The message arrived in my email spam file and I almost
deleted it until I noticed it had an edu—education--extension. Professor
Marilyn Brown of Lees College in Eastern Kentucky has found my essays about Appalachia on my blog
Professor Brown’s class was mixed ages—18 through 50—and all
were local. I asked them what they had been discussing about Appalachia
I felt empathy for these college students as I have faced my
own challenges in receiving higher degrees, not beginning college until I was
36. In Appalachia
I read an essay to them about how my parents had not had the opportunity to complete high school but they had encouraged me to do much more. I never dreamed I’d one day earn two masters degrees and be teaching college courses. When I’d finished, I looked up to breath-held silence. They told me of their similar struggles.
After class, I went to lunch with the professor and a couple students. One student was an energetic woman in her early 40s and in college for the first time. Needing to return to work, she grabbed her bill. With tears in her eyes she said, “I’m just like you. I see that you have made it. That means I can too. You are my new hero.” I sat with a forkful of mashed potatoes suspended half way to my mouth, surprised—and humbled—by her words.
The strange thing is, I had been thinking the same thing about Professor Brown. To have one’s writing used in a class as study material seems an impossible dream. Yet, she took the time and made the effort to reach out to me. Of course I would come speak to her class. It makes me shudder to think I almost deleted that email.
In that class room, I watched the fearful expressions, heard the doubt in their voices: am I going to make it? Will I do better than my parents? One student asked: Do you think if the rest of the world were Appalachian it’d be better off? I told him a resounding yes. While we struggle as any humans, we do work hard, we are blessed with a sense of humor, we are dedicated to family and land. Maybe one more important quality is our empathy, our willingness to reach out to one another.
On our way to Berea, KY, my husband and I stopped to see Loretta Lynn's home place. My aunt and uncle were there last year, and the photos they showed us made us curious to see the place ourselves. Loretta's beloved Butcher Hollow is in Van Lear, KY.
There's no easy way to get to Van Lear, but we meandered our way, following small signs that said: "This way to Loretta Lynn's home place." We stopped at a store, and I'm sure it's a continuing establishment for many decades, and bought a diet Dr. Pepper. I asked the lady behind the counter how to get to Loretta's. She graciously gave her rehearsed answer: "Go down this road seven tenths of a mile and you'll see a big rock with Butcher Hollow painted on it in white. Turn there and go about a mile." The man sitting nearby in a rocking chair, who looked to have been there when the store opened, grunted. I guessed it was affirmation.
Off we go and soon we see the rock. Weather has worn part of the rock away and you can see only B-TCHER HOLL_W. We turned onto a small blacktopped road. I glanced out my passenger side window once to see a sharp drop down to the creek below and nothing in the path to stop a rolling car. I fervently hoped the car’s tires maintained a purchase on the edge.
We roll onto a gravel road for a short way, only to slip onto blacktop again. Finally, in an area just past a wide turnaround, clearly for tour bus parking, we spy the narrow dirt lane leading up hill to Loretta’s home. We arrive at a dirt parking lot--with room for three cars. Luckily, we're the third one.
The cabin is clearly as it was when Loretta and Crystal Gayle grew up. Perched on the slope of a hill, the wooden batten board home is weathered grey and brown, the front canted over the sloped yard, leaving plenty of space underneath for an old harrow, a large zinc tub, a bicycle, and three dogs. To the front of the house, down over the hill, is a fenced pasture with a small barn and a tin-roofed shed. The barn is home to a white mule and two small brown horses. As we approach the porch steps, the three dogs come out to greet us, friendly as mutts generally are. Then they spy something under the storage shed. Off they go to corner whatever it is they've seen. The mule watches from her lounging position near her barn. Suddenly, she's had enough and rises and charges the dogs, running as nimbly as a race horse. She means business, though. She nipped at the dogs' flanks, and all three scurried fast under the fence and to safety.
Once on the porch, we see two hand-lettered signs: "No Smoking," and "Tours: $5 each." Inside a family is listening to Herman Webb, Loretta's brother. We wait on the porch swing, and occasionally catch snatches of conversation, which is how we know who Herman is. The sky is clear, the breeze soft and I can hear the sounds of various song birds in the nearby trees. One tree, an ancient holly, is the largest I've ever seen. Its lower branches are trimmed and if you didn't pay attention, you'd think it was an apple tree.
