn sold from roadside stalls, and bushels of crabs (caught during grand outings on Uncle Walter's boat) dumped live into a porcelain bathtub, soon to be steamed and eaten. This is the kodachrome of my Virginia youth, yet still unfaded.

The Virginia that colored my childhood was as vivid as the Virginia that vaulted from our elementary school history books, or that beckoned us from the highway with innumerable signposts glorifying battles or heros (both actual and otherwise).

When we studied history as schoolchildren, we were taught about our state in elaborate and dramatic detail, teachers arranging impromptu re-enactments of the first colonial settlement at Roanoke inside the classrooms, desks pushed against the walls to create more room in the "fort." All other history was learned by default or by proxy, since everyone knew that any history of any significance was rooted in Virginia. What other kid would name their doll Pocahontas, as my sister did, than a Virginia kid? A few years ago, another sister convinced her own five kids to dress up as pilgrims and Indians for Thanksgiving--the very first of which, incidentally, took place in Virginia. The kids wizened up the next year, nixing the bonnets, three-cornered hats and feathered headdresses, but what other family would have done that even once, except a Virginia family?

In that classroom fort, some nine-year-old boy played the part of Sir Walter Raleigh, an Englishman credited with creating the first settlement in the New World. It was on Roanoke Island that Raleigh pitched his camp, in a land that became known as Virginia, (named for Queen Elizabeth I, the "virgin queen"), and which, at one point, consumed most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, from the southern tip of South Carolina, to the northernmost point of Maine. (Roanoke Island is now part of North Carolina).

Sir Walter Raleigh is as big in Virginia history as is George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, two original native sons. We knew Raleigh as a pre-founding father, a brave explorer, a Virginian even, like ourselves, whose British past was something less than noteworthy.

Raleigh sailed to the New World in the 16th Century, using mostly his own money, hoping to profit from gold that was reported to be abundant along the coast. It turned out to be "Fool's Gold," just fistfulls of pyrite that still blanket that part of the coast.

A second group of colonists followed Raleigh's first team, still determined to reap substantial reward. This group of about 100 people attempted to settle decades before the establishment of Jamestown (considered the first official colony), and before anyone back in England realized the brutal and bare bones existence that would ensue.

In a mystery that remains unsolved more than four hundred years later, the colony that followed Raleigh's vanished within a year. Raleigh conducted a search, and teams of archeologists have searched since, and no one has answered the question of what happened to these people, this lost colony. Several theories are floated, one of which is that the colonists "went native," migrating into the Appalachian mountain range and joining a local tribe. Some experts believe they are the people known today as "melungeons"--often considered a pejorative-- a pseudo- ethnic group residing in the mountains, whose skin tone is darker than that of their Caucasian neighbors, but who bear English surnames.

The first time I remember taking a family trip was to drive about 50 minutes to Manteo, N.C., just across the Virginia border, to see the play "The Lost Colony," staged in an ampitheater by a host of local amateur actors. I was five. Some twenty-odd years later, my sister took her British husband to see the play, still an annual production, and he wept with mirth as the actors glided in and out of their faked British accents. The original "first family trip"---one taken before I was born, ---was a drive to Jamestown, where my two eldest brothers donned Captain John Smith hats and ran with fake Indian spears around the re-created fort. Jamestown Settlement was established by Captain John Smith, after 18 earlier attempts at settlement by colonists had failed. But again, conditions were harsh, and archeologists now believe that during the early years, known now as the "starvation years," the region experienced the worst drought it had known in 700 years. Bad relations with the Indians made matters worse. More than half of the settlers died in the first year, and manic letters home to England demonstrated that madness, most likely caused by malnutrition and dissentery, was rampant.

But after a few years, some successful tobacco crops were planted, meaning goods could be shipped back to England; and the inclusion by marriage into the colony of local Indian princess Pocahontas meant better relations with the natives. And later on, continental Europeans began to arrive, including German craftsmen along the likes of glassmakers and carpenters. Things began to prosper.

The Jamestown National Historic site has matured nicely, and is now part of the National Park Service. This spring, Jamestown will host a visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, in honor of Jamestown's 400th anniversary: the beginning of America.

Just a stone's throw away is the famed city of Williamsburg, the former capital of the nation and home to America's first university, the esteemed College of William and Mary. Colonial Williamsburg is a portion of the city marked off for tourists, where streets are filled with faux yet stylish millenary shops, apothecaries, and blacksmiths, and where shopkeepers and craftspeople are dressed in colonial-style garb.

Farther on up the road from Jamestown and Williamsburg, and further into the tangled and darker narrative of the South, lies the city of Richmond. It is the state capital, and during the Civil War served as the capital of the Confederacy.

Along with other southern states, Virginia ceded from the United States over the issue of slavery, but not before a division within its own state, a part of which broke off and stayed with "the union", becoming the state of West Virginia.

To be Virginian is to be baptized into a legacy of not only the birth of a nation, but to be awash in the struggle that nearly shattered it.

Virginia was pro-slavery, full of antebellum homes and plantations built and sustained by the hard labor of Africans brought over in the slave trade. Virginia was in the heart of the rebellion, and as a matter of tradition, still honors as heros what most of America views as traitors.

One of the main thoroughfares through Richmond is Monument Avenue, decorated with statues of what can only be described as treasonous Americans (they did, after all, cede from the nation)--such as Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, the military leader of the Confederacy. All monuments allegedly face North, as if in defiance of what many Virginians still call the "War of Northern Aggression."

The famous sons all Virginians flaunt are the eight presidents it has delivered--more than any other state.

It's worth noting that the only book Thomas Jefferson ever felt moved to write was about his home state ("Notes on Virginia"). Jefferson's home Monticello is exquisite. He designed it, as well as the campus of the elite University of Virginia in Charlottesville (toward the Blue Ridge Mountains), a college he founded.

George Washington's home in Northern Virginia is Mount Vernon, just a few miles beyond Old Town, Alexandria, a charming, revolutionary war-era town center on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

A few years back I was helping my friend Tim look for an apartment in Old Town. We came upon a one-bedroom carriage house, in which we had to constantly duck to keep from hitting our heads on the beamed ceilings. The place was tiny and impractical and he fell in love with it. Only later did he find out that it was built by George Washington's ferryman. He then loved it even more, despite the bumps on his forehead when he forgot to duck.

We have a proverb in America: You bloom where you were planted. One of my brothers now lives in Memphis, and he tells me that he knows he's crossed into Virginia when the hickory gives way to pine. I know I'm home when I can taste the salt of the ocean in the air.

Before I left the US to live in Europe, I swung back home from Chicago for one last breath of Virginia. On my last night, I tucked a sleeping bag into my car and drove to 76th Street, the north end of Virginia Beach, and where my childhood had been played out in technicolor. Where my sister had taken my small hand into her small hand and gently brought me past the breaking shoreline, day after day, until I was old enough to go it alone. Where the waves arced above our heads before gloriously crashing down, or bringing us gleefully back to shore. Where the sand was golden. Where thunderstorms rolled in like freight trains, making us squeal and run for cover. Where I was planted.

I rolled out the sleeping bag and got inside, cradling myself to get warm and shuddering with the thrill and fear of being alone with the mighty ocean at night. I awoke just before dawn to a softer rhythm of the waves lapping at the shore. Oh, Virginia.

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