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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Real Hatfield

My Uncle Opal died two years ago. I haven’t kept in touch with my West Virginia relatives, whom I last saw over twenty-five years ago towards the end of a cross-country trip my wife and I took.

Here’s the obit I found recently, and then I’ll give you a little more info:
Opal Burke
DELBARTON, W.Va. — Opal Burke, 91, of Delbarton, died Fri., Oct. 4, 2013, at his home. Born December 31, 1921, at Thacker, he was a son of the late Claude Burke and Ida Deboard Justice. Also preceding him in death was his wife, Ruth Hatfield Burke; sister, Ailene Nilsson, and a brother, Bobby Justice.
Opal was a retired UMWA coal miner and a U.S. Navy veteran having served in World War II. 
Survivors include his son: Lewis Dale Burke of Delbarton; daughters: Gail Dotson of Delbarton Ida Burke of Charleston, and Louise (Daniel) Smith of Matewan; brother: Billy Justice of Detroit, Mich.; sister: Dimple (Bill) Bishop of Williamson; grandchildren: Larry Dale Dotson, Lewis Dale Burke II, Karla Marie Dennison, Katrina Burke, Blaine Pruitt, Terence Pruitt, Amanda Sansom and Merissa Pruitt, and great-grandchildren: Cassie Dotson Mahon, Micah Dotson, Jade Dotson, Avaree Dennison, Mason Burke Dennison and Aidan Burke. 
The family will gather with friends from 6-9 p.m. Sun., Oct. 6, at Chambers Funeral Services' Chapel for an evening of remembrance and to honor the life of their dad, Opal Burke.
Wish I’d known. I would have attended the memorial, and I’m thinking I should see my Aunt Dimple while she’s still hanging on.

But here’s the story I got from various relatives down there during a visit my mother and I made in the mid-1980s. I spent enough time with my grandmother, Ida Justice (still living in Delbarton, in the “hollow” known as Pigeon Creek), to sketch a rough family tree. Her husband, Green, had died a few years earlier, and she wasn’t too happy to talk about her surviving family.

“Ever time I go into that hospital,” she complained, “one o’ them goes into my house and takes things. They cain’t even wait till I’m dead!” And so, one by one, her kids and grandkids were placed on her Shit List, and her will was further whittled.

I see from the obit that Opal’s wife was a Hatfield; so, apparently, was Ida – but that’s hardly a mark of significance in that part of the world, where Hatfield and McCoy – and Justice – clog the phone book (I looked).

Ida married Claude Burke, whom she described (not to me) as the love of her life, but soon after Opal was born Claude died of surgery complications. Ida then married my grandfather, Greenville (“Green”)  Justice, and from which union came my aunt Ada, known as Dimple, my mother Ailene, known as Toots, and my uncle Billy.

Rumor had it, however, that their youngest, Bobby (real name: Greenway), was the product of a liaison Ida had with Claude Burke’s brother. I don’t remember who told me this, and it’s probably now impossible to corroborate. But I do remember Bobby as a hellraiser, a womanizer, a gambler, a drinker. I hung out with him at the VFW hall when I was there, the main room of which was entered through a door with one-way glass. “That way I can see if my wife is comin’,” Bobby explained. “Good thing, too. Last time she looked for me here, before the divorce, I had someone else on my lap.”

Bobby had an affair with a woman who may have been a distant relative of Green’s family; in any event, they had a son, David, whom Ida adopted. I met him once and asked him if he was my uncle or my cousin and he laughed and with laconic Mingo County bashfulness said, “Shee-it.”

Speaking of which: Ida’s Shit List eventually grew substantial enough that David became her sole heir. When she died, he sold the estate to Opal and took off, and may never have returned. Once you get away, it’s easy to lose touch.

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