Finally, the family emerges and a slender man in his late 60s, with wavy white hair and still-sexy blue eyes says, "Oh, I didn't know there was someone else out here. Come on in." And he launches into his stories as he leads us through the four rooms downstairs, all with original furnishings. The first room, most likely the parlor, has a bedroom suite, a few scattered old wooden chairs and a fireplace. Over the mantel, and really in many places on the walls, are photos of family and dignitaries. I see a photo of Loretta and Tommy Lee Jones, several of country music stars, a four star general--the only one from Kentucky--and scads of family photos. Herman points to a photo of his great grandfather, whose last name is Butcher, and tells us the man was part Cherokee. In fact, many of the family are either full or part Cherokee.
In the second room, a bedroom, the first guitar that Loretta played rests on her parents' bed. He said he knew it was the first guitar she'd played because he has a photo of her playing it when she was just 12 years old. It was his daddy's guitar. He keeps it there on the bed, the strings undone, surrounded by other memorabilia--an old banjo, more photos of Loretta on her rise to fame as a music star, and a red t-shirt emblazoned with Loretta's name. The quilt is an old tacked patchwork, brilliant in the dim room.
Each wall in this room is covered with graffiti. It appears that every person nearly that ever visited this room, famous or not, signed the walls. An old Victrola stands ready to take another 78 and on top of a trunk sets an old wooden swing, the one his mom and dad courted in.
The next room is crowded with kitchen implements, such as an old wood fired cooking stove, sad irons, a cast iron kettle, and part of an old copper still that Herman says his uncle used to make moonshine. A battered white wooden table holds coal mining equipment--a miner's helmet with carbide lamp, a zinc lunch bucket and a round metal jug with a funnel top that Herman used to carry dynamite when he worked in the mines.
The dining room has an oak round table with roaring lion heads on the legs curving down to claw and ball feet. A saddle belonging to Doolittle, Loretta's husband, perches on an old singer sewing machine cabinet.
We step from the dining room back to the front parlor. Dan hands Herman $10, who never asked for payment. Besides tamping dynamite for the mines, Herman assembled furniture in a factory, played music in his own band, drove a green 1947 Chevy convertible, and he lost his wife of 51 years this past February to Lou Gehrig's disease. They met and started courting when she was in the first grade and he was in the second. He waggled his finger, "I didn't marry her until she was 18, though." Loretta, he said, does visit her home place. So far this year she'd come to see his wife and then she returned for his wife's funeral.
As we left, the dogs were still under the porch, covered in ticks and fast asleep. Three more vehicles had parked in the small lot, one an RV, making our exit a bit exciting as we rocked the car back and forth to be able to back down the small dirt lane. Two more families waited on the porch for their tour.
I can imagine the many famous stars who've come here to pay homage to a great star in country music, and I'm sure there have been droves of entrepreneurs who imagine what this place might look like lit up, smoothed out, slicked up and polished. I don't know much about Loretta and her family, but I admire them. I know, without ever being there before, that not much has changed at Loretta Lynn's home place. The only concession seems to be a boom box that blares Loretta Lynn songs to an outdoor speaker. There are no CDs and t-shirts for sale.
They clearly know and appreciate what it means to remember where you come from and who you are. And that, by golly, maybe you can go home again, if nothing more than to sit in the quiet country, on a porch swing, listening to horses crunch grain, and the snoring of three old dogs, cool in their under-the-porch wallows, and wait for a good rain. I don't know what happens to the $5 each Herman collects, but I hope it supplements his social security. As for us, he told good stories and that's worth more than $10 any day.
I’ve known her all my life, as she is my mother’s sister, and she never ceases to entertain me or perplex me, or take care of me. Recently, when I told her that she could find the phone number for the Cabell County Courthouse online, she called and left a message to say that she had gone to the site, but she couldn’t get the phone number as the letters didn’t go all the way down.
No, I have no idea either what the heck that meant. That’s my aunt Norma and at 70+ she does all right at the computer, quite frankly. Just the occasional glitch, and one can understand, surely, when the letters don’t go all the way down.
She is two years younger than my mother, and they grew up on Kanawha County farms in the St. Albans area speaking a private language between them like twins do. Norma’s hair and eyes were dark, like the Indian ancestry we share, while Mom was blonde and blue-eyed like the Irish and English side of the family. They were inseparable, playing all over their West Virginia hills, dresses made of feed sacks, like most children post Depression. Mom often told me that they hung from trees like monkeys, when they weren’t gathering the milk cow in from the pasture or scooping up eggs from the chicken coup, or flipping up rocks looking for snakes. Their mother, a diminutive woman at 4 foot ten, and their father, a farmer and factory worker of 6 foot 4 stature mostly worked hard and left kids to their own devices. Until their mother died before she was even 50, after birthing 10 live babies and losing two to miscarriage, their lives, nevertheless, were mostly idyllic, like a Currier and Ives lithograph.
