A person’s entire demeanor changes when you ask them to tell you about their history. They settle in and get comfortable with the conversation. They open up their hearts to you and sit in a realm of intimacy, and talk with you as a friend. When they know you care about what they have to say – about their personal story – they begin to trust you, and the rewards of this connection you share with someone in a short span of time are almost immeasurable, and certainly invaluable.
This is a truth I’ve realized while collecting the oral histories of my family members as I try to piece together the story of my family’s traditional foodways. I have learned much about “putting up food” (our vernacular for “canning”), gardening, and cooking – all valuable lessons of ancestral ways. But what I’ve also learned by sitting and visiting and talking with my elders is the story of my family’s past, which has been lived on the same large piece of land for five generations.
I’ve learned about the attitudes and demeanors of the women in my family tree – how they lived and worked their piece of the farm without their husbands through the week, and how they were tiny in stature, but strong in spirit; what their laughs sounded like, and how big their hearts were. I’ve learned the geographic locations of spring houses, and that the original road to the head of the holler was built as a project of the Works Progress Administration. I’ve been able to draw conclusions about the similarities and differences among different members of my family – past and present – and been able to think about what those connections mean. I’ve heard the longing in old voices – longing for those loved ones long since passed, and longing of nostalgia for days of youth spent working very hard, day in and day out, season after season.
I now know those ancestors who were most respected and revered. My Great-Great Uncle Eli H. Brashear (known as Eli H. to my grandfather and great-uncle) was one such man. He worked at Home Lumber Company in Hazard, Ky., and attended First Baptist Church in Hazard, but he would come home to his wife, Rachel, on the weekends with a large block of ice in tow, from which he would chip little pieces for the children that followed him up the holler to his farm. And he always gave half of his tithes to his brother, Marion’s, church, Lone Pine Baptist – my family church. My Great Uncle Keith swears up and down that Eli H. kept Lone Pine going for many years. He’s probably right.
Keith was a fire boy at 7 or 8 years old. He stoked the large fire that was necessary to keep the water in the large washtub hot for canning. He did this on canning days and washing days – the latter of which would also entail hauling water up from the creek. My grandfather, Harold, was a water boy for the road crew that built the original road for the WPA. He made $.25 a day for that job, and has since considered Franklin D. Roosevelt the greatest president we ever had because of how he helped the common man during the New Deal.
I’ve learned of the ambition and drive and work ethic of my grandparents, but also of the kindness, tenderness and neighborliness – how my Granny Hazel was always the sweetest of her siblings, and how her sister Anna Lee was always her stalwart defender; how my Granny Della worked alongside her in-laws to can food every summer; how my Pop Harold was always striving for more for himself; how all my ancestors helped each other make it through another year by tending each other’s fields and sharing in their harvests.
In collecting these oral histories, I’m not just piecing together the story of my ancestry – though that is why I originally started this project. I have come to realize that I am also threading together bits of the past of my place: The Left Fork of Maces Creek, but also, eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia. So much of our past has been lost, or misinterpreted and misconstrued, or even, invented and mythologized in ways that distort the true history of the place.
And so, as I’ve journeyed forward with this project, the aim has evolved into a two-fold goal: Record the past of my family before it is completely lost, AND record the past of my place so that we might begin to break down the veil that time and external forces have placed upon our culture, traditions and ways of life.
I believe that knowing ourselves through our past – fully and truthfully – will
help us heal our collective wounds, and thusly, move forward into a future worthy of our roots, unfettered by doubt and the misconception that we have never been worthy of more. Our ancestors teach us much about who we are: We help our neighbors because it’s the right thing to do. We work hard and strive for better because it’s what we came to this place to own. We hold tight to our traditions, our families and who we are as people because those things are more important to us than money we were never offered, and material things we could never afford – the ties that bind, more precious than gold.
I am asked sometimes why I have such hope for the future of my place in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds against us. In this momentous time of economic transition, we face great challenges, but I look into my past – our past – and I see that we have never lived in a place or a time when great challenges never darkened our doors. We are Appalachians, and we persevere. That’s what we do. And this period of time – not unlike any other – calls on us to persevere, as we always have.
I know we will reach the bright future of which we all dream because we are a strong and resilient people, as our past teaches us. We must now rely on that strength of conviction to carry us forward. We must tap into it and use it to our advantage – the way our ancestors never wasted any resource they grew, raised, foraged or bought. We must be creative like they were, and use everything we have to build what we want and need. And we must come together as a great community the way we once did to help each other heal and carry on. If not for us, then to honor those that came before, and for the prosperity of our children whom we leave behind.
I am emboldened by the knowledge that little pieces of the ancestors whom I’m learning about through the oral histories I’m collecting are living on through me. I am forever trying to make them proud through the work that I do to rebuild the communities they started. I will not allow myself to let their life’s work die on the vine. I will carry on. We will carry on. We will find a way to rebuild, thrive and survive in the hollers and on the Main Streets because that’s what we do as Appalachian people. We thrive as if we’ve been dared not to. The more I learn about where we’ve come from, the more I know this to be true: It’s not in our nature to give up. We never have, we never will.
We will persevere. And the future will thank us for it.