written by: Carl Parsons
After the planting was completed, we all took turns showering and changing into clean clothes before having dinner (the Russells call it supper) together—roasted chicken, creamed peas, and strawberry pie.
“Is this one of your chickens, Sandy?” I wasn’t sure if I should ask such a question, but I did anyway.
“Yep,” she chirped merrily. “A pouty one. Never got along with the other hens and sure won’t now!” Sandy, it seems, never got sentimental about her chickens other than Wiz.
Then Jim interjected, “But thanks to Mom’s cooking, at least this recently departed pouty hen has now come to a good end,” and we all laughed.
After the strawberry pie dessert, I volunteered to help clean up again, although I didn’t have much hope of having my offer accepted by Mrs. Russell.
“No, no” she said gently, “I think you and Jim need to retire to the living room for a bit. Besides, Cassie,” she said with a benevolent smile, “I believe Jim has something there to show you.”
“Yes, I sure do,” he added quickly. And with that, Jim took me by the hand and led me into the tiny living room, where he had me sit on the sofa. On the coffee table in front of us was a small, black-lacquered wooden box, no more than a few inches wide. “This is for you, Cassie,” he said, picking it up. “It’s something that’s been in our family for a long time.” Then he handed it to me.
The box had a tiny silver knob on its front that opened a drawer. Inside, on a miniature pink velvet cushion, puckered and faded with age, was a plain single diamond engagement ring. “My great-great grandfather, Darius Russell, gave this ring to a local girl, Angela Pratt, in 1867, the year after he bought this property and the same year he built this house. By the end of that year, he married her. That was just two years after he had returned here from fighting in the Civil War. While he was serving in the Northern army, his regiment had passed through Locust Hill. The place apparently made a favorable impression on him, so when the war ended and he was mustered out of service, instead of going back to his family’s home in Maryland, where he had no chance of inheriting any land since he was the youngest of five children, he came back here in order to have his own farm. And here we Russells have been ever since—on this same spot.”
I was so struck by the ring and its tiny box that I could hardly follow what Jim was saying about his family’s history. I just stared at the ring. Then, as though reality had just broken in, I sputtered, “Jim, are you sure I should be wearing this? Isn’t it supposed to be your mother’s?”
“No, Mom has her own ring. You see, Dad inherited this ring long after he and Mom were already married—in fact, just ten years ago. When my grandfather, Raymond Russell, died, his will and testament split the farm between Uncle Ed and Dad, just the two of them, since their middle brother Richard had run away from home to join the Navy during World War II and never returned.”
“Was he killed in the war?” I asked.
“No, apparently he just decided that farming wasn’t for him and never came back. Liked the adventure, I guess. He stayed overseas somewhere—we don’t even know where he is anymore since he never contacts anyone in the family. Anyhow, Dad, being the youngest son, received the smaller portion of the farm, on this side of Ridge Road, while Uncle Ed got the larger portion on down the hill. But while our farm has the smaller acreage, it does have this original farmhouse. We believe this portion is the original farm that Darius Russell first settled on. I guess because the farm was so small compared to what Uncle Ed inherited as the older son that Grandfather Ray felt Dad should at least inherit this heirloom ring, even though Dad and Mom were already married. Anyway, Cassie, the ring is yours now. It may have been on the fingers of three other Russell wives, but you’ll be the best and prettiest ever to wear it, I’m sure of that.” And then he put the ring on my finger and kissed me.
Presently Jim’s mom and Sandy joined us and seemed just as excited as I was about the ring. Then from a cabinet across the room Mrs. Russell produced a photo album so that I could see the Russell brides who were my predecessors and learn some more about the family history. The Russell family members had done a thorough job of tracking their past. The photos were chronologically arranged and neatly labeled, albeit in multiple handwritings, with notes giving the names and ages of the photo’s subjects as well as the location and year each photo was made. So, I began to read:
* Darius Russell (1841 – 1904) from Maryland (the note didn’t say where in Maryland) married Angela Pratt (1848 – 1917) of Locust Hill, West Virginia, in December 1867. Their children were Mary and Martin.
Angela’s picture was made in July 1893. She is standing on the side porch of their farmhouse—this same farmhouse—beside her husband, who has his left arm around her waist. They appear to be a very content, loving couple. The same dinner triangle that still hangs on the porch today is partly visible to Angela’s left despite the fact that much of the picture is badly faded, especially near the edges. She seems to be wearing a sunbonnet and a long, light colored gingham dress. She’s a small woman, that much is clear, but her facial features are blurred by the photograph’s age and poor resolution.
