“Well I was born a coal miner’s daughter, in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler.” Okay, so only part of that is true. I WAS born a coal miner’s daughter and I DID grow up in a holler. Loretta and I share quite a few things in common concerning our Eastern Kentucky upbringings even though she grew up 60 years earlier than I did. This is my story of growing up Appalachian as I remember it.
There are some smells from childhood that you will just never forget. For me, that’s the smell of coal dust. I remember the way my Daddy smelled every day when he came home from work. It was a scent that I can best describe as musk and dirt. It was my Daddy’s scent. If you’ve never buried your face into the arm of a man who has spent a day in a cold damp mine and came up with a coal black covered nose, then you’ll probably have no idea what I’m referring to. But even to this day that smell is burned into my memory.
To a coal miner’s child, there is a magical place we all loved to go. Daddy’s dinner bucket. Each day, when Daddy came crawling home exhausted, my siblings and I would race to be the first to Dad’s bucket to see what kind of goodies we could “mine” up ourselves. Packing a lunch for a coal miner is unlike packing a lunch for an office associate. Mining is hard work. It is exhausting and it requires one to be very well fed with bologna sandwiches, Little Debbie’s, Reese’s cups and Pepsi. Each day, Dad would leave at least one of his treats for us to find. As a child, I imagined that the boss man said, “Lunch is over. Put your food away and get back to work!” and Dad would hang his head and reluctantly put his chocolate bar back in the box. Now, as an adult and a parent myself, I’m certain that each day, Daddy was thrilled to save one of his goodies for his babies to enjoy as he watched with tired pride in his eyes.
There is much more to growing up Appalachian than coal, however. There’s also church. If you grew up in the Bible belt as I did, then church wasn’t a maybe. It was a guarantee. I’d be lying if I told you I looked forward to having to sit through what seemed like hours on end of preaching. The difference between how I grew up and how many others grew up, is that it didn’t matter that I didn’t enjoy it. I had to do it anyway. I wasn’t just forced to go to church on Sundays. We went on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays! If you think that’s a lot of church, then you are right. It is! But we went, and we were good when we did it, too. We knew how to behave and if we didn’t, we knew that Mom would take us to the bathroom. Let me tell you, you DO NOT want to be taken to the bathroom. The bathroom of a church is not a ‘restroom’ for a young Baptist child. It is a whipping post and the place where dreams of playing later on that day are shattered. Some of my favorite childhood memories are the times when we would have a service so large that the house was packed and people were standing along the back wall. Those were the only times that we children were ever allowed to go outside during church, and that was in the name of respect for the adults who were standing. On those very rare occasions, my siblings and cousins and I would take advantage of the crowd and play outside in the church yard. I am thankful for my Christian upbringing. It goes with me daily.
Another staple of Appalachia is Sunday supper. This isn’t to say that we didn’t have dinner every other day of the week. We did. But none were as grand as those Sunday’s with your family around the table together. Family in Appalachia is not confined to the people who live under your roof. It is your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, cousins; first through third, and even a neighbor or two. Those are the faces that you can expect to see around the table at Sunday supper. You’ll likely eat fried chicken or soup beans and all of the fixens’. Don’t expect to sit down to dinner in an Appalachian home and have a cholesterol friendly feast. You can’t. Appalachian food is comfort food, which also happens to be quite shiny with grease. After supper, we would all move to the front porch. The adults would line the porch in the rocking chairs and porch swings, while we kids played hide and go seek in the dark or caught lightening bugs. There’s no place that soothes my soul as well as my Papaw and Mamaw Thacker’s front porch. And one summer in particular, we all sat on the porch of my Grandma and Grandpa Jacobs’ house and spat watermelon seeds from the porch to the yard. A little while later, we discovered that our seed spitting had produced new watermelons! That was such a joy for my young mind. “If the world had a front porch like we did back then, we’d still have our problems, but we’d all be friends.”
Growing up Appalachian means playing in the creek and catching crawdads. It’s shooting milk jugs with the BB gun you got on Christmas morning. It’s helping can beans, corn and peas. It’s the smell of coffee and hearing your neighbor, Grayson, play his banjo. Growing up Appalachian is feeling the security of the mountains and thinking they can forever protect you from the rest of the world. There have been many times in my life where I have been made to feel like I was second class as an Appalachian American. There are so many stereotypes of toothless hillbillies dating their cousins without shoes. Well, my mother took us to the dentist every 6 months. I have always had more shoes than I could wear. And I don’t have a single cousin who I am romantically interested in. People who believe these things do not know my Appalachia. My Appalachia is about family. It’s about good people. It’s about hard work. It’s about pride. It’s about home.