We stopped first at the cemetery. My brother had picked me up at the Philadelphia airport, and we had driven south and west from there—to Baltimore and Frederick, then down through the hills of the Blue Ridge, past the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers at Harpers Ferry and into the Valley of Virginia. Civil War country. The route of the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns. The site of John Brown’s incendiary attempt to foment a slave uprising. The place where we grew up.
Apart from one brief drive-through, I hadn’t been back in nearly two decades—not since a visit the year after my father died. Now we could see next to his grave the dirt already unearthed to make a place for my stepmother’s ashes the next day. We had come for her funeral and in my father’s memory.
I had attended many burials here. The family plot houses uncles, aunts, grandparents, and great-grandparents, but no graves nearly as old as those dug soon after the nearby chapel was built in the 1790s. Edmund Randolph, the U.S. secretary of state and the nation’s first attorney general, a Virginia governor and a member of the Constitutional Convention, is a few yards away, surrounded by a crowd of Randolphs, Pages, Burwells, and Carters— members of the First Families of Virginia who had migrated to this northern end of the Shenandoah Valley when the children of the 18th-century Tide water gentry began to seek new lands and new opportunities