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Roger Barbee: Places shape our lives

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By Roger Barbee

When I purchased Red Hill in 2001, I promised the seller that she or any member of her family could visit the site of her just deceased husband's marker. His marker and ashes are in what is now our side yard, but while he lived here the area had been the site of his spectacular vegetable garden.This year his widow and youngest daughter came near the date of his death, Sept. 2, to pay him homage.

During his last spring he sat in a wheelchair on the screened porch giving his wife and children directions on how to plant the vegetables. The following September the leukemia wilted his garden and ended his life.

When students begin seriously to study fictional narratives, they are introduced to many components that help construct that literature. Terms such as character, plot, resolution, and setting become important in the analysis of any narrative, and it is the last one that interests me -- setting, to see how it relates to our daily lives. Setting is where a narrative takes place, the geographical location of a story or poem or drama. However, I like to refer to it as place and enjoy thinking of its influence on the narrative and our lives.

Where a story takes place is important for the reasons you may readily think of and others. Could "To Kill a Mockingbird" have taken place in any town but a small Southern one? In another region it could not remain the same story of Scout, Jem, Atticus Finch, or Bo Radley. The novel is what it is largely because of its setting, or place. Just like Scout and company, the characters in any narrative are shaped and molded by their surroundings, their place. Just consider how living in the Shenandoah Valley has shaped and influenced your life. Living in the valley has shaped interests, philosophies, and habits. So, in a narrative or a life, setting or place matters.

We all have place, or maybe places in our lives. Think of the places that have shaped you? Think of your "homestead," your town, your valley -- that place or those places that have helped mold and shape every part of you. The man who planted his vegetable garden here had arrived later in life with his wife, and they had children, and they had found a place that helped identify who they were or wanted to be. In some ways, his fantastic vegetable garden defined him. He and his family were molded by the old house and land; after that, they created what they wanted.

The youngest child was 6 or 7 years old when her father died of leukemia; much too young to be forced to face that disease, as was her father. This old house had been her only home and place when her father died. The outbuildings and back field and woods were the only ones she had known. After all, seven or so years is not too long a time, but long enough for a youngster to get to know some of it, to walk it with her father, to play in and around the buildings with her older siblings, to, in other words, begin to make it her place, too. She had, no doubt, shared in his space of the vegetable garden that now holds his ashes. Thus, when she came with her mother to place flowers on her dad's marker, she was returning to a place of significance.

Mary Ann and I always respect their privacy during the time at the marker. However, when they return to the back yard, we chat with them and "catch up" on the latest family news, neighbors, and jobs. This time as the mother and I chatted, I noticed the young child, now grown into a young woman, looking around the yard. She remarked how she remembered the corn crib and the other building that was her dad's shop and nodded to the wood, telling how she had played in them. Looking around one last time, she remarked how, in her child's memory, the space was much larger. Then, pressed for time, they went their way.

Here, at what is now called Red Hill, her parents gave her a good place to begin, and one day she will have her own space that will mold her and encourage her to create. She, like Scout Finch and us all, has been influenced by place molded by where we began, live, and end.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.



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