The Tidewater is not a place that ends where the land begins. It is the salted marshes that spread inward from the coast of the Atlantic, with its deep belly swelling in the Chesapeake Bay and stretching out through the fingers of the James, Elizabeth, Lafayette, York, and Nansemond Rivers, cutting and dividing through sediment and rock, making fertile the womb of Virginia. Spreading wide between Point Comfort and Cape Henry, the two Royal points at the mouth of the James, the River opens on either side of it the legs of the lowlands. On the land to the south, my house backs against Knittingmill Creek where it descends from the Elizabeth that feeds out of the mouth of the James, all tangled and interwoven within a hundred steps from my front porch.
All within 30 miles of my home, on both the northern and southern sides of the James River, five generations of my family on my maternal side have left such memories in these marshes as we’ve been willing to keep. Though, little enough to satisfy me and my descendents. There’s not much else more boring than someone’s genealogy, unless of course it’s your own, so the history of how it came to be that my great-grandparents and grandparents ended up in the Tidewater isn’t really of great interest to you. But of this place, its marshy banks and its tidal shores, is where I did all of my growing up and have had most of my most meaningful experiences, both good and bad. And as such, its land and my history are interwoven, inseparable is my life from the history and the place, something I have never really understood or completely accepted. Why is it that bourbon and salt water weep from my eyes and pour out of my blood, the tide swelling so thick through my skin?
I was born at the time when the babies of the 60’s were sober long enough to have babies of their own and the wars of my grandparents had long left permanent scars on their psyches, passed down through alcoholism and mental illnesses. I was, perhaps, the first millennial to be born in the early 80’s. From the agitated loins of Generation X, one of my first lessons as a child was skepticism. Standing in my great-grandmothers kitchen with my mother sitting disinterested at her table, I watched them both as chickens poached in big pots on the stove and soap operas whirred on in the background. I never completely understood how the matriarch of our family could be so cruel, but perhaps the story can be told from her cooking. Piles of fried onion rings out of frozen bags from my great-grandmother’s freezer stick in my memory along with the anger and yelling that bounced down the halls of our houses. For every fight that my ancestors have had there was a pitcher of brown gravy under them on the dining room table. While other kids my age would open presents on Christmas with their wide-eyed families, mine was sprawled out hungover on the couch as my grandmother placed a stalk of celery in a crystal pitcher of bloody marries when they eventually came to. Perhaps at the time I was born from an inheritance that set me up for failure and doom, though I didn’t realize it at the time. How could I? I simply delighted in my innocence and the cares of being a child.
Looking back, however, the limitations and frustrations, mistakes and abuse that ran thick through generations of my family’s blood have made me somewhat of an anachronism in my own generation. And it was the women in my family who influenced my understanding, knowledge, and imagination in such a way that have caused me to be terribly skeptical and yet an idealist. Like any good millennial would do, I spent most of my twenties attempting to travel away from the pain of this place, away from the hurt that my family has imprinted in this marsh, but I have never seemed to be able to pull away. It’s as if the harder I have tried to leave the harder the tide has pulled me back. And I’ve many times been left angry at the moon, shaking my fist at it in despair and grief asking it to please just let me go.
In its refusal to let me go, I came to an understanding that my history and this place is together inseparable. As I raise my children and reminisce about my childhood with them, I comfort myself as I recall the detailed memories I have of the lapping salt water of the James that would smack up against the hull of our boats and the bluegill that tugged on the end of my fishing lines. Of the steaming smell of horse manure and polished leather in Mr. Hertzler’s old barn as I strolled around the stable petting the horses’ soft noses and memorizing the way the sunlight bent across the field in a dozen different way as they grazed on clover and grass. The movements and attitudes of the people who lived and worked in these spaces are etched into its scenery and my memory, forever interlocked. This place has always been present to me in a way that lovers are to one another’s bodies; their lines, arches, curves, and markings are touched, felt, and memorized, dreamt of when they are apart. And I feel embraced and at home.
Sometimes I think that my generation struggles so much with loneliness, commitment and being stationary because they don’t have a place that is theres. They think that embracing the land that pushed them out of the womb is to be forgotten, something to leave, an embarrassment if they stay. When I think of the health and welfare of the earth, it’s warming and rising seas, I think about the stories that are being drowned. How we want to preserve the earth but not the earth of our youth, the places that represent who we are and which are pieces of the whole. An accurate picture of the earth is one where all of our places are connected with our stories and people, pain and love, betrayal and devotion, not separated and moved from, but embraced and committed to, holding to traditions while creating new ones. My whole life I have had the Tidewater before me and I am its first millennial. The one to stay and call it home, not leave and deride its milky thorns. My mind’s eye sweeps over this place and I recall its people, my people, its animals and native plants, their movements and gestures, all calling me home.