Life gets hard for many folks and my mom and my Aunt Norma were victims of hard times, but what they held in common was a sense of humor, a wit sharp enough to cut yourself on, and a determination to do better. And they did. Both funny in their own ways, my aunt was a bit more skeptical than my mom, but she also conversely possessed a more positive outlook. Both had the ability to laugh at themselves, so that getting above their raisings was never an issue. My aunt, though, always had a fuzzier logic.
We receive news of her antics on occasion. She once pounded the hell out of coffee grounds all over the countertop, convinced they were ants. Until she put on her glasses. When she was 68, she decided she wanted her own ATV until she wrecked it swerving to miss a tree in a flat yard and broke her shoulder. Oh the wailing and carrying on that brought. She’s in good shape now, though, and that ATV went back to the store immediately. She has three great-grandchildren that keep her hopping. Especially the youngest who’s apt to dislodge breakers in the electric box, which he reached by stacking boxes and buckets, causing the power to go out to the freezer, ruining several pounds of meat. And this little Dennis the Menace was only three at the time. He’s four now. And taller. That’s a scary thought, my aunt assures me.
When I was growing up, my mom couldn’t drive, so we depended on Aunt Norma to take us places while dad was at work. Yard sales were a given on a Saturday morning. Bumping along back roads, my aunt’s Rambler seemed trained to sniff out sales in the most remote places. It’s a good thing as Aunt Norma rarely paid attention to her driving skills. A yard sale sign would pop up out of nowhere and the steering wheel jerked in that direction, regardless of oncoming traffic. Once while zipping along a dirt road a car came around the bend and surprised my aunt, or perhaps just her Rambler, but whichever it was it meant we swerved into the ditch. In those days, sewer lines in the country sometimes meant the house drained into the ditch beside the road. The car landed on its passenger side. I was in the back seat, and it was my great misfortune that my window was open so that my nose was but 2 inches away from raw sewer. This was before seat belts. My aunt’s sister-in-law, Drexel, lay on top of me. My aunt teased me for years about “laying in the sewer.” I knew enough not to tease her back about her driving skills. If I had, I’d never go anywhere again. Or she’d just blame the Rambler.
Anyone in the front seat with my Aunt Norma—to this day—is safe even without a seat belt. When my cousin Joni was small, she stood on the seat beside Norma as she drove. Norma throws an arm across who ever is sitting in the seat beside her, an automatic reaction from the old days of keeping her daughter from flying through the windshield.
When my parents retired, they followed Norma and her husband to South Carolina and the yard sale visiting resumed for a number of years, until my mother died. Then Norma stepped up to the plate to take care of me in my mother’s stead. Three weeks after Mom died, I traveled to South Carolina to help take care of Mom’s clothes and effects. As I sorted, Norma had a running commentary: “Jean never wore that. The tags are still on it.” “Oh, I saw her many a time wearing that T-shirt.” “I told her not to buy them shoes. Now, look at that. Never worn.”
That’s when she had the bright idea of taking all the clothes and shoes back to the stores where Mom had bought them. I looked askance at her. Take them back? With Mom gone it seemed . . . weird. But Norma insisted. Being the practical woman she is, and knowing my mother probably better than I ever did, she reasoned this was sensible. So, a bit dazed and confused from Mom’s recent death and just glad to have someone else make decisions, we gathered the tagged items in bags and set out to discover where they had come from and to get refunds.
It was strange to approach the customer service counters at Wal*Mart, K-Mart, Hamricks, and other stores and have my aunt say to the folks behind the counter, “This here is my niece. Her mom just died. We’re here to return some clothes.” I let her say these things, take care of business. The good people behind the counters would look at me with sympathy and offer condolences and then do the best they could to determine if the items were indeed from their stores. Sometimes I’m pretty sure they were not, but they refunded me anyway. I wondered idly if they thought this whole thing odd as I was 46 at the time, but you would have never known that from my Aunt Norma. Without being condescending in the least, she simply thought of me as being 10 and in need of taking care of because my mother, her sister, has passed away. This is what nurturing women like my aunt do, and have done, forever.
Besides, we netted ninety-five dollars in refunds. “Your mom would have been proud,” she said.
Do you have an Aunt Norma? I hope so.
I got an email from a person who’d found my blog. She’d seen The True Meaning of Pictures about Shelby Lee Adams photography in Eastern Kentucky and Country Boys a film that referenced hollow. She wanted to know what a hollow (aka “holler”) is.
