Mary, Queen of the Hills

How my father was able to realize peace after his sister’s death

Machpelah Cemetery, Weston, W.Va. (Photo: James Cometto)

My father had a sister, though he hardly speaks of her. Anyway, how could he remember much, he being all of four years, three months, and eight days when she died.

On Friday, February 28, 1964, Mary Salina Ramsburg left this life. There are facts about that day that we know from history, from collected data. The high temperature near the town where she was born was 28 degrees Fahrenheit that day, with snow and ice. Johnson was president, and had just begun his war on poverty a little over a month before. Appalachia’s mono-economy was tanking, technology leaving fewer jobs in the coal industry, and many were leaving the area to seek jobs in far off cities. It was also a leap year.

Other things about that day — about Mary Salina — we simply can not know. The color of her eyes, for instance. Or the sound of her laugh. The feel of her touch. These things remain mysteries — mysteries that have plagued my father all these years.

The day Mary Salina was born, my grandfather would drive out of the dirt road on which he lived through ice-covered streets, a mix of adrenaline and excitement no doubt taking over his body. Several hours later, he would return to their modest home with tears in his eyes, full of sorrow.

Mary Salina’s death certificate

My aunt — my father’s only sister — had made it in this world only five hours before she died. It says so on her death certificate, signed by my grandfather, the doctor, the registrar and the funeral director — four official names, certifying the death of one tiny body. In typewritten letters, it declares her cause of death: Prematurity due to material toxemia of pregnancy. Never married is checked. Occupation is left blank.

She died at 5:35 pm. They would bury her two days later, on a Sunday — no time or money for arrangements. Anyway, what service could they hold? Who could stand before the mourners and speak of her life accomplishments? What could she have accomplished in her five hours of living?

They buried Mary Salina in a small wooden crate, not much bigger than a shoe box. They wrapped her in a cloth, said a few prayers, then placed her delicate body like a fine Swiss chocolate into her eternal candy box. She was laid in a field at the foot of a mountain, in a cemetery guarded by a black iron sign that reads Machpelah — the same name of the cave that Abraham in the Bible bought for the burial of his family, the cave where most of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Judaism were buried. Her grave would go unmarked until well after the deaths of my grandfather and grandmother, when my father could finally save enough cash to buy a proper tombstone to lay like a crown upon the hallowed ground under which she rests. That was the only gift he was ever able to give her.

Last year, my sister learned she was bearing a child. An image from the doctor would indicate that she would give birth to a baby girl. I’ll name her after Mary Salina, my sister said. And in July of this year, she did.

My father would miss the birth of my sister’s baby by a little more than five hours. But precisely 52 years, four months, ten days, four hours, and five minutes after his sister’s death, dad finally got to touch and look into the eyes of the little one for whom his sister is named.

Mary Salina, Queen of the Hills, your legacy lives on in your great niece.

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8th generation Appalachian. Proud West Virginian. Words. Visuals. Audio. Code. More:

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