One Creeker’s Beginnings
By Linda Scott DeRosier
There was once a small house – some might even call it a cabin – in a natural sycamore grove situated alongside a creek called Two-Mile. Every stroke of the hammer and push-and-pull
of the handsaw that went into the building of that house was done by my daddy or his daddy, my Pop Pop. I didn’t get to watch that house go up because it was built before I was born. A rough timber bridge across the stream gave passage to and from that little house and just across the bridge lay a pea gravel road that was blacktopped when I was four or five years old. For my first seventeen years, I simply took for granted that I would spend my whole life within walking distance of that house, maybe even end my days in that very structure.
Through a series of contradictory events, it has not turned out that way; I’ve not turned out the way I or any other members of my family had any reason to expect I would either. I crossed that wooden bridge and took the winding county road that lay beyond it to find other highways, distant places, unfamiliar houses. You might even say different lives. That little house was built to last at least a couple of generations but it burned to the ground in 1957 taking along with it every material possession my family owned.
Pop Pop had died the summer before we were burned out so we moved into his place while Daddy rebuilt ours himself. He would come in from the mines around 4:30 or so in the afternoon and still in his work clothes Daddy would set to work on what we always called the new house. As the new house neared completion, though, Daddy began changing out of his dirty mine clothes so he wouldn’t get coal dust on the finish work. Sister and I, and sometimes Momma, would take him a cup of coffee, sit with him, and watch as he constructed the new house board by board.
Then as evening shadows fell, having assured ourselves and each other that this was, indeed, going to be the finest house south of Huntington, West Virginia the four of us would walk the 200 yards or so down to Pop Pop’s place and have supper. At that time we had no idea we were eating fashionably late; our eating habits, like everything else in our lives were scheduled around work. One of the first things I learned then was to get the must-dos out of the way before the want-to-dos. By our standards, my daddy made a good living, and my family was typical of the other families in our community – ordinary people, all.
Statistically, census figures suggest that we were poor, but I had a very rich childhood. Two-Mile Creek was a community in the best sense of the word. Everybody worked hard most of the time to see that nobody went hungry and if somebody got down sick, others pitched in and helped.
One other notion that I brought whole from childhood was the definition of and difference between work and leisure. If it required physical exertion, it was work. We were to attack our task with vigor, labor as long and as hard as was necessary to get it right, and reap the rewards, which were twofold:
The first was, of course, pride in product; the second, the exhilaration of all-out effort. An old friend of mine who recently taught junior high in eastern Kentucky tells me that his students never hoed corn, never slopped hogs, never milked a cow, never raked hay, never used a pitchfork, never plowed with a mule – never, never, never. I think that’s sad … for them. Folks who never learn what it feels like to work a job, miss out on the joy of finishing. I despise deadlines, but there is an almost indescribable kick that comes off meeting one.
Writing Creeker presented an opportunity for me to do something new to me. I made a series of arbitrary deadlines, then wrote like hell so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. Since I am, by nature, pretty do-less, I have to over-commit to make myself do anything and agreeing to write a memoir was a classic case of tricking myself into having at it.
Getting past the question of why write a memoir, period, is a pretty significant step for those of us lucky enough to live ordinary lives. Once we recognize that we aren’t Charlemagne – or even Grover Cleveland – we know our story is not going to be huge and sweeping, but it is history and it is ours alone. In truth, our history is perhaps the only thing we will ever really own and unless we can use it or have used it to inform itself, it is not going to be of much value to us. I think the least we can do is pass along whatever truths we’ve found so somebody can go to school on them – our children maybe, or their kids. I want it understood that ordinary folks live lives worth talking about.
Most of us who didn’t grow up financially well off are convinced that in order to live an interesting or meaningful life we first must get hold of enough cash to do something extraordinary. In fact, sometimes we think that accumulating money is in and of itself extraordinary enough. I mean, look at Donald Trump – an example of somebody who confuses having money with having a valuable opinion about anything. Ordinary people have opinions too, opinions grounded in their experience. They eat and sleep, grieve, and celebrate.
Creeker describes a community of folks doing just that and it tells when, why, and how they did each of those things. It is as much about the experiences of the Holbrooks and the Wards and the Wallens and the Williamses as it is about the Prestons.
We shared a common past and now it is set to paper, so we can pass it down. Momma and Daddy died within three weeks of each other which meant that Sister and I were left to deal all at once with the loss of that very immediate connection to home.
Much of the Creeker manuscript was maybe my way of anchoring myself to all that it seemed I had lost. It freed my people and my place from the darkness and the distance of the past by bringing my extended family back to life. Even better, I was able to look in on them at a time when they were still vivid and powerful and shaping my world with their stories. While picking sallet in the spring, skinning summer’s beets, and stringing up shuck beans late in the season, there were always the stories. Reconstructing those stories helped me remember where I came from. Clearly I am owing folks who busted ass day after day so I could someday sit at a computer in an air-conditioned office and call it work.