I don’t know where she lives, but she said she’d never visited Appalachia. I told her my thoughts. Hollows are small valleys nestled between hills or mountains. Not to be confused with mountain folk who live on the mountain—perched right on the sides or tops and where no roads lead directly to these places—just a driveway. Hollows have a road in to them, often narrow and clinging because they follow the side of the hill or float alongside a creek bed. They take you deeper and deeper until the small compounds of hollow folks reveal themselves a few miles in. One thing’s for sure: if you find yourself unexpectedly on a hollow road, you are indeed lost and well off the beaten path. Hollow roads don’t fork off main roads, but off secondary roads. You can follow a hollow road that will take you to another hollow road, or a creek road, or often as not, to a dead end. Sometimes, if you follow a number of creek roads you’ll make your way back to a secondary road. Eventually.
You’ll find as many direct dish TV antennas on the hollow homes as you will stars in the sky. Because there is generally less light pollution back in the hollow, counting stars, by the way, is a favorite pastime, and a wealth of quiet means you can hear the blood pulsing in your ears as you ponder the stars. Most people who live in the hollows appreciate the quiet, the dark, and the privacy. Hollow folk are as complex as any others in the world. You will find stereotypes, but then on closer look, well, by golly, they’re not, are they? And you will find some sophisticated and urbane residents, those who feel they have won the lottery because they own a hollow home and a bit of land.
A fellow West Virginia native remarked to me recently that there is no such thing as Appalachia. It is merely a name someone else gave us, without our permission. He feels no more Appalachian than he feels he is French. But he does feel he is West Virginian in the sense that someone feels like they’re a Kentuckian, or a Virginian or a Georgian. There’re many who feel they are indeed Appalachian, and whatever that means to them is what it is. They might agree that Appalachia is a political name placed on the mountainous area of 13 states—West Virginia the only one wholly engulfed by the geographical area known as Appalachia. They might also say, Well, it’s a done deal. It means connection and those in the Appalachians of Georgia or New York might feel they have something in common. And a good argument is that however we acquired the moniker, it’s pretty much here to stay.
But I like this gentleman’s rejection of being called an Appalachian. It is the very nature of folks from Appalachia to throw off the definitions and naming rights of folks outside the area. Rebellious? That’s us!
A writer friend of mine who has ancestors from this area seems to reject any hint of being Appalachian, especially in her writing. She would be correct in that it keeps us from being seriously considered as authors and writers if we come from here. In fact, I was at a conference in Columbus, Ohio, this past August. There was a panel of New York editors taking questions from the audience. One lady approached the mic and asked, “Which do you find more important, the idea of a book or the quality of writing?” Only one editor answered. He said, “I’ll publish a book from Appalachia if the writing is good enough.”
Well, it’s not hard to figure the hidden message in that statement: a well-written book from Appalachia is a rare thing. It is the stereotypical attitude that we in Appalachia lack education, taste, and class (although we are often considered low class or no class, and sometimes just poor white trash). Let me see now, from which higher degree of the three I earned shall I pontificate? Oh, and by the way, we’re humble, too.
Dumb ass editor, is what I think.
A few days ago there was an article in The Charleston Gazette covering the West Virginia premier of We are Marshall. I remember when that crash occurred in 1970. I was sitting in my folks’ living room with a boyfriend. The television was droning as aural wallpaper to our smooching and carrying on. A news bulletin riveted my boyfriend’s attention and slowly it dawned on the both of us the scope of the tragedy. Neither of us knew anyone personally in the plane crash, but Huntington is but 30 miles from us. We were deeply shocked.
Making this film, with some of it shot in Huntington and on Marshall’s campus, is a big hairy deal to us. They rarely film in West Virginia because they say we have no infrastructure to support filming. I have mixed feelings, as I know this state is one of the best kept secrets in this world. Finding us may be our ruination; it may speed us to homogenization. On the other hand, the money is always welcome to all of us, as there is so little to spare.
In the article, the director and others in the film were quoted as saying there is no place in the world like West Virginia, and especially its warm, friendly people. He repeated it: I mean, folks, there is NO place like West Virginia and her people (paraphrase). The article brightened my day and should brighten the days of most of us here in West Virginia.
Appalachia appeared before me in a number of ways this past year. And West Virginia. When I told an editor from Harper Collins where I was from, I thought: Now she knows. She’ll place me on the slush pile. She did not, I’m surprised and delighted to say. Stay tuned.
Sometimes, we seem to be bidden to pay attention to something that shows up a tad too often for coincidence. Maybe what I need to understand is that being from the hills and hollows of West Virginia and Appalachia means it is my job to define the one small area where I lay claim. And that's about all any of us can do.
By the way, it’s pronounced Appa-latch-ah, not Appa-layshuh.
Happy New Year to one and all.