views east from air bellows
A couple days ago I wrote in the post DOMINION OVER that I had long ago turned the lemon I got in the luck of the draw into lemonade. I just now read it over and thought: How? It came to me in a flash, an image of my home in the woods, and I said: right. This goes all the way back to first memories. It starts with a memory of my great-grandmother's house in Jefferson County, Kansas, near Perry. I don't even know where to start, unless it would be there. I'm looking at the places where I found my comfort in childhood. My memory of great-grandmother is about like a specter. I don't remember her face, though have never forgotten her embrace. Dora Ann Hale Worthington went to Kansas from Ninemile in Bledsoe County of southeastern Tennessee with her husband John. She died when I was ten, but I don't remember seeing her after age of seven. I've seen the gravestones of her mother and dad in Tennessee, and hers in Kansas. Her first boy, Tom, was my grandpa. The culture of the home he grew up in was hillbilly. They came from the Sequatchie Valley of the Cumberland Plateau. They were still hillbillies. Mountain ranges to east and west. Tom married Tina Marie Dick Worthington and they moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where he became a railroad engineer, drove the big iron horses, and died of pneumonia seven years before I was born. Tina Marie's family moved to Kansas from Pulaski County, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Plateau surrounded by mountains. I knew none of this genealogy before coming to the mountains. All I knew about these grandparents was Perry, Kansas.
First thing I noticed when I started knowing people was everybody talked like my grandmother. I had nothing to go by to figure that one out. I settled with this was perhaps the rural American way of talking. I felt her presence in the people around me. It was a love vibration. I recall a time after I'd been in the mountains about six months, riding in the car with Van Pruitt, the old Dodge he called the Goat, it would go anywhere, had a posi-trac rear end. A summer day, approximately a mile from the house, we passed a field so thick with black-eyed Susans you couldn't see the ground through them. I've never seen the field that full of flowers since. I remember another field, another year, this one on the farm, loaded with white daisies, so thick they were like snow on the ground. Never since. The moment Van and I rode past the field of black-eyed Susans, something happened in my heart and I realized this moment was the point of no return. There was no going back. I came here with intent not to return, but allowed for the unforeseen, nonetheless. It was a powerful, overwhelming feeling of the point of no return. I'm not one to commit blindly. It was the feeling that I am now committed to this place I cannot leave that made me shudder for a moment. I wasn't really sure I wanted to stay, either. The adjustment required was radical. I wanted a different culture from the one I had always lived in, average American urban, and I was in a culture very different. I wasn't yet confident I wanted to give over entirely to the new culture. Reading was as alien to this culture as the one I'd left. That was nothing new.
I had to learn to distinguish between living in the culture and being the culture. No matter what, I could never be the culture. That means being born here, growing up here with ancestry here. Mother's milk. I didn't want to be the culture, because I assessed that the people in the culture were awfully hard on one another and especially hard on themselves. Conformity to culture is absolute. I don't conform all the way to any culture. I remember the day Malissie Pruitt noticed I wasn't wearing a belt, "You better put a belt on! Your pants are gonna fall down!" I could only say, No they're not. In the city, we wore jeans without belts, only rednecks wore belts. I studied the culture closely, from the inside, not reading any Appalachian history books, wanting to learn by my own experience the particular people I lived among. Eventually, I learned every county in the mountains has its own personality. Alleghany County has its own personality. Each township in the county has its own variations on the county's collective personality. For example, the people of Whitehead tend to be stoical, straight-faced lovers of God, and continue to feel themselves a community. A severe hardness runs through mountain culture in all its personalities that I cannot adopt for myself. I learned from experience that beating the shit out of our kids and berating them all the time only makes them angry. We have a culture of angry men, women who live with angry men. Seething anger equals manhood. The degree of anger you bear within is the measure of your masculinity quotient. I came to the mountains to work off my anger. Talk about seething with anger. Phew. It was so bad I couldn't live with it anymore. I wanted to do manual labor farm work old-time hillbilly style.
In the mountains about twenty-eight years, I asked my mother out of idle curiosity if she knew where grandpa Worthington's family went to Kansas from. She didn't know. She thought it might be Tennessee. I got in touch with a cousin who put me in touch with a family genealogist and LO! Ninemile, Tennessee, is a four and a half hour drive from here. Directly across the highway from great-great grandpa's land is a bluegrass place with parking on the grass, a big area for tents and trailers, a covered stage and covered audience area with folding metal chairs. I visited a couple of brothers, my fourth cousins, and it was like I already knew them. Wendell was a butcher, my age. Went to Vanderbilt and family genealogist, always lived alone. He was distant in the way only a hillbilly can be distant. He was friendly in the way a hillbilly is friendly. He'd never heard of Sparta, wasn't curious. First thing he said to me on sight was, I can see the Worthington in you. His brother Phillip wore bib "overhauls" raised fighting chickens, a hundred or so of them running in the meadow with the cows. He told me he kills a hundred and fifty coons a year keeping them off his chickens. I knew how to talk to him, knew how to listen to him. It wasn't anything like, Oh hi cuz! It was like, If you say so, whatever. I was comfortable with that, would have been very uncomfortable with the other. In line with my hillbilly training, I wouldn't have trusted it. I had found the land and people of my ancestry, and they were hillbillies. In my average American urban years, I'd have hated knowing it, would have held it as deepest, darkest secret only torture could wrench loose. I stood on the land that great-great grandpa worked and looked at the landscape 360 degrees, memorizing it. This was the landscape my ancestors there saw every day of their lives. I understood why I call the mountain I live on the home of my soul. At least half my blood is hillbilly. Let the banjer cluck. Grandmother was my comfort through childhood. The Divine hand picked me up like a mama cat moving a kitten and put me down in the core of the culture that made grandma who she was, and who she is in my heart.