Of course they did. Just as my generation values honesty, individuality, and personal freedom, the Victorians valued society, and their place in its hierarchy. They were the embodiment of their era in an insulated little valley, and their standing defined them. I find their world confining; they found purpose in their rigid order. And the Jeffers family made it work. Despite the close quarters, they remained together along the National Road for the remainder of their lives. In the 1970’s, my parents moved in and began a generation anew; now, my children are the sixth iteration of Jeffers to dwell here. I’ve found no statistics on the number of American families who have resided in the same three houses for over a century. But I don’t need numbers to tell me what a strange and unique set of circumstances have led me back to this little parcel of land I can’t escape. And, if I am to entertain my growing faith in the universe, I have to concede that perhaps I’m not meant to escape it.
Young mothers around me lament the loss of the traditional extended family, and I have the privilege of being a part of this thing for which they grieve. Make no mistake: It is not an idyllic existence. Humans are inescapably human, and families will bump heads and tie knots and dig holes. In no way does proximity make easier the trudge through generational discord. But we’re here, rooted, together. And even in moments of solitude, there is the comforting weight of the past, the same subway tile and doorknobs. The same creak in the fourteenth step on the rear staircase no doubt protested under great-Uncle George’s feet an age ago. My DNA is in the plaster and wood and the smell of the attic. It is also in the flesh and blood around me.
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I don’t think of our patriarch, great-great grandfather Matthias, very often. His role in my life is limited to a sepia portrait on the wall, and a passing thought when the house settles with an audible crack. There isn’t room in my day for more than a nod to my past. But in quiet moments I occasionally reflect on the microcosm Matthias created. I’m a product of so many lives and so many years. Nature and nurture run parallel in Pleasant Valley. The Jeffers line repeats and changes, it accommodates new input and still produces a familiar result, inasmuch as we are willing to recognize that ancestral thread.
I don’t think that a family can recreate history intentionally; I had no intention of following in the footsteps of familial antiquity. Perhaps I stumbled into it; perhaps I was led. Regardless of how I arrived, my presence will define a chapter in this ongoing narrative.
And when I am asked, “Why are you still here, in Wheeling?” how do I answer?
The answer, simply, is that my path steered me back to this little valley. We cannot predict where our journey will lead. We may choose to change course, to actively seek a new place of being, but I’ve chosen to stay, to breathe in the history and the quiet. I’ve chosen to know this Pleasant Valley, in place and time and person. There are grander futures out there for those who leave, to be certain. We have, in our little northern spire and within the walls of our family home, managed to find balance. The world will not wait for Wheeling, West Virginia, nor will Wheeling be left behind. Here more than ever are we willing to step into these Victorian costumes, to try on the past, and find a way to take it with us when we return to the present.
Photos by Laura Jackson Roberts
This story originally appeared on Weelunk.com in 2014