DESTINATIONS & DIVERSIONS: Country roads take me home ... and back

J. H. Osborne • Sep 30, 2017 at 9:09 PM

“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong ...”

In the early 1970s, my mother probably did not enjoy much in the way of popular music. Most of the LP albums stored in and played on the large, top-of-the-line Sears floor-model stereo my father bought her (its cabinet matched our “French Provincial” living room suite) were gospel music.

By the time we were teenagers, my siblings and I each had smaller stereos of our own in our bedrooms. My parents were fairly tolerant of our choices of music and more often than not let us tune the car radio to whatever we wanted on trips. The only song I remember my father saying he’d had more than enough of was “Sugar, Sugar,” by the Archies.

Mom did become a fan of one pop singer: John Denver. Especially his songs “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Grandma’s Feather Bed.” Even as a child, I understood the nostalgic appeal these songs had for her. I appreciate it even more now.

Country roads did in fact take her — all of us — “down home,” her family’s homeplace in Lee County, Va. The farm is still there, although the house is gone. And country roads still take us there. Not as often, of course, as when my grandparents were alive. Or even as often as in the 1980s and early 1990s, after they’d gone to their reward and for a time my parents, along with a couple of Mom’s siblings, continued to tend a garden in “the bottom.”

One thing that’s changed is how I could give directions. The route is the same. But now, thanks to the advent of 911, the roads have names, and intersections are marked with green street signs. Until that happened, if asked how to get to our farm, I would have answered, “"We go through Weber City, pass Gate City and Speers Ferry, cross the river and go toward Duffield. Then we turn left and go through Fairview, pass Ben Jennings’, and just before the Tennessee sign turn right at Joe Miller’s. At the first fork bear left and at the next fork bear right. And Popie’s house is right up there on the right.”

And anyone from “down home” would have understood completely.

Now, I could say, “Mom’s homeplace is on Flower Gap Road, just north of Hillsville Road. To get there we take U.S. 23, go left on Fairview Road and turn right to stay on Flower Gap Road just before the Tennessee state line.” But I won’t be doing that, I don’t think.

Now, we go “down home” mainly to attend Decoration Day or other memorial services at this or that small cemetery where our ancestors are “asleep in Jesus” and “gone to live with God.”  Next weekend, the Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I plan to take Mother to Blackwater proper for the 165th Annual Meeting of the Eastern District Association of Primitive Baptist Churches. Our most recent such outing was to attend the annual memorial service at the Willis Cemetery at Kyles Ford in Hancock County, Tenn.

My mother is Wanda Wallen Osborne, and her childhood homeplace is in the very edge of Lee County. Her mother, Pearl Johnson Wallen, spent most of her young childhood at the not-much-far Hancock County home of her maternal grandparents, William and Anise Delp (called “Anna” by some) Willis. The Willis Cemetery, which some sources tell me at one time was two cemeteries (the other portion being Johnsons), is located behind what was the homestead of the Willis farm. The homestead was sold outside the family many years ago. A green street sign told me the narrow gravel road that runs past the farm has a name: Wallen Town Road.

Growing up, my mother’s family attended the nearby Willis Chapel Primitive Baptist Church. It is where Mom was saved and baptized across the road (Kyles Ford Highway) in the Clinch River. Likewise all but one of her nine siblings who lived to adulthood (that one other’s acceptance of Christ came while really still just a boy, fighting on the front lines in Germany during World War II). At least two of my aunts never moved their membership from Willis Chapel.

Mom’s one sibling who died shortly after birth (Charles Howard Wallen) is buried at the Willis Cemetery, as are her maternal grandparents (Moses Johnson and Mary Willis Johnson Moore Baker), great-grandparents (William and Anise Delp Willis), and several great-uncles, great-aunts, and at least one aunt, Winnie Baker Hall. My grandmother, Pearl, told Mom her only real memory of her father, Moses, was of playing near his grave when she was a child. Mom never knew her great-grandparents William and Anise. But through bits and pieces of writings by my grandmother Pearl, I have some sense of her Willis family.

“William Willis was a veteran of the Civil War,” one of her notes reads. “He was a member of the Willis Chapel Church and a deacon of the same for many years. Grandpa was always contending for the faith that was once delivered to the saints. He was loved by all who knew him ... the saved and the unsaved.”

I hadn’t been to a memorial service there since I was a child until last year. I really enjoyed getting to meet a lot of other Willis descendents and learn more about family history and connections. This year, I learned a little more and Mom, 84, made me promise I’d keep going in years ahead. Great-great grandpa Wiliam’s headstone (”Gone to live with God”) notes he volunteered for the Union Army, Company G, 1st Regiment Tennessee, cavalry in 1862 and served until discharged April 15, 1865. His birthdate: 1848. Which would mean he volunteered at 14.

He and Anise had nine children. She died 11 years before him and family lore says he was inconsolable on her death. Her headstone notes, “How desolate our home, bereft of thee.”

We’d been joined on our journey by my cousin-in-law Phyllis Hunt Manis. Other of my first cousins present included Gary Wallen and Sinetker and Joyce (Wallen) Ryans. Joyce has two sisters (Verna Edwena Wallen and Berneda Faye Wallen) who did not survive into adulthood buried in the cemetery. Aunt Winnie’s son, Mom’s first cousin Millard Ray Hall, his daughter and son-in-law Lisa and Joe Mays and their twin grandsons. And among descendents of Mom’s great-uncle Milum were Doug, Gary, Wayne and Lorne Willis and other family members. I’m sorry I don’t remember everyone’s name. I should have taken notes. Another present was Darsula Sullivan, great-granddaugther of Mom’s great-aunt Sarah Willis Smith.

Between Kyles Ford and Kingsport, we took a slight diversion. Nothing out of the ordinary. Actually one of our longtime favorites between here and “down home.” The three of us stopped at the Hob-Nob Drive In for burgers, fries and tater tots.

It was a Sunday and we’d skipped church in the morning to make the trip to Kyles Ford. Mom and I were eager to get back to downtown Kingsport in time to participate in the “Faith of our Fathers” community worship service at Church Circle that evening. Phyllis said she’d be delighted to join us. We did make it back in time and all thoroughly enjoyed the service outside in perfect weather, with speakers and music offerings from the six churches in the Church Circle area. And it seemed a particularly good fit to me. I’d started the day “down home” deep in my roots, and gotten home in time to join my fellow Church Circle parishioners in a community service celebrating 100 years of faith since the founding of the city my family’s roots eventually grew to.