Remembering this and that #Appalachia

Not in any particular order as life picks up here in Alabama with the winter sabbatical:

As happened, I began with a list to try to stir something up and found myself remembering the summer of 2008 and the Appalachia Service Project in Leslie County, Kentucky.

  1. Plot. The more I revise the more plot reveals itself – not an earth-shattering revelation but helpful to me as the story takes shape.
  2. Inspiration. I reread the BFG and am watching “Castle in the Sky” and “The Iron Giant” for inspiration.
  3. Tuesday Morning. I know a woman who spent so much time at “Tuesday Morning” they gave her a job.
  4. Son. I think about the boy day and night who is no longer a boy but a man.
  5. Beloved writer. Pat Conroy has pancreatic cancer. He was so kind to me and to all the midlist authors at the Pulpwood Queens Book Festival in Texas. He stood in line to buy our books and talked to us afterward. I’ve been to tons of festivals with heavyweight authors, and Pat is the ONLY ONE I can ever remember standing in line to buy our books to get us to sign them. He’s also fearless in his writing and he’s taught me about bravery and honesty in telling stories. I wish him health and healing and love to his beautiful family. 
  6. Dog. Olive, our wiener dog, wasn’t well over the weekend – back pain. I thought we were falling back into the nightmare of a broke-back relapse, but I gave some of her old meds (anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxer) and crated her at night and kept her still. She’s doing so much better, and I’m going to keep crating her at night and when I’m not here. She loves it and settles down and doesn’t make a peep. Who knew? I love that dog so much it’s ridiculous.
  7. Ernestine’s Milky Way. I’ve revised my picture book “Ernestine’s Milky Way” and it’s infinitely better. Revision is my favorite part of writing – especially a picture book where it’s almost like a puzzle to keep it short. “Ernestine’s Milky Way” is a picture book set in Maggie Valley, a place in the mountains that draws me back again and again. My friend, Ernestine, told me the story of how her mother gave her the job of carrying milk to the Ramsey family when she was five years old during World War II. It’s a little bit “Brave Irene” in the Smokies.
  8. Calculous. Norah tried to explain to me part of her take-home calculous test last night. HAHAHAHA. This lasted a few minutes before I said, “Text Lindsey!”
  9. Alabama Booksmith. I went to Joshilyn Jackson’s reading yesterday at Alabama Booksmith and it was wonderful: THE OPPOSITE OF EVERYONE
  10. Dislocated knee. My sweet girl, Lucy, just dislocated her knee playing basketball on Saturday in Chicago. It’s a wait-and-see situation, but she won’t be teaching at Montessori this week. Here is a Lucy memory with pictures she took during the summer of 2008. (Thank you abandoned Live Journal for still keeping my old entries.)

* * *

In the summer of 2008, Lucy and I went to Leslie County in Hyden, Kentucky to “catch stories” and do interviews with locals who were part of the Appalachia Service Project.
It’s amazing how a place can call to you and refuse to let you go. It’s been almost eight years, but I still think about that Kentucky summer. I talked to one Hyden, Kentucky man back then who said, “I went to East Tennessee for two weeks one time to do a job, and I couldn’t hardly stand it I missed home so bad. Even now I can’t hardly stand to spend a night away from home.”

He was married to a woman named Tina but he pronounced it with a long “i” like Tye-na.

I could NOT understand him.

I kept asking him his wife’s name as construction chainsaws blasted and kids ran through the trailer.

He kept saying “Tye-na! Tye-na!”

I said, “How do you spell it?”

He said “T I N A.”

Then without thinking, I replied, “OHHH! Tina. You’re saying Tina.”

Lucy, who was observing, gave me a look and said, “MOM!”

I realized I was telling this man how to  pronounce his wife’s name. I apologized. I don’t think he understood me either. I was so exhausted coming off book-tour and my brain was in a million places.

I met a woman named Pearly Sue and another named Sherry. They were part of the Estep family. When we there 21 grandchildren lived between four trailers off Bear Branch Road.

Coal and lumber trucks dominated the landscape in the town of Hyden, sandwiched between Hazard and Harlan, underscored by the occasional peal of church bells, fiddles, and banjos. Lucy’s pictures captured a world of children living deep in the hollers on roads like Turkey Foot and Hell For Certain.

Volunteers spend a week each summer winterizing homes still heated by coal and woodstoves to make them livable in the cold months. In one house lived Carbide, a man who managed to eek out a living by picking ginseng and catching rattlesnakes to sell to the snake-handlers.

Carbide disappeared when the Appalachia Service Project kids came to fix up his house. I never saw him once, and I didn’t blame him a bit. There were prayer circles in the morning and at night after the construction was complete for the day.

I led a children’s writing workshop at the Leslie County Public Library, run by two sisters, Leona and Bess, who launched a summer “Catch the Reading Bug” program. We had around 100 people show up, which was so wild and fun, and the kids drew and wrote stories of their favorite secret places.

But what I remember most about the trip was that Lucy was on crutches for the first few days due to a different knee injury back then. (She’d been swimming and jumped off a ledge and landed hard in the water.)  We arrived at midnight after a long drive through the mountains to sleep at an elementary school with the other workers. We were not part of the project but guests. They gave us the kindergarten classroom to ourselves that had a sink and a bathroom. I was incredibly relieved because showering meant public showers rigged outside with Hefty Bags and a crowd.

No thank you.

We came so unprepared – I had just finished a book tour with “Jessie’s Mountain” and we showed up with rolling suitcases and crutches. After some scrambling and the kindness of the counselors, we went to Wal-Mart in Hazard the next morning and got an air mattress and sleeping bags. We made the classroom our room and we spent the week interviewing people and taking pictures.

Lucy liked a boy, Josh, and wanted to go out riding with him one night. All I could think of was Loretta Lynn going out riding in a jeep with Doolittle Lynn in the hills of Kentucky, and I said, “NO WAY. NO WAY. NO WAY. NO WAY. NOOOOOOOOOOO! YOU SHALL NOT CROSS.” (Or something like that)

Josh was a sweet kid but I’d heard rumors that we were in the “meth capitol of Kentucky” and this was in the days before JUSTIFIED, but I had a plenty active enough imagination to envision all the ways it could go wrong.

We didn’t speak that night. The silent treatment can be tough on an air mattress on the floor of a kindergarten classroom.

And here is a link to COALMINER’S DAUGHTER

(It’s my most favorite movie, and it’s actually one of Lucy’s favorites too. We have since laughed about the night I wouldn’t let her go out riding.)

But I did let her go with Josh to see “WALL-E” at the movies in Hazard, a 6:00 p.m. show a few days later while I explored Hyden and stumbled upon a bluegrass band playing in some little storefront.

Lucy was back by 9:00. Did they get ice-cream? It seems like they did.

She took so many pictures that summer. These are all her pictures except for the few she’s in herself. We met some library sisters, Leona and Bess, who ran the Leslie County Public Library.

The day we left, Sherry, one of the mothers got a job at Dairy Queen.

Here are some of Lucy’s pictures that capture that time.

Some of Lucy’s Kentucky Pictures from Hyden and Harlan, KY [Jul. 20th, 2008|08:13 am]
Sherry, Kerry, Lucy
The Estep children
Jean, the matriarch of the Estep family
Washing machine that called to mind “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Hazard, Kentucky
Hazard, Kentucky
Leslie County, Kentucky
The home of Carbide
A little library run by two sisters.
The coal trucks never stopped rolling through town.
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