“The note just says that Darius was from Maryland. Do you know where in Maryland or anything else about him before he came to West Virginia?” I asked.
Jim answered, “No, we really don’t, though we’d like to. We’re assuming that the Russells settled in Maryland because they were Catholics, but we don’t even know that for sure.”
“And he probably had older siblings who were going to inherit his parents’ property there,” Mrs. Russell added. “At least, that would be a likely motive for his having moved here to Locust Hill instead of returning to Maryland.”
Then Sandy interjected, “Unless he just fell in love with this place when he passed through here during the Civil War. Couldn’t that be a good reason?”
“Would be for me,” I said. “I can easily see how that could happen.”
When I turned to the next page, there was a folio of sheet music with lyrics and the notes entered with the neat delicacy of a woman’s hand. At the top in the same clear handwriting was an inscription—For my beloved husband, Darius—and at the bottom, the signature Angela Pratt Russell, 1868.
“Sheet music?” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” Jim said. “It seems that our great-great grandmother was quite musical. Played the piano. In fact, she kept a small piano in this very room and dabbled at composing music and lyrics from time to time. Obviously, she wrote this one for her husband. We think that only the lyrics are hers, though, not the music.”
On the page facing the sheet music I read the next entry:
* Martin Russell (1869 – 1931) married Kristina Ludwig (1868 – 1937) of Parkeston in June 1888. Their children were Raymond, Ethan, and Sandra.
Kristina was photographed seated by herself in April 1900, sitting in this living room in an elegant wing-backed chair, which now, like Angela Pratt’s piano, has disappeared. She is a very beautiful woman, probably tall, with rather dark skin and large dark eyes, wearing a black lace chapel veil and a white dress with black piping at the sleeve cuffs and skirt hem. Across her shoulders her long black hair falls loosely, even carelessly. Perhaps she going to or just coming from Mass; there’s the clue of the chapel veil. Her shapely legs are demurely crossed at the ankles, and her dress stops just short of covering her knees and seemed to me rather daring for period—and for church. She’s smiling, but it is a subtle smile with her lips only slightly separated as though she were suppressing some luscious secret. I’d seen traces of this smile on Jim’s face many times.
“I see you’ve turned to Kristina Ludwig Russell,” Jim said, peering over my shoulder.
Then his mom added from across the room, “She’s the mysterious dark lady of the family—at least that’s the reputation that has lived on after her. In fact, she is said to have had an affair with a lawyer in Parkeston before and possibly during her marriage. That’s supposed to explain her secretive smile.”
I looked at her picture again, carefully. “Maybe,” I said, “but I don’t think so. I think she’s pregnant and just hasn’t told anyone yet.”
“Really?” Jim said, bending forward to look at the picture again. “Well, maybe you’re right, but pregnant by whom?” Then we all laughed.
I turned to the next page and read:
* Raymond Russell (1893 – 1954) married Cynthia Forrest (1895 – 1959) of Marietta in November 1914. Their children were Edward, Richard, and Ethan.
Cynthia’s photograph was made in January 1919. She is wearing a nurse’s uniform with a large red-cross armband on her left sleeve, only partially visible beneath a heavy coat with a fur collar draped around her shoulders. She has her right hand raised to shield her eyes from the bright sun coming from behind the photographer. Consequently, her face is shadowed but still displays a full smile and a petite nose below her darkened eyes. The white uniform is so washed out by the sun that it is hard to see her shape. And I couldn’t tell anything about her shaded eyes either. But next to her and slightly to the rear, with his hands on her shoulders, holding her coat in place, is her husband in an army uniform. Because of their poses, he seems to be presenting her to the photographer as a prized possession. Behind them, according to the note, is the entrance to our city hospital.
“Now that’s our grandfather Ray with his wife,” Jim explained. They both served in World War I. Here he is home on medical leave after being wounded at Somme near the end of the war. He has just had an examination at our local hospital, where Grandmother Cynthia was working.
Then I turned the next page:
* Ethan Russell (1927 – 1964) married Lucinda Stephenson (1929 – ____) of Front Royal, Virginia, in September 1938. Their children are James and Sandra.
Jim’s parents are photographed in the swing on the farmhouse’s front porch. Lucinda is wearing a sleeveless print dress and has her right hand is on Ethan’s knee; he has his left arm around her shoulders. They are smiling at each other as the sun casts their shadows against the wall of the house. The photograph was taken August 1957, apparently in the late afternoon.
