There’s a lot to be said about the Sunday Drive. In the days before television, at least before programs were televised past supper time, and every day, all-day electronic entertainment (not counting radio), and Interstate highways, there was a pastime known as the Sunday Drive. Families would pile into one big car and go for a drive.
They drove to visit relatives. Sometimes they visited cemeteries, went for picnics, but most of all they enjoyed the awesome scenery that nature offered. I was born about the time the Sunday Drive was becoming outdated but my father, a dyed-in-the-wool participant for the better part of his childhood, taught us kids the whole point and purpose behind the Sunday Drive.
It’s how one came to know their “kinfolk,” where their ancestors were born, raised, and buried, who they were, what they did all their lives (mostly farming), where they lived, and the families with whom they intermarried. One learned one’s family history in the car on a Sunday Drive or long trips. I shouldn’t be shocked that the younger generations these days know diddly-squat about their grandparents, let alone their great-grandparents. I myself came from a long line of Sunday Drivers who happened to also be family historians.
My father wouldn’t wait until Sunday however to extol tidbits of his family history to us kids, at least one of us who found it interesting until the third or fourth retelling, at which point, the car door received a subtle eye roll. We were captive audiences on trips between Meadow Bridge in Fayette County – later Rainelle in Greenbrier County – and Bancroft in Putnam County, West Virginia, a drive somewhere in the neighborhood of about one-hundred miles. Before he died, I had memorized most of Dad’s speeches verbatim.
For example, on Friday before Dad passed (the Friday after Thanksgiving 1998), Dad, my two sons Buck and Gabe, my nieces Laura and Jaclyn, and I piled up in Mom and Dad’s Chevy van and headed to Charleston. The girls will remember that I insulted their aunt, their Uncle Roger’s wife, when she nearly pulled out in front of us exiting the Medical Center on our way out of Rainelle. (Sorry Ann, I’d have been nicer had I known it was you and not some random stranger).
Dad snickered – he knew who she was, too – and mumbled something I’ve yet to discern because about eighteen months prior he’d suffered a stroke that left him unable to say exactly what was on his mind. Sometimes words came out jumbled, sometimes they came out hesitantly and he’d be unable to finish a sentence.
Out of Ansted, passing Turkey Creek Road, Dad grunted and pointed a finger. “George,” he said and that was my signal. “Kids,” I began and Dad nodded his head, “This is Turkey Creek where George McGraw owned many acres. George McGraw was a cousin to your ancestor, Martin McGraw.”
The telling was, as far as I could tell, totally lost on the occupants seated behind the driver’s cockpit.
He pointed and grunted when we reached Chimney Corner. “Now, kids, this is where your ancestor, Martin McGraw, owned 80 acres granted him for his service in the War of 1812.” Not a peep. The silence seemed to echo back, “don’t care.”
When we arrived at Cathedral Falls, I slowed down and asked Dad if he needed to go pee. I was well beyond my thirties before I learned this location had a name. I had heretofore only known it as a designated “relief station” for Dad. He shook his head, no.
Next point of interest, Vanbibber’s Rock or Leap as I’ve heard it called, at Glen Ferris. Well, I call it Glen Ferris on account of the Inn there, most others know it as Kanawha Falls. One of the Vanbibbers, no one really knows for sure which, allegedly jumped off this rock running from either an Indian or a bear, no one really knows which, because there are more stories than there is rock. And there is a lot of rock hanging over Kanawha Falls across the river from the Glen Ferris Inn.
Eventually, we reached the West Virginia Culture Center in Charleston. I don’t know why I imagined that I’d be able to visit the library with four kids under 12 years of age and an incapacitated adult. Dad took off of his own volition – certainly not that incapacitated – and I herded the kids like a flock of chickens in the direction he was headed.
Downstairs to the museum.
Dad went his own way, I chased after the kids. The kids split up, the heathens, and played hide and seek from each other and from me. I figured if I found and rounded up the kids, they could help me look for Dad. Easier said than done. In a little while, he found me and motioned me toward him. As I started toward him, he shook his head, “No,” grimaced, waved again, and uttered “kids.” Oh, bring the kids with me. Well, I finally managed to round them up and head in his direction.
We followed him back between two glass cases where displayed was a rifle with a placard. Dad pointed, I read the card. He wanted the kids to see the rifle that Daniel Boone had given our ancestor, Mathias “Tice” Vanbibber, who’d engraved his own mark in the stock. If memory serves me correctly, the rifle was donated by the family of Mathias’ son, David Campbell Robinson Vanbibber. I dutifully recounted how many of our Vanbibber cousins had married children of Daniel Boone and how Mathias was a chain carrier on many a surveying expedition with Dan’l Boone.
There a may have been an “oh, wow” from my flock of semi-interested descendants. It was important to Dad that the kids see that rifle, that they get some idea of their family history, if not directly from him at least as part of a joint effort.
It was the last family history lesson Dad would give. The last “Sunday Drive” with him. We ended our little excursion at my aunt Bertha Phalen’s, still living in the Merle Phalen homeplace in Bancroft. She and my cousins, Melody and Bethany, were decorating the Christmas tree. It would be my – our – last Christmas with Dad.
Buck, Gabe, Laura, and Jaclyn may only recall that I drove the wrong way into incoming traffic that night in downtown Charleston while trying to find the Western Sizzlin Steakhouse. That was before cell phones and GPS, so lighten up. Laura ate the clam chowder and got violently ill that night. That may be what she remembers most.
On Sunday, November 29, 1998, just a few hours after the boys and I headed home to High Point, NC, Dad suffered a major heart attack and died, most likely there in the living room at Rainelle. He was DOA at the Greenbrier Valley Hospital in Lewisburg but Mom said he was gone long before they ever arrived. Perhaps that awful scene in the living room is what my nieces recall of that weekend. I and my sons were spared.
I remember the good parts of that weekend: the scenery, the history, the last trip with Dad, sharing the best of what bonded us through life, and hopefully passing it on to the next generation.
So while you’re cooped up in the house during the COVID-19 pandemic, you don’t have to take a Sunday Drive to learn about your family history. You’ve got (and are) a captive audience and you should at least be learning about and sharing your family history so that the next generation isn’t ignorant. You won’t always be around, nor will your parents or your grandparents. Get on the phone and call them. Ask questions. WRITE STUFF DOWN. Tell the kids and not just once: tell them over and over until they roll their eyes and can repeat it as well as you. Because that’s how we remember.
It’s your history. Treat it like a treasure.