Have you ever found an old photograph with familiar looking strangers looking back at you, and had the thought, “if ___ were alive, they would know who these people are?” And so the identities, and their connection to you, are lost forever though you still can’t bring yourself to pitch the photo.
In the last several days, many of us (for better or worse), have been in the close confines of family members for the Thanksgiving holiday. No doubt someone in your tribe will know the answer to a question you won’t know you need to ask until it’s too late and they’re gone. Someone knows who is in that old photograph you haven’t found, yet.
When I first started writing for Ohio Valley Publishing at The Daily Sentinel in Meigs County, I interviewed a local historian. I can’t say I remember the reason I was there to speak with her (we had spoken several times) but I do remember her saying, “Beth, you keep this (my stories) for me.” She said if she died, those stories all went with her, as if those stories were paramount to some heavy, dusty box of Christmas ornaments taped and re-taped on the corners, whose value could easily be overlooked by someone clearing space; by someone with no vision.
Last week, 99-year old Josephine Kirby of West Columbia, W.Va. died. She was the proprietor of Fowler’s Grocery Store, a family-owned business where she worked her entire life. To my knowledge, Parkersburg, W.Va. was the furthest Josephine ever traveled, with her whole world revolving around her store along Route 62. I stopped to finally meet Josephine last year. She impressed me with her knowledge of West Columbia and how she was the keeper of its story, which was her story as well. “This was a thriving town at one time…the population was over 3,000…I have the history,” Kirby had told me, explaining it was called the “best town” from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh in one of her history books. She talked about a long gone mansion on the hill overlooking the Ohio River in West Columbia. “People from New York, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, all came here in the summer for vacation,” she said. It seemed like she was talking about another planet, though her sincerity, and knowledge, painted a picture for me that was beyond what I could see in that moment. In my mind she was identifying the people in the photographs. She was telling me her story to keep.
Something that struck me about that interview was Josephine’s reasoning for keeping the store open long after shopping habits had changed and business dropped off. Or perhaps, it was her sheer persistent to exist, much like her beloved hometown, I remember most. Then, at 98 years old, she kept showing up each day to unlock the door to Fowler’s Grocery for her customers. She talked about a previous conversation she had with her late sister concerning the store that had become intertwined with her life.
“I was complaining about business falling off…of course it would, because there’s a Walmart right up the road here, and she said, ‘Josephine, don’t quit, because if you do, what would you do? You’d go in the house and die. You don’t like to go no place and you don’t travel…have it for friendship.’ And that’s about all it is,” Kirby explained, summing up the fellowship her store brought her, simply by keeping it open.
I meant to go back and see Josephine again under the guise of needing a loaf of bread or a candy bar but life gets busy and I lost that opportunity when her obituary showed up in my email last week. The obituary said she died after a “brief illness” at a nursing and rehabilitation center in Belpre, Ohio, where I’m sure she received support and care. Still, it made me sad she left this world away from her store and her West Columbia, though I have no doubt she’s home now. She greeted her customers with a smile and a genuine disposition and told me the “help of the Lord” kept her going and “well, we (she and the Lord) just talk.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without Him,” she continued to tell me more of her story that day we met last year. “When I go to bed, I say, Lord, help remind me what I done wrong today and He’ll tell me and (I realized) I owed a penny to a boy that lives on the old road. Next morning (I gave it back to him) and he said, ‘what’s this for?’ And I said, I owe it to you. I don’t want Saint Peter to say ‘oh no, we don’t want you to come in today because you owe somebody.’”
People like Josephine make sure not to leave owing anyone but when they give an explanation for who is in that photograph, and why, and when it was taken for us, it’s our responsibility to listen. Christmas and New Year’s are coming, so we’ll all have more opportunities to ask those questions meant to fill in the blanks of our histories from those with the answers, “Lord willing,” as Josephine might say.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.