Nelsonville makes Scott Woods consider where Columbus buries its bodies

Attending the recent funeral of a cousin an hour away in Nelsonville, Ohio, I was reminded of how Columbus is perceived by my country kin. Almost all of my family comes from Nelsonville. Not the Nelsonville of music festivals and hippie art, of course, but the Nelsonville that makes a religion of homemade bricks, shuttered coal mines, poverty and lack — an Appalachian Nelsonville. I missed being raised in Southeast Ohio by one generation, a decision made by a college-bound mother I am thankful for, since there’s already one cousin named Scott down there. And because our family was pretty much the only black family around, seeking out the “black Scott” wouldn’t have clarified much when things hit the fan, and likely would have devolved into a “Dukes of Hazzard” comedy of errors every day.

My Nelsonville family thinks Columbus is a big city. That is certainly true in most ways these days, but they have always thought it was a big city, and not in a positive light. They see it in the way America used to see Compton: crime-ridden and ever hungry for fresh meat. My father, who moved back to Nelsonville after my mother divorced him, explained to me why he returned to the family hills: “When Columbus has a shooting every week, it’s too rough for me.” This was easily 25 ago, and while Columbus was nearing that stat, it hadn’t hit it yet. That impression of Columbus always stuck with me. Even growing up on the South Side in an era when formal gangs were still a thing, it never felt that way to me. Rough, sure, but it was a chop that could be weathered.

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Turning away from the lowering coffin with my cousin inside, my mother wondered where her prepaid plot was. Despite having no parents or siblings left in Nelsonville, she planned to spend dusty eternity in the hills where her people slept. We inquired at the office where the grave site was, and then proceeded to run the most morbid game of Marco Polo ever. We found her tombstone sunk into the grass, her etched birth date awaiting its hyphenated twin. It is a surreal moment, watching your mother look down at her own grave. I wondered if you could feel chills walking over your own grave. Looking at my mother, reserved and academic about the whole affair, it would appear not. She has always been a planner, but this moment is peak Sister Woods. Even if you fancy yourself a die-hard prepper, you will never be Sister Woods-standing-over-her-own-grave prepared.

I am glad my mother will come to rest in Nelsonville, where she feels safe and seen and rooted. My cousins do not trust Columbus, and neither do I, though for different reasons. I do not trust Columbus not to move her after the fact, to opt out of dropping a high-rise over her body like they’re doing in the Short North to the bodies left behind under the North Market. In Nelsonville, she’s got a good 5 billion years before the sun winks out. That’s plenty of time to turn things around in the minds of my country cousins, to convince them that while Columbus has problems, it’s not a war zone and perfectly livable if you can afford it. But then, they can’t afford it, and maybe someday soon I won’t be able to, either, and we will all have to amend our perceptions and zip codes. It is easy for me to be didactic and say, “Well, you don’t know what it’s like. It’s not as bad as all that,” and then run the numbers. But then I remember they are perfectly well-represented in Linden, on the South Side, in Hilltop. I remember that for all its sheen, Columbus is riddled with pockets of neglect that it could fix but chooses not to. Somewhere in there I have recalled that I have not adequately planned for where my body will lie, where it will be safe in death where it was not in life, and how I have not come to that decision because I do not really know where I am safe, and that perhaps I have “home” all wrong.

In the end, over paper plates of fried chicken and mac and cheese, my country cousins aren’t right about Columbus. But they aren’t wrong, either.