My parents were married in a graveyard in Lexington, Kentucky. I remember seeing their grainy wedding photos, my Mom in a short white dress, my Dad in a brown suit (that he borrowed from a friend? Or got at a donation store? They were so poor, my Mom always says they lived on love and blueberries.). They looked like sweet, innocent hippies in 1970, five years before my sister was born, and nine years before I made my rocky start into this world. The picture shows my Mom looking at my Dad as if to say "Did we just do this, Chipper?" You could see the tentative, excited joy, like they knew the great adventures that would come (and they did). I know that feeling. In those photos there was green ivy everywhere, gravestones cluttered close together, a reminder of the cholera outbreak of 1833. They lived in the Caretaker's house (where my Dad painted a boxing ring on the wall, I loved that, the audacity of putting something like that up, BIG ART), spent some time in Indiana where my Sister was born, and then life moved them to a small town hidden in the hills of Appalachia (ask me sometime about how those that come from those regions pronounce Appalachia. It's like newscasters mispronouncing Oregon).
The name of the town was Pippa Passes, named after a Robert Browning poem:
"Song from Pippa Passes"
I love the idea that I was born into a poem.
So, they took my Sister, and moved to the moonshine hills of Pippa Passes, population of 300-ish, in the outskirts of Hazard County (yes, like the Dukes of Hazard), coal country. Outsiders were given the porch stare-down as they passed by, my Mom said that she always felt like an outsider. If you're not born there, you are not one of the "Mountain People". This is where I started my life. I was born in a hospital with my last name (no relation), the town was so small, one of the poorest in the nation, they eventually removed it from maps and now it no longer exists (how odd to come from a place that now has no name).
We lived at the top of the holler (again, regional dialect, "Hollow", meaning a broad natural hollow, carved by a creek, and 2 mountains over time). We had untended, glorious mountains behind our house, and graveyard that shared the gravel road up to the house. There were 10 graves, still being tended. Mountain folk take care of each other. So, I grew up there with my Sister, playing on top of graves, rearranging plastic flowers, adding our own bouquets sometimes, and often making Barbie homes, humming and wiping my forever runny nose. I felt so comfortable there.
When the rains would come and the creeks would flood, everyone would throw their garbage in and watch it flow away. So, it was called Pamper Creek by the locals. I remember making the choice between cloth and disposable diapers for my own children, and my Mom just kept saying "BUT PAMPER CREEK" when we went the disposable route. Don't judge. I don't.
My parents would tell me an often requested story about how one of their friends asked me what my astrological sign was. "I'm a hillbilly". I answered. I still think this is true.
I remember my Sister and I asking our parents to constantly pull over the car, so we could save the box turtles that were always trying to make their way across the roads. We would bring them home, give them a proper afternoon in the pink baby carriage with some water and lettuce, and then I would try to give them a good spot to hide and move along so that they wouldn't get eaten by dogs. I didn't always hide them so well.
We lived by what was called the "baseball field", a road to the right of the graveyard. That was a nice way to say junkyard. There was mining equipment parked everywhere, dynamite boxes, felled trees, ponds full of frog eggs. We always check the keys in the ignitions of each bulldozer (never found one). I still love the smell of churned earth, ground being broken to reveal what is underneath, I will still stand and breathe the air at construction sites. It was paradise for me.
At Christmas time, all of the children would gather into the common hall, where they would put a big tree. There we were part of the "Christmas Pretties" program, where people would donate presents because the children of the mountain hollers' parents were often too poor to buy more than just the necessities. I still have a doll, a few nicknacks, but I lost the beautiful crotchet poncho that I would flip over and pretend I had a ton of hair (photos upon request).
This is the place where I learned to swim. Where no one really cared if I bathed, or wore the same clothes multiple days in a row. My Sister was my best friend, my only friend. We were so in love, in this place, where it was just our family of four, sequestered up in the hills, with no one bothering us. My mom was a librarian, my Dad a photographer and history professor. Some of his photos are in the movie "A Coal Miner's Daughter", a movie about Loretta Lynn. I need to watch that movie again.
This is the place where I learned about my wild spirit, and I learned that "stuff" wasn't really my jam (except Barbie's, obviously). I didn't need much, just my family.
This is the place where I learned about the coal mining industry, and watched what hard work looked like, yet those hard working people were living on food stamps, moonshine (it was a dry county, no alcohol) and squirrel meat.
It is so far from where I am now... but I like to think that some of my wildness, my independence, and understanding of the realities of poverty (before I knew what poverty was, when you grow up in it, you don't know any different). I like to think that it fills my empathy bank (which is overflowing, please someone bring me another bucket).
I think about that time in my life, that town often... because, well, I was a true Mountain Girl, born and bred. I feel some pride in that.