A Moving Dot On the Map of Her Memories

By Lee Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 4, 2005

I could drive this road with my eyes closed, or almost -- U.S. 460 as it winds through the mountains of far southwest Virginia from Richlands to Grundy, my home town. I go over the heart-stopping Shortt Gap. I pass the huge Island Creek tipple, long shut down; innumerable "yard sales" held in no yard, but right along the roadside; a storefront with a big sign that says "We Buy Ginseng"; several houses turned into the kind of freelance churches where you get to scream out fervently.

Like a vision of Hell itself, the coke ovens appear as I cross the bridge over the Dismal River, brick chimney after chimney belching flames into the sky. We used to drive up there and park when I was a teenager -- it was the most exciting thing to do on a date (and the only thing, except for the revivals and the movie that changed once a week). Today there is lots of traffic as I get closer to Grundy, and the large hollers spill out into the main road: Big Prater, Little Prater, Watkins Branch, Hoot Owl. An old high school friend in a neighboring truck rolls down his window and says, "Hi, Lee, when did you get in?" and we talk until we can move on again.

I am always struck by that "in." Driving into Grundy is literally like coming into a bowl, producing that familiar sense of enclosure that used to comfort me and drive me crazy all at once when I was a teenager. These rugged and almost perpendicular mountains nestle Grundy "like a playpretty cotched in the hand of God," as an old woman once described it to me. The mountains are so steep that the sun never hit our yard directly until about 11 a.m., so steep that a cow once fell off a cliff straight into my Aunt Bess and Uncle Clyde's kitchen. This is true.

Founded at the confluence of the Levisa River and Slate Creek, Grundy became the county seat of Buchanan County in 1858, enduring cycles of fire and flood, boom and bust ever since as lumber and coal businesses came and went. Perhaps its isolation and its constant struggles made its citizens so close to each other, so caring and generous -- the "best people in the world," my daddy always said, and this is true, too. I was lucky to grow up here, to hear the stories I heard in my father's dime store (who was pregnant, who was getting married, who had got saved, who was mean to her children or made the best red velvet cake) and in my granddaddy's office in the gray stone courthouse across the street, where he was county treasurer (who was in debt or out of a job or had set his house on fire just to collect the insurance money). I lived on these stories.

But today I've come to say goodbye. Grundy is poised to make history as it relocates to "higher ground" -- just as in the old gospel song. I park in front of the courthouse and stand on the sidewalk watching men board up the windows of the dime store -- this is the last time I will ever see it.

Many of my favorite memories of Grundy take place here, where I grew up. As a little girl, my job was "taking care of the dolls." Not only did I comb their hair and fluff up their frocks, but I also made up long, complicated life stories for them, things that had happened to them before they came to the dime store, things that would happen to them after they left my care. I gave each of them three names: Mary Elizabeth Satterfield, for instance, and Baby Betsy Black.

Upstairs in my father's office, I got to type on a typewriter and observe the whole floor of the dime store through the one-way glass window. I reveled in my own power -- nobody can see me, but I can see everybody! I witnessed not only shoplifting but fights and embraces as well. Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything, yet is never visible. It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.

I always went down to check on the goldfish in their basement tank. Every spring I looked forward to the arrival of the pastel-colored Easter chickens. But my favorites were the little round turtles with roses painted on their shells. I used to wear these turtles to school on my sweaters, where they clung like brooches. I bought jellied orange slices and nonpareils, those flat chocolate disks covered with little white balls of sugar, from Mildred who presided over the popcorn machine and the candy counter at the front of the store. My friends were surprised to find that I never got anything free; despite my protests, I had to save my allowance and pay just like everybody else.

By fall, the Ben Franklin store will be gone, demolished along with three dozen other Main Street stores and a score of homes as part of the $177 million Grundy Flood Control and Redevelopment Project, a historic collaboration among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia State Department of Transportation and the Town of Grundy itself, population 1,100. They'll move the railroad and rebuild U.S. 460 on top of a 14-foot levee running where these buildings now stand.

"New Grundy" will rise on the moonscape I'm looking at right now across the deceptively docile Levisa River: 13 astonishingly flat acres where a mountain stood until very recently, when they blasted away 2.3 million cubic yards of it and filled in Wellmore Hollow. A 300-foot-high wall of rock rises straight up behind. I get out my camera and take a picture. New bridges will connect the "new town" with the higher Walnut Street and historic courthouse area.

"Doesn't it make you sad?" friends ask. Well, yes and no.

Old Grundy was a ghost town anyway, because of its continued flooding -- nine major floods since 1929. In 1957, I remember a huge catfish flopping down the dime store stairs into the water-filled toy section. The flood of 1977 devastated 90 percent of the downtown businesses and caused $94 million in damage countywide.

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