When I was younger I would visit my grandma and grandpa in West Virginia. These were my mother’s parents and they lived on a farm, way back in the hills. This was the same farm on which my mother had grown up.
I was very young when my grandparents still lived on the farm, so my memories are few and far between. Yet, there is one memory that is vivid. I remember my mother’s stories of a man named Burley.
It all started one day when I was walking with my mom through the forested fields of the family farm. We came to a clearing and there, carved out of a huge rock, was the head of a Native American. I remember his head dress and the stone, cold stare on the face of this man in the rock.
When I asked my mom why there was a huge rock sculpture way out here in the middle of nowhere, she told me that it was the handy work of Burley. To which I, of course, inquired as to who this Burley happened to be. My mother then began to tell me the story of Burley. A talented stone mason, who one day lost some kind of grip on reality and dropped out of society and lived off the land and the generosity of others.
She told me of a man who would always wear denim overalls and walk down the center of the road with his walking stick. Everybody knew Burley, so they slowed down around the bends, just in case they would meet up with him on the other side.
During the cold winter months Burley would simply add layer upon layer of denim overalls in order to keep warm. And he would be pitch black from head to toe, because he would also burn tires in order to keep warm.
I was engulfed by my mother’s stories and begged her to tell me more about Burley. She told me of how my grandmother used to make Burley a meal every now and again. Yet, she would only serve him on the outside porch, far away from everyone else. For Burley would only bath in the summer. Which, way back there in the hills of West Virginia where winters seemed to hold on a little longer, meant that Burley only bathed a few months out of the year.
When I asked my mom where Burley had lived, she told me that he had carved himself a cave in a rock outcropping, down by a stream on the farm across the road. “Across the road?” I exclaimed. “Can we still see his cave today?” To which my mom pondered that we probably could. Seeing that the family that owned the farm across the road was still the same family that owned the farm across the road, when Burley had carved out his home down by the stream.
So, my mom called the neighbors and asked if it would be okay if we came over to see Burley’s home. To which they agreed and off we went. Down the big gravel driveway, across the road and up another big gravel driveway. We walked past the house and the barn. Past the fenced fields for the horses and cows. Down to the stream.
When we hit the stream, we turned to the left and kept walking up stream towards what simply appeared to be woods. We then walked into the shady canopy of the trees and my eyes adjusted to the shade. There I saw the overgrown entrance to a cave.
My mother led me into a two-story cave, complete with a staircase and a balcony. This place had obviously been abandoned for a very long time. In the middle of the main floor of the cave was the remains of a rusty old barrel. This was where Burley used to burn his tires in the winter in order to keep warm.
As we went back out, to the right of the cave opening was a huge rock. My mother led me to the top of this rock and pointed out a hole that was carved in it. As I looked down into the hole I could see that the majority of the inside of this huge rock was gone. My mom told me that this was Burley’s water supply. The rain would fall into the hole on the top of the rock and be stored inside, so that Burley would have plenty of water to drink and with which to cook.
She then pointed out steps that had been carved into the side of a rock, down by the stream. We didn’t walk up the steps for the vegetation had long since taken over. I wouldn’t have even seen it, if my mother hadn’t pointed it out. This was Burley’s look out.
From the top of this rock he would fish and he would also use it as a diving platform, when he would go for a swim.
My mom then laughed and told me that, as a child, she was warned to make a lot of noise if she was ever going to be around Burley’s cave in the summer. For Burley bathed in the stream and it was apparently the only time that he ever took off all of his overalls. The last thing that anybody wanted to do was to surprise Burley during his bath time.
The thing is this: Burley wasn’t unique. Yes, he was unique to my mother’s little town and he was unique to me because of my mother’s stories. But there were and are Burley’s all over the place. People who are put together a little differently. People who see the world and their place in it, a little differently. Burley was able to get by, because of the community around him. They knew him and his peculiarities and they made room for him.
There are communities and people out there, right now, making room for their very own Burleys. It’s always been this way and it will always be this way. And you and I will never know about it. Unless of course some inquisitive child asks a question and someone loves that child enough to tell them the story. It’s always been this way and it will always be this way.
So, why don’t we turn off the news for awhile and get out into our communities and meet our very own Burleys. Let’s get good at making room for all of the others around us. For no other reason than the possibility of someday telling their story to your very own children or grandchildren.