Darling We Miss Thee

John Lester Kelley, Fincham Cemetery, Randolph County, WV

Addie Fincham, Greg’s paternal great aunt, was born at the turn of the 20th century deep in the West Virginia hills, near a sleepy little bend in the road called Adolph in Randolph County.  Her father, John W. Fincham, owned a modest farm in the bottom land along the clear, cold Middle Fork River. On this farm, which Greg knows well from his childhood, Addie lived and played for a short time with her seven brothers and sisters.

Childhood was cut short when Addie lost her mother Lena before she had even turned seven years old. It was a hardscrabble life in this part of Appalachia, and as a very young woman Addie had to work in other people’s homes for room, board, and some meager wages. She would sometimes earn money as a seamstress, making dresses and other items of clothing for the families of the poor farmers, miners, and lumberjacks that lived in the area. Four months after her nineteenth birthday in 1921, she married Adnigh David Kelly from the nearby town of Mabie. Adnigh was a coal miner for A. Spates Brady Mines.

After they were married Addie and her husband moved north from Randolph County to the little town of Century in Barbour County so that Adnigh could begin work for the Century Coal Company. There, on August 1, 1923, Addie’s first child, John Lester, was born. “Lester,” as he was affectionately called by the family, was a treasured addition. Today’s new parents, posting endless photos of their first babies on Facebook, chronicling every cute smile and every new milestone reached, certainly are no more joyous in their firstborns than Addie and Adnigh were.

In a devastating loss six months later, precious Lester died from influenza. His still little body was carried from Century by plodding horse cart to the train station at Ellamore and then put on a lumber train to be delivered to the quiet, pastoral Fincham Chapel Cemetery adjacent to John W.’s farm. An old railroad line, owned by the Moore-Keppel Lumber Company, used to run along the Middle Fork down to near Adolph. The Chapel cemetery, nestled between the wooded hills on a small slope, holds many of Addie’s ancestors and family.

If you visit the cemetery, hidden along the narrow road between Mill Creek and Adolph, you can find Lester’s poignant tombstone: a lamb reposing on a decorative headstone. The time worn inscription reads:

John Lester

Son of A. D. & Addie Kelley

Aug. 1, 1923

Feb. 1, 1924

At the bottom of the tombstone are the heartbreaking last words of Addie and Adnigh to their dead son:

Darling We Miss Thee

Like her mother and her first child, Addie herself died young. She succumbed in her early thirties to stomach cancer while pregnant with her sixth child. She too is buried in Fincham Chapel Cemetery. Greg’s grandparents, Cora (Fincham) and Jesse Shreve, who lived across the creek from John Fincham’s farm, took the surviving Kelley children into their home for a time and cared for them, even though they were raising eight children of their own. Adnigh David later moved into his father-in-law John’s home with his large family. There Addie’s unmarried sister, Lorena (“Aunt Lixie”), helped care for the children.

Some years after Addie’s death, Cora and Jesse Shreve’s children (Greg’s dad and his siblings) were playing one day at their grandfather John Fincham’s house. In the living room of that home was an old chest of drawers near the door to the back porch. The Shreve boys (Dick, Charlie, Paul, Montgomery, and later, Neal) knew that Lucky Strikes “Greens,” a brand of cigarette popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, were kept in that drawer, and they decided to try to pilfer a cigarette. (Their mother Cora frowned on smoking, and her children never, even as adults, smoked in her presence!)

In the drawer next to the cigarettes, the boys found a dried up, shriveled orange.  Their sister Arlene, who had accompanied them on this adolescent foray, picked it up reverently, knowing what it signified. That orange had been their small cousin Lester’s favorite toy. He had played with the orange as any modern infant might play with a small ball or little stuffed animal. When Lester died, his parents couldn’t bear to part with it, and it was kept by the family for years, eventually finding a final resting place in that chest of drawers. The orange, dried and shriveled to half of its former size, remained as a tangible and emotionally charged connection to Addie and Adnigh’s departed son.

As we grow older and begin to lose grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends many of us also accumulate physical reminders of people we have loved but who are no longer with us. Many of us have inherited Grandmother’s dishes, Grandfather’s fishing pole, Mom’s crystal, or Dad’s uniform. We have houses where this piece of furniture has come from Uncle and that knick-knack from Aunt. However, sometimes small, ostensibly insignificant items like Lester’s orange, although outwardly trivial and mundane, are nevertheless especially meaningful. Their value as mementos of our beloved dead derives from something beyond their intrinsic value, great age, or rarity. Their value derives from the emotion we, sometimes inexplicably, invest in them.

For Joan it is a little marble she keeps in her bed stand drawer. She found it among her dad’s things after he died. Looking at it, she remembered how he once told her that he loved playing marbles as a child. Into that small, round object, even smaller than Lester’s orange, she transferred a lifetime’s accumulation of emotion.

We know, of course, these treasured mementos can never replace the person that we love and miss. But when we slide open our drawer and see and touch our own “Lester’s orange,” we smile, perhaps shed a small tear, and then whisper under our breath a tender message to our loved one, “darling we miss thee.”