Both of my parents grew up very poor. This is one of the few things I know about their childhoods with certainty. Most of my family comes from an area of Kentucky where to me, a great deal of the area seems frozen in time. Even though I grew up in North Carolina in a very small town, the town where both sets of my grandparents lived, and my parents grew up, was so different and foreign to me.
We visited my grandparents often, especially when I was much younger. During grade school, I can vividly remember long car trips, annoyed with my sister who was sharing the back seat with me, and feeling as though the car got smaller and smaller with each passing hour of the drive. We spent many holidays in Kentucky, usually staying with my cousins in their beautiful house that, to me, seemed out of place from the rest of the area. And honestly, it was.
Most of the towns in that area are indiscernible, rocky, rural, and for lack of a better word…distant. Even through young eyes, I was shocked and troubled by the level of poverty I saw—ramshackle houses, some barely standing, with light peeking through the cracks of the old wooden boards holding it all together. We would drive by places and people that seemed a million miles away from the life of our family, but all the while I knew that my family came from just such a place, just such people.
I would watch out the car window as we passed stores the size of my school classroom back home that served as the grocery store for a whole town. Gas stations looked like they were decades old, with pumps that seemed like something out of an old movie to me. My small town in North Carolina suddenly seemed modern and progressive in comparison.
I would breathe a sigh of relief as we drove across the tiny bridge then down the long driveway to my cousin’s house. Once inside, I felt insulated from the sights and sounds that reminded me of the struggles my parents faced growing up, and I suppose, my own history.
We would always go to visit my grandparents several times during our visits, trekking out for the day, driving around on tiny twisting roads, listening to my father tell funny stories about the people he grew up with, and the characters that lived in his town. Usually, we would first go to see his mother, and she would shower me and my sister with compliments, and always gave us some money before we left. I felt more comfortable with her than my other grandparents, and sometimes tried to draw out the length of the stay. It is only in hindsight that I can remember my father never being quite comfortable during these visits, at least when we were alone with his mom. It is hard for me to even conjure up an image of him sitting in the room, instead standing, shifting his weight, and moving from one room to another, talking or answering questions from a distance. I never met or knew my father’s dad, or his stepdad, knowing of their existence only through a few rare photos, or accidental mentions in the telling of a story.
The drive to my mother’s parent’s house was quite a journey, as their little house was fairly high on a mountain, situated on what seemed like mostly rock, with some patches of grass here and there. The house itself never ceased to shock me in its primitiveness. It was only a few rooms, and looked to me as if it could fall apart at any moment. My grandparents had raised five children in this house, and I remember constantly, for all the years I went there, trying to imagine where everyone slept.
The furniture was sparse, and the floors seemed bare in my memory. An old pump in front of the house was used for gathering water, and at the time I thought it was fun to be sent with a bucket to try and find the strength to fill it. This was in the late 70’s, and my grandparents had an outhouse for their bathroom. The outhouse remained there until after my grandfather’s death in the mid 80’s.
My grandfather was a coal miner, and although I am sure he was only sick for the last few years, the picture of him I have in my mind is of a man dying of lung cancer, brought on by a job he had held all of his life. He was a kind man, very affectionate with me and my sister, and I never heard him talk above his distinct monotone. My grandmother , however, was always a complete mystery to me.
She never seemed to change, from the time I can first remember her, until she died. She always, without fail, wore her incredibly long, white hair in a bun, and wore same wire-rimmed glasses. Her face seemed to be made of wrinkles, and she always appeared very old to me, not growing older. She, like the landscape, seemed frozen in time to me, never changing, never evolving.
As I look back, I can also remember my mother not completely comfortable in the setting of her childhood home. Although I never doubted the deep love she had for her parents, especially her mother, I couldn’t define the uncomfortable feeling I had in that house with my extended family. It wasn’t just the sparse surroundings, it was something about the people themselves that seemed distant and awkward to me. The Hallmark images I saw on television of children bounding into their grandmother’s home full of anticipation and happiness never matched up to my experiences in any way.
My grandmother, as a true mountain woman, was tough and could be abrupt. Although my mother might share with me that she had observed my grandmother being sad, or having her feelings hurt, I can’t at any time remember witnessing these emotions. She seemed so different from my mother and me, who were very-- even overly-- emotional. I couldn’t find common ground with her-- my mother’s mother-- and that troubled me. I saw and heard my mother speak so passionately about her deep, intense love for her mother, and I felt at fault that I didn’t feel the same way. I had so much respect for her, raising five children in the conditions that she did, managing to feed and clothe them somehow, struggling to survive, but I couldn’t find an emotional link to her.
My mother’s stories of her childhood, the few she tells, are of a fairytale type of love within her family. Although she has been fairly honest about their financial struggles, this seemed to pale in comparison to the amount of love she received. Knowing this, and hearing that, made me even more concerned about the fact that I couldn’t and didn’t feel a strong connection to her parents.
As I grew older, we made fewer trips to Kentucky, and my sister, nine years my senior, had moved out on her own, and didn’t join us as often. With the backseat to myself, I felt more trapped somehow, as if I had even more of a burden to find a bond with my grandparents, without my sister to carry half of the load. And as a teenager, I also felt deeply ashamed of the world my grandparents lived in. I was terrified someone would see all this, find out where I came from, and ridicule me. And even worse, I was worried constantly that my parents would find out I felt this way.
My grandmother passed away about nine years ago, while I was living in California. I remember the call from my parents, my father angry, accusing me of ignoring their many calls, which I had missed because I had turned the ringer off the night before. When they finally reached me, my heart broke for my mother, who was beyond devastated, but I could not bring myself to the level of sadness I thought was appropriate when one loses a grandparent. I hadn’t known my grandmother, I hadn’t ever really gotten to know her, except through my mother’s eyes.
And today, I regret that I didn’t ask more questions, observe more, listen more. So much of that regret is because the picture my mother paints of her is without flaws, and is in deep contrast of my impressions, and I am sure the truth lies somewhere in between. And more than anything, I wonder if my grandmother could have, in any way, helped answer some of the many questions I have about my parents, the secrets they keep, and the pain in their past that I have inherited.
I wonder if I could have found common ground with her if I had tried harder, made more of an effort, done something different. But in truth, I think that keeping secrets is a family trait, and my lack of knowledge and connection lies more in this fact than in any lack of effort on my part.
A few years ago, it hit me that all of that possibility is gone. All of my grandparents have passed away, and my other family members are less likely to know anything that could feed my curious mind. But, as I look at the picture of my grandmother sitting on her front porch, I finally realize that what I hoped to find all along was my own fairytale of happiness, something to make me feel and believe that my family history is different than what I know it to be. Perhaps she could have told me something--a story, a recollection, that would make everything all better.
All along I thought I was searching for the truth, when in reality I was searching for anything but. And there is a freedom in finally knowing that. What I have ached for and regretted not knowing wasn’t possible, wasn’t going to happen. I have found comfort in the present knowing that the key to my happiness doesn’t lie in my past.
I still have questions, and perhaps I always will. But more and more, I am beginning to realize that who I am is more about who I have become than how I came to be. And now, as my grandmother looks at me from her front porch, captured in that one moment in time, I don’t see her as so much of a mystery, just as my grandmother…a resilient mountain woman, who loved her little cabin on the side of a mountain, who is part of my history—and just one piece of how I became me.