I came home from a day in kindergarten where I was told I was a hillbilly because I “talked funny.” At dinner that night I asked my dad if that was true, “Am I a hillbilly, daddy?” I expected an answer from my quick-witted father that would take the sting out of my classmate’s jeer. After all, he’d brought the family North to the urban Great Lakes and, in my eyes, he knew everything.
He told me (I will never forget his exact words), “Yes, you are. 100% West Virginia hillbilly. Don’t ever forget that, girl.”
I was appalled.
Then my father spent the next 20-some years showing me just what that meant. He ended by instilling a pride in that county, even backwoods, heritage that grows stronger every year. He knew his people were considered poor. They were very poor. He also knew they were rich in story and in love and rich in knowledge of the wild country. Rich in kin, in music, in craft. Rich in humor. Resilient and self-reliant, yet with a sense of communal interdependence. Apt to make do with whatever was at hand. Apt to speak the truth and to maintain a radiant positivity. Just beautiful.
One thing I regret in life is systematically retraining myself to speak like the people around me on the southern shores of the Great Lakes, newscaster-speak. I spent nearly 15-20 years doing that — always adjusting my speech patterns to those of the urban North. I would slide back into an Appalachian dialect when we visited West Virginia relatives. In college and after, I would slide back after spending time with my dad. These days, I am happy when it comes back to me. I trained myself well, so it doesn’t happen all that often. When my kids or my students tease me for a turn of phrase or a certain pronunciation, I know it’s still there. It is a happy moment because it is my heart speaking.
My father and his sisters used the term “country” quite often. When my dad came North, he began proudly using the term hillbilly. I think it was to illustrate to me that he had no shame in the terminology assigned to him by northern neighbors and others in that urban land. My mother tended to hold herself at something of a distance from the country heritage she shared with my father. She sometimes did not appreciate his country humor or his encouraging my wild child side. She would call me down out of the ancient apple tree that had taken over the back yard of our northern Ohio home. He would encourage my exploits in nature. But there was a rather egalitarian nature to his encouragement. He supported me in the same ways he encouraged my older brother: to find my passions and pursue them, to love the natural world, to value my kinfolk, and to continue my education, always.
Community. My father had amazing stories of community, from gardening and farming, hunting, fishing, and raising their own food, to homestyle cooking, to walking together to a country church, to gathering on a neighbor’s front stoop to share stories, to making moonshine in the backwoods.
When I took a shovel and a trowel out to the backyard of my Ohio home and planted my first garden at age nine, my father never doubted I’d grow something useful. He brought me some okra seeds and convinced me to plant them so I could try my hand at fried okra, a dish he enjoyed. He never discouraged me from planting the eyes of potatoes to grow my own. Back then, before the advent of sprout inhibitors, we could, and did, plant potatoes from the grocery store . As a child I was amazed that so many potatoes could grow in one city garden space. I was also delighted when my mother and her sisters would send me to collect apples from the backyard tree and they would produce pies and applesauce in great quantity. These experiences enriched my closeness to the land. Already I had a deep connection to nature. My mother was sometimes fearful that I was running wild, a “tomboy,” which was how she usually perceived my all-day hikes along the river or into the woods and ravines that were scattered among and between the neighborhoods of our river city.
My mother sought a distance from the backwoods image that my father relished and that he was sometimes homesick for. Yet I can see that she and her sisters and her “maiden” (aka unmarried) aunt influenced me in ways that they may not have really been aware of or even clearly intended. Certainly they shared the same basic Appalachian values. I used to ask my mother why my great aunt, a hill country farmer, single all her life, never married. My mother consistently told me in her sweet West Virginia drawl, “Honey, she just never had any need of a man.” I had to accept that at face value, without really understanding what she meant. People in my family left such personal things alone in their generation.
In the end, my father was the renegade who truly birthed the knowledge of the backwoods into his daughter, born in the north country. I was formed genetically of equal parts of my mother’s heritage and my father’s heritage. Good things run in my blood from both sides; uneven things, as well. But the transparent passion for the wild is surely a gift passed from father to daughter. I’m grateful.