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The end of an era

Cottrell family farm, Fluvanna Co., VA

Today, for the first time in more than half a century, the Farm belongs to someone else. That name — with the capital letter — is what generations of Cottrells called a plot of land in Virginia, owned by my Uncle Bill, my mother’s oldest brother.

Billy Rex Cottrell was a lifer in the U.S. Navy. He enlisted in 1940 and retired as a Chief Warrant Officer in 1970. He went looking for land after the war, when he realized he’d be spending much of his time on the east coast. He’d fallen in love with Central Virginia, and scouted out possibilities on weekends free from his naval duties. When he finally came across a tract of a bit more than 100 acres in Fluvanna County — about 20 miles east of Charlottesville and 40 miles west of Richmond — it was love at first sight.

But Bill had another purpose in buying the land. The Depression had been hard on his parents, my grandparents, as they struggled to raise their large family in West Texas. Jobs were few and far between and owning land was nothing more than a dream. So, he thought, it’d be nice to have his family — my grandparents and their younger children — nearby and secure on land the family owned.

By 1950, Bill had convinced my grandparents to pull up stakes in Texas and move east. Eight members of the family made that journey: my grandfather, called Daddy Clay; my grandmother, called Mama Clay; their five youngest children — my aunts and uncles — Carol, Jerry, Mariann, Mike and Trisha, and their oldest daughter, my Aunt Cladyne, who came along to help and to look for work while her husband was overseas with the military. They were joined later by my great grandmother Eula (Baird) Livingston Robertson when her health left her unable to live alone in Oklahoma.

When they first got there, my grandparents hated the Farm. My grandfather called it Hungry Hill in letters to my mother. My family was never one for fancy, but the Farm didn’t even come close to deserving that word. The old 19th century farmhouse was heated with potbellied stoves and lit by coal lamps until Bill got some of his Navy buddies to trade a weekend of wiring work for a case of beer. Water came in buckets from a well. You used a chamber pot at night and the outhouse by the barn during the day. Telephone service didn’t arrive until well into the 1960s and it was a party line for years.

And my grandparents initially hated Virginia. My grandmother in her letters said people didn’t understand her Texas accent. More than anything else, it wasn’t home.

But, over the years and decades that followed, the Farm worked its magic on my family. It became Home (again with the capital letter) to so many people in so many generations. The whole family gathered there summer after summer after summer and I am lost in the memories of those times and that place:

     • Sitting out by the fire under the trees, my uncles and cousins playing guitar, my aunts and cousins singing harmony. Good Night Irene. The Eyes of Texas. The Old Rugged Cross. In the Garden. Little Brown Church in the Vale.

     • Queen Anne’s Lace along the dirt roads of summer.

     • Picking blackberries in the chimney field.

     • Riding my bike into the barbed wire fence trying to follow the grownups to pick blackberries in the chimney field (and not noticing that the fence gate had been put back up until it was too late!).

     • Whole families sharing one sleeping room in the farmhouse. Parents and as many as six or seven kids on beds, pallets, anywhere we’d fit. We had the most kids so had dibs on the big downstairs room.

     • “Graduating” to sharing a bed in the room over the breezeway with my cousin Kay and sister Diana — a bed that sagged in the middle. (I’m the youngest of the three. Guess where I slept?)

     • The sound of raindrops on a tin roof.

     • The first day in summer when my grandmother let us loose in her tomato garden, salt shakers in hand.

     • The day a kitten got past my guard as I drew a bucket of water from the well, and we had to lower my Uncle Barrett on a rope to rescue the kitten (and our only water supply).

     • Bathing in a washpan, if you were little enough to fit, using water heated on a fire. If you didn’t fit, you waited for a rainstorm and showered under the downspouts wearing your bathing suit. And in either case, boy cousins trying to spy on girl cousins … and vice versa.

     • A baker’s dozen worth of cousins riding in the back of Uncle Bill’s pickup back from the Louisa County Fair on the Fourth of July, watching the fireworks from the road. (I never did understand why we couldn’t stay to watch the fireworks there.)

I could go on and on.

But for all the memories of the Farm — the rolling fields, the pine forests, the creek, the pond, the swimming hole, the smell of hay in the barn and wood smoke from the fire — I am forced today to confront the fact that, in truth, it was never the land that made the Farm the magic place it was.

It was the people.

And today I have no choice but to recall that they, too, are gone now. My grandfather Clay Rex Cottrell (1898-1970). My Uncle Monte Boyd Cottrell (1923-1994). My grandmother Opal Eileen (Robertson) Cottrell (1898-1995). My mother, Hazel Irene (Cottrell) Geissler (1926-1999). My Aunt Marianne (Cottrell) Epps (1936-2007). My Aunt Eula Cladyne (Cottrell) Barrett (1921-2009). Even my oldest cousin, Bobette Staples (Barrett) Richardson (1940-2011).

And, of course, my Uncle Bill himself (1919-2008).

This past week, the executors of Uncle Bill’s estate closed on the sale of the Farm. Today, it’s the property of a lovely young couple whose thrill at owning the land is palpable. My youngest aunt, Trisha, described one of her last pre-closing conversations with the new owners: they wanted her to know they’d spent a day just walking the land, and dreaming of what it will become for them — what memories it will create for their family.

Uncle Bill would have loved that. And as bittersweet a moment as this may be, I do too. I do too…

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