A Double Dose of  "Appalachian"

            spring 1999

      A while back I was listening to bluegrass on our local public radio station while the sun burnt off remnants of '99's first Appalachian thunderstorm when a couple of events carried me into some emotions I wasn't expecting to feel.

First thing that happened was Sandy Knipp, who plays bluegrass on WMKY Saturday afternoons cast a powerful version of an old song called  "Little Bessie"  out onto the airwaves, eight and a half minutes of mostly a cappella high lonesome tenor.  When it was over, when the lump in my throat had shrunk sufficiently for speech, I called to find out whose voice had moved me first to tears and then to sobbing.  Turns out it was Ricky Skaggs, one of our  "local boys made good."

"Little Bessie"  is about a dying child, and on hearing lines about the kid asking its mother to  "put your arms around me tight"  I flat lost it.  We buried my  Mom about a year ago, and words do not exist to tell how much I would ever more give to feel her arms encircle me one more time.  I had a classic of an Appalachian mother.  You don't know a thing about occupying a favored position in a family, or being  "special"  just because you're breathing unless you're the first born son of an Appalachian woman.

Goes double if you grew up to resemble her side of the family, and reminded her from time to time with behavior and attitudes and language of a favorite  - - and long deceased - -  brother.

Add some more degrees of favor if you turned out to love old stories and old pictures and items worthless to anyone except for the fact Grandma wore the tiny watch in a cabinet a few feet from this desk, or Uncle Elmer loved the scale model single tree plow resting on a window sill at my elbow, or the old double barrel shotgun that's in my gun cabinet now was precious to second cousin John I.

And of course, loving to sit at her table, happily gorging near to the point of being sick on soup beans or potato soup is worth considerable extra credit.

I sat quiet for a time, leaking tears, mourning what's gone from this world forever, knowing there's nothing I wouldn't do for twenty four hours of being twelve year old Bobby Lee just for one more day...  And nothing I'd trade for the solid knowledge that on her death bed my mother made it clear so far as she was concerned, I'd turned into a pretty satisfactory son.

After a while I got the leaking under control, as one must.  There are, after all, things to do and people to see and mundane chores to take care of, a life to be led...

Then the phone rang.  It was Cousin Fred, with no idea how damp my last couple of hours had been.  "Feel like company?"  he wanted to know, and when I told him a visitor would be most welcome, he told me he'd likely be along about three o'clock.  The weather broke, and for the first time this year we used my world class front porch as a platform for consuming a few ounces of Elijah Craig's priceless gift to civilization, which the world calls bourbon whiskey.  I didn't make fun of Fred's Mexican-brewed swill, and not just because he showed up with a pack of the candied peanuts my dogs love.

That afternoon I got a big double jolt of what  "Appalachian"  is really about.

It ain't accents and dress.

It damn sure ain't politics, not in Kentucky where the FBI's recent sting operation proved how cheaply both parties happily sold themselves.

It ain't religion, not when the majority of people I personally know, who've lived all their lives in these mountains aren't in church on Sundays.

It ain't even altogether history and traditions, though they bear more weight in the matter than any of the above.

It's family.

It's memory.

It's a gut-level knowing where you belong, no matter where life insists you reside at the moment.

It's knowing what  "home"  means.

So, having said all that, I hope at least some of you go wallow in  "Appalachianism"  this next weekend.  If they're near enough, reach to hug and kiss your kids, even gangly teenaged boys who would just as soon you didn't.  When they shrug it off, know in your heart a day will come when they'll remember and deem the memory of that touch precious.

Tell the kids a few stories about their people.

Look for a cousin to spend some time with, one who remembers the same childhood as you, climbed the same trees, waded the same creeks, went through the same period of wishing he or she was anything but hillbilly to the bone.

Take a walk over ground once marked with the tread of your grandparents' feet.  Lift up your gaze and let it rest on the maternal curves that are our hills.

Call  - - or better yet, go visit - -  someone who years-ago gave you an awareness of the precious gifts of being Appalachian.

If some part of you insists you don't have time for at least some of this, lose that foolish notion.  In a year you probably won't remember what you did last weekend, or next, or the one after that.

But get up close and personal with your family and your land between Friday afternoon and Monday a.m., and a year from now I bet you'll have a clear recollection of each moment of it.

Just go do it.

Y'all have a good weekend.
 



 
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