The Wandering Generations: Cherishing Our Mountain Identity

     And the sons become the fathers and their daughters will be wives. 

     As the torch is passed from hand to hand
 And we struggle through our lives. 

     Though the generations wander, the lineage survives.  



Dan Fogelberg, 
from The Wild Places album (1990)




A number of  summers ago I took my children for their first real visit to my home town in far Southwest Virginia. They’d been there briefly a few times, to visit my mother in the hospital (before she moved to be closer to us and our “big city” medical care for the last years of her life). They’d been there again for her funeral. But they’d never spent any real time amongst the folks in Appalachia. They had an exciting time, and loved the fact that we would see people at their home one day, then run into them in town again the next day. Or if we didn’t run into people we’d seen the day before, we might run into the person’s sister or cousin, and we’d always relate that we had just seen their kin. They began to understand that the community was a collection of overlapping circles in a larger Ven Diagram. Life isn’t like that in the city.

I think they were overwhelmed by everyone’s friendliness, as even people I hadn’t seen for decades would plead with us to follow them home and join their families for dinner. We heard “Shirley (or Homer or Libby or someone else) would be mighty glad to see you and these fine boys” or its equivalent over and over again. They’d wonder who Shirley (or Homer, or Libby) was and why anyone could possibly be glad to see someone they might have last seen when Richard Nixon was president. More baffling, but flattering, was why they, too would surely be honored guests if we had time to drive over and eat supper with Shirley or Homer or Libby, even if we weren’t expected.

They also loved the local public pool, as all the pools where we live have been stripped of their high dives presumably due to fear of liability. Mountain folk apparently don’t care about such trivialities. They just want to let the young ‘uns have a good time.

On the last day of our visit, just after we crossed the Clinch River one last time on our way out of town, my then 8 year old asked about something I hadn’t realized he’d noticed. I heard a voice from the back seat speaking in a polished, stage version of a mountain accent as we passed the pleasant green pastures in Russell County. “Maw-mie, why duz ever budy here talk lack the-is?”….And after a pause he asked a braver question, “Ur you a hee-ul-billy?” I guess I could have been offended, but he hadn’t meant the comment malignantly. He’d already demanded that we return often. So I laughed. “Yes, honey I am a hillbilly.”

Somehow the words came out with pride. I reminded them that as members of the family, they too could claim the title of distinction. They looked at each other and smiled. “Neat. The hillbillies here are cool, mom.” They didn’t appreciate that hillbillies everywhere are unique and remarkable people. Now we return for a visit to Southwest Virginia every summer. 
So they’ve embraced their inner hillbillies, and have gladly accepted that hillbilly status is an honor.

Particularly when it comes with a high dive and free suppers.

April A. Cain is an attorney, writer and mother living in Richmond, Virginia who has taught a course on Appalachian Virginia at the Osher Institute at The University of Richmond.  She is a native of St. Paul (Wise County) in far Southwest Virginia.

Copyright 2012 by April A. Cain

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