I think every human being has a pass-along passion. That’s what sitting, and singing, and porch swinging on a summer’s eve is about – pass-along. Maw Emmy, Pop Pop, Keenis Holbrook – all the old ones – passed down to my generation a culture as rich as sweet potato pie. Since I don’t come from the kind of people who pass-along by setting words to paper, my heritage has been largely ignored by folks who come from the East reaching down to help us. Those folks returned to their offices in universities or federal agencies and wrote of the everlasting cycle of poverty and hardship in the hills and hollows. We got that story. Over and over, we got it; it’s out there and it is, most certainly, a part of Appalachia. But that is not the whole story.
During recent years several folks have come from the East to help us in still another way; they put what they purport to be ordinary Appalachian hill folk on tape. In these documentaries, they almost always choose to show folks who perpetuate the stereotypical helpless hillbilly, victim of a society speeded up and rolling right over him. Such a picture reveals the good intentions of the filmmaker by implying that the importance of this piece of art is to shed light on social injustice. After all, we are to infer, these poor folks cannot help themselves, since everybody from unscrupulous coal operators to home-grown politicos take advantage of them. Okay. Right! That’s the truth, too, but it isn’t the whole truth either, folks.
My Uncle Burns was sorry as whale shit, down drunk too often to keep a regular job for more than six months. When he was out of work living off some family member, however, his sober hours were spent whitewashing the shed, working the garden, or doing some kind of household labor, while waiting for his next employment opportunity to present itself. The expectation was always that he was between jobs. That he would not be able to get work, or that any one among us would not be expected to spend our days in some sort of productive work, was simply unacceptable.
As for the focus of those documentaries, let me suggest that a man my age (sixtyish) who best I can tell never got his tail about doing much of anything except impregnating his wife way too many times, is not one of my people. When, in addition, the whole damn clan for three or four generations seems content to do nothing other than supplement their welfare checks by digging a little ‘sing now and then, I will tell you that is not representative of my people either. (Nor, for that matter is the self-important trying-to-pass politico who deplores the film ’cause he’s moved to town and trying to pass.)
These outsider visions do not account for the “Appalachian” stories of the generations of people who have lived their lives out in the small towns and cities of Appalachia. If there was one point I wanted to make in Creeker it was to separate those of us from the creeks and hollows from the folks who live in the small towns of Appalachia. Town people are more representative of middle-class, middle America than of the rural Appalachia reflected in pictures of sad-eyed hill-country folk on ramshackle porches.
But there is still another rural Appalachian story – the one I inhabited growing up and the one that is with me every single day, whatever my zip code of the moment may be. That Appalachia is a spirit, a consciousness, indeed, a way of life that I want to see perpetuated and adapted to contemporary culture. I wrote Creeker to give voice to Maw Emmy, and Pop Pop, and all my great-aunts Ward, and even my poor old sorry Uncle Burns – people who endured hardships, all, but you’ll find no sad-eyed pictures of them. My people, kin by blood or spirit, made choices and once in a while, cried over mistakes, but more than anything else, they made do and endured. From the coal camp boarding house, through the remodeled house on Two-Mile after Daddy had installed electricity and indoor plumbing, to Pop Pop’s tiny house which had neither, where we retreated after the fire burned us out, everywhere my family lived was filled with laughter. Maybe some of that laughter was to cover pain; I don’t know. What I do know is that the legacy I carry includes the recognition that life is tough, and that whatever path I take in that life, I will need to work, and work hard to make it tolerable.
Like most folks, my people believed that if we had a lot – or even just a little – more money we’d be better off. Objectively, that might have been the case. But we weren’t going to sit around and be sorrowful waiting for that financial windfall. Without exception, all of us believed we had some hand in shaping our future. So while we were waiting for the powerful hand of God to spread His Grace – or take out His fury – on us, we were also grubbing new-ground, turning the earth, putting in crops, quilting rag-quilts, preserving peaches, and laying in our application for any job that happened to be available, whether we were qualified for it or not. Though my people trusted that God would provide, we were pretty sure that he expected us to help Him along a little. We had faith that through hard work we could manage to stave off at least some of the injustice of finding ourselves at the mercy of everything from floods and fires to mine lay-offs. We also had enough faith in our own ability to work that if somebody would give us a job, we’d do them a good one, whatever the learning curve.
I was brought up to believe we had to help our own and others to get on their feet, not carry them around on a litter till they lose all sight of how much more empowering it is to stand upright and walk. Things change slowly in Appalachia, but things do change.
My homeplace – the new house – burned a few years ago and there’s a double-wide there in the house seat on the banks of what’s left of Two-Mile Creek. All but one of the big sycamores are gone now. They’ve logged the hillside, and the weeds have taken Pop Pop’s strawberry patch. I guess I’m lucky, in a way, to have my home all locked away safely in my memories and not have to wade around in the reality of what’s become of it every day.
Meanwhile, Momma’s and Daddy’s still “newer” house, close to town belongs to Sister and me, but it’s not home. I am in Kentucky often but now feel most at home on the grave yard, up there with all the ones who loved me and gave me a “comin’ home” feeling for the hills that I can’t seem to rid myself of. Then again, maybe the best I can do is pass along that feeling myself wherever I happen to end up and I suppose finally that is what Creeker is about.
‘Creeker,’ by Linda Scott DeRosier, was voted Best Book by a Kentucky Author in the 2000 Real Best of Lexington Reader’s Poll.