Cousin Jim Rogers had a lifelong attachment to the West Virginia farm where his mother Dorothy grew up, reinforced by periodic visits dating from his early childhood.
Jim will be returning to the farm sometime soon. Not him, really. His ashes. “He always told me that being on the farm felt right to him,” said Mel. Melissa, his second wife, gave him a second family after he lost his first wife, Terry, to brain cancer. Two wives, two decades-plus with each, two children by each. The minister said Jim’s life seemed have a lot of twos.
Jim died May 11. He was 76. My sister Col. Peggy and I drove up to Ann Arbor, Mich., on a recent Friday and stayed the weekend for Jim’s memorial service, making the most of this chance to refresh our ties to the Rogers branch of the Miller family tree.
When I try to describe my cousin Jim to someone, I usually start with, “Jim was always the smartest person in the room.” That he had a fine mind makes it sadder that it was gradually taken away by Alzheimer’s. His ending did not, however, define his life, which I would assess as productive, happy, and a success by all meaningful measures.
Americans are a restless people. Thomas Jefferson boldly asserted in the Declaration of Independence that we have a right to pursue happiness, and we do, pulling up stakes and looking for it wherever life leads us.
“You Can’t Go Home Again” was the title of a popular novel by Thomas Wolfe, published posthumously in 1940. But some people do leave and come home again. That’s what happened to Honey and me. When we were married we wanted to go, and after Seed was born, we wanted to come back. Sister Peg was in the Army. She went all over the country and the world and came back, too.
A common problem with trying to come home again is that if you’re away too long, home – the people and places that made it “home” – may not be there anymore. Situations may have changed so that you no longer feel like you are welcome or belong. That’s what happened in Wolfe’s novel.
So many people today are adrift, feeling uncertain about who they are. It helps greatly to know who you are if you know where your roots are, and even more if you still feel welcome there.
Our dad’s only sibling, Dorothy, married Charles Rogers, and they had two children, Jim and Carol. Affable Uncle Charlie was executive director for Community Chest charities, precurser to the United Way, in a succession of cities, from Charleston to Grand Rapids, Minneapolis and Cleveland.
Our father met his bride, Arizona Lucille Adkins, in southern West Virginia, and moved around the state, working in agricultural extension jobs. In 1955 he brought our family home to the Miller farm to care for his elderly parents and work the farm. He went to work at Crucible Steel to make a living.
If there is one thing the Miller family has in abundance it is inertia. Our great-great-great grandfather David Miller came from Ireland to this little valley before the Revolutionary War, and our great-grandfather Morgan Miller began working this particular farm after the Civil War.
The farm and his cousins in West Virginia, along with Jim’s love of nature, were mentioned prominently in the obituary and eulogies. He and Carol made homes and families and lives for themselves elsewhere, but they visited and stayed in touch over the year, and made sure their children knew about the farm in West Virginia.
A physical and human link to their past, the farm has remained as little changed in 170 years as anyone would have a right to expect. Visits always included climbing around in the barn, walking the fields, going up on the hill, and looking at all the old things in the farmhouse and outbuildings, stuff that H.L. Mencken termed “the sacred family rubbish.” Jim was naturally curious, intent and thoughtful about everything. I remember his determination to soak in as much as he could about the farm when he was here.
He was five years older than I, so he would have seen hams hanging in the smokehouse, milk cooling in the springhouse, and Grandfather Fred driving his pair of draft horses. He and Carol would have gathered warm brown eggs in the chickenhouse for Grandmother Edythe, and slept under handmade quilts in upstairs bedrooms, where the closets are only a foot deep because people back then didn’t have many clothes.
Ten years after our father brought us home, Fred and Edythe died within a few months of each other. Dorothy respected her father’s wish to leave the farm to her brother, while she inherited a lesser property. It was because he came home, I suppose. That, simply put, is why our family is on the farm today.
Jim loved the farm and it belonged to him as much as anybody. He’ll come home again, one final time.
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