“I remember that day very well,” Jim’s mom said after crossing the room. She tapped her finger on the picture for emphasis. “Ed took the picture. It was so hot that day. I think we drank gallons of sweet tea and so couldn’t sleep at all that night. Ethan and I went back out on the porch afterwards and stayed there most of the night in the swing, just to keep cool.” She was rubbing her hands together now, anxiously, as she recalled that day, then stopped suddenly and said, “Now, Cassandra, I’m sure we’ll have many photos of you to add to the album in the future, but, if you can, please bring us a current one on your next visit, just to get started.”
“Oh, I sure will,” I promised.
“Also, can you turn back to the page of sheet music for just a minute?” Mrs. Russell asked.
So, I did. “Here you mean, this page?”
“Yes, that’s it,” she said. “Do you recognize the melody, Cassandra? None of us are musical, but Jim says that you read music and sing in the high school choir.”
I looked at the notes again, more closely this time, and tried to hum them. “Why, yes, I do recognize this melody. It’s an old Appalachian tune. In fact, we sang it at a choir concert last year as part of an Appalachian medley.”
Sandy then spoke up excitedly, breaking the rather meditative spell that the album had induced. “Oh, sing it for us then, Cassie! Do you think you can? We’ve wondered forever what the song sounds like.”
“Yes, I think I can.” I was never shy about performing.
“Now don’t let Sandy prod you, Cassandra,” her mother cautioned, “not if you don’t really want to sing it.”
“Oh, I want to. It’s just that the lyrics are different from those we learned in choir, but I’ll give it a try.” And so, haltingly at first, I sang what Angela Pratt had written for Darius Russell a hundred years ago:
O Father, Mother, wish me well,
For’n Locust Hill I go to dwell.
Love bids me come with his strong arm
To live upon his fertile farm.
I’ll comfort him, he’ll comfort me,
As flowers clasp the honeybee.
Our babes may sing, or they may cry,
On Locust Hill they’ll live and die.
O Years may come, and years may go
Our time together rushing so,
The sun may shine, the wind may blow,
But from Locust Hill we’ll never go.
O Father, Mother, wish me well,
For’n Locust Hill I go to dwell.
Love bids me come with his strong arm
To live upon his fertile farm.
Mrs. Russell and Sandy clapped; Jim hugged me. “Oh, that’s lovely, Cassandra!” Mrs. Russell said enthusiastically. I blushed a bit. “Thank you for singing it. At last, we know now what the tune sounds like.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” I said. “As I recall the original lyrics, if there is such a thing with Appalachian songs, are quite sad—about a young man drowning his pregnant girlfriend in the Ohio River. But Angela Pratt’s lyrics are so wistful that they create a completely different experience. These two must have really loved each other.”
“Yes, they must have,” Mrs. Russell said softly, rather wistful herself now.
Jim and I, still seated on the sofa, continued to browse through the album but no longer focused on just the Russell brides. On one page we came to a picture of Jim, who couldn’t have been more than five or six, with his dad. They are standing beside the same old truck that Jim had been driving when we started dating, although I barely recognized it, for in the picture it has a canopy over the truck bed, which is loaded with bushel baskets of produce. Beside little Jim are two wooden crates stacked one on the other supporting what looked like a set of grocer’s scales.
“What’s going on in this picture, Jim?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s Dad and me, when we used to sell produce in the neighborhoods between here and town, especially in South Side. Dad let me weigh out the produce to help me learn to count, except for the watermelons. I couldn’t really heft the larger ones up on the scale just yet.” Then he seemed to grow sad.
His mom spoke up suddenly, “Perhaps that’s enough family history for tonight,” she said, collected the album and returned it to the cabinet.
As I drove home, I thought about Jim, his family, and the history that had played out on those few acres on Locust Hill Ridge. Nothing extraordinary had happened there. No one in the family had become wealthy or famous or done anything notable. Quite the contrary, in fact. But that photo album helped me understand why the farm was so important to Jim and why he was so determined to keep it alive, because to him it was a living creature and progenitor of his family. In fact, he wanted to keep all of Locust Hill rural if he could. Fate had certainly not been kind to him—had, in fact, cast a heavy burden on him with the death of his father, a burden that often bowed his body and dimmed his spirit. But he had not surrendered. Instead, inside the boy a man had grown, a genuinely worthy, loving man who had asked me to share his burdens and his joys. Consequently, I too had to become worthy.
When I finally made it home that night, I put out a photo of myself, got undressed, and fell into bed, still wearing the Russell family engagement ring—I felt I had never been so tired nor, when I awoke the next morning, so alive!
- Locust Hill: Chapter XII - May 7, 2023
- Locust Hill: Chapter XI-II - April 6, 2023
- Locust Hill: Chapter XI-I - March 5, 2023