Mine was not the Kentucky of bluegrass, juleps, and cotillions; the Kentucky of my youth was one of coal banks, crawdads, and country music. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky between the small towns of Paintsville and Inez in a place called Two-Mile Creek. This is my postcard from Appalachia written from the beginning of the "Big War" through the "Age of Aquarius" and running headlong, as quickly as all my baggage will allow, into the twenty-first century.
I was born February 20, 1941, on a feather bed in the upper room of my Grandma Emmy's log house on the left-hand fork of Greasy Creek in what is now Boons Camp, Kentucky. The small birthing room was heated by a coal fire, illuminated by coal oil lamps, and permeated by the aroma of cured hams hanging above the bed. Dr. Frank Picklesimer drove the fifteen or so miles from Paintsville over winding dirt roads to deliver what he judged to be about four pounds of Linda Sue Preston. At that time it was considered unusual for a doctor to be in attendance to deliver a child in families of our circumstance; but my mother was sickly, and it was thought that one of us might well not make it through the experience.
My daddy's name was Life; my momma's name was Grace. Who could ask for a more auspicious beginning? Daddy worked in the coal mines. We bred Hampshire hogs--those are the big black ones with a white stripe around their midsection--and raised most of our food on a couple of acres that Grandma Emmy Mollette owned. We got electric lights when I was in the second grade; indoor plumbing came considerably later. I come from a rural community in deep eastern Kentucky, and I am one of those who went away and stayed--but I never got away, not really.
I am not only from Appalachia; I am of Appalachia. My attitudes and behaviors were shaped by having grown up in that family, in that place, and in that time. Although I left home at age seventeen, my definition of what community means as well as my expectations of myself and others were formed very early in my history within my extended family. To this day, all I know of relationship is grounded in eastern Kentucky and in my sense of belonging there. On Two-Mile Creek and around on Greasy, everybody I saw or knew was in some way related to me, if not by blood then by kinship born over many generations of living together and surviving on land not famous for its generosity.
I want, at the outset, to differentiate between those Appalachians who grow up in the towns and those from rural areas--the creeks and the hollers. We tend to be lumped together by outsiders: demographers, bureaucrats who fund social programs, and academics who study the region. I would suggest to you that there is as much cultural difference between rural Appalachians and Appalachian townsfolk as between white folk and black folk who happen to live in the same city. While the difference is pervasive, it goes largely unrecognized. The prototypical hillbilly stereotype, while exaggerating the profile of rural residents, is not at all representative of those Appalachians who were brought up in the cities and small towns of that region. In terms of expectations, a woman my age born in Paintsville, Kentucky--the county seat of my home county and the nearest town to Two-Mile--would be more likely to find similarity with a cohort born in Plainville, Wisconsin, or Carthage, Alabama--or any of a thousand other little towns in the United States--than with me. This is a story from rural Appalachia, recently brought to consciousness, and reported by a creeker.
In the rural areas of my home county and the three or four counties surrounding us, I knew of no Catholics, no Jews, no African-, Greek-, Italian-, Irish-, Hispanic-, Hungarian-Americans. I also was aware of no Episcopalians and not a great many Methodists or Presbyterians. Those town religions paid their preachers, and everybody--foot-washing Baptists, all--believed that if a man got paid to do the Lord's work, he probably didn't really get the call to preach anyway.
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