Last December, I had a set of five short essays published in James Dickey Review, which is incredibly thrilling. I worked with the editors for weeks, changing this and that. Then before Christmas, I came home to a big yellow package that contained two copies of the review.
There’s something incredibly special about seeing your work in print. That is a big part of why I went to journalism school and why I have always been a writer. Publishing on this blog is easy and I control it. It’s nice when people read my work here, commenting and sharing and sending me messages with questions, but writing essays about my life and the people I know is a very different kind of work. When someone agrees to publish your words in their journal or magazine or book, it’s unlike any other feeling in the world.
The stories I told for this group of essays are all from Appalachia, of course, and celebrate the art of storytelling itself. They are all stories I’ve heard second-hand but feel connected to nonetheless. I wanted to share one of the stories with you here.
Driving up the winding back road of Wilson’s Creek Road in Wayne, West Virginia, my then boyfriend gave me the run-down of his extended family, whom I was about to meet.
“My uncles like to tell jokes and cut up,” he told me. He was preparing me for a bit of light teasing, being the new girlfriend of the family’s youngest grandchild. Kyle has a large family, but so do I, so I wasn’t worried or intimidated. I remember I wore a flowy, bell-sleeved dress that was just a few shades lighter than my skin and covered in tiny red flowers. I was seventeen the first time I walked into that house, a place that would become as familiar to me as my own home. I can still smell the cornbread in the oven and the coffee brewing next to the sink.
Pulling up the short gravel driveway on the hill, I could see three men sitting on the porch in varying shades of blue jeans. Each had a plaid button-down shirt on, and two of them were squatting down beside the one in the rocking chair. This was no ordinary squat, but rather a unique form that only Adkins men could master. The balance is held on the balls of the feet, and one knee is bent closer to the ground in almost a kneeling position. They all held coffee cups.
“Hello, there,” one of them said to us as we hiked up the grassy yard. At the time, I didn’t know the man’s name, but I learned the greeting came from Neil, the kindest and quietly ornery brother. I smiled, and Kyle introduced me, but because we lived in such a small town, these men already knew me. I have my mother’s face and my father’s laugh, so I was familiar to them.
Kyle’s Mamaw Manda Lou was a frail woman, but she stirred batter by hand with a wooden spoon until the day she died. She had a tiny kitchen full of tall men with hearty appetites, and I soon learned there was a system for eating at this house. The rickety kitchen table sat six, so a select few would sit down to eat, and as each person finished, another would take his place. The women ate last, not by force but by habit, I think. When everyone had finished eating, Manda Lou would make a plate of the tiniest portions and sit down with a heavily creamed cup of coffee. She noticed that I took cream in my coffee as well, and because I became the only other one in the family who did so, she and I bonded over caffeine.
“I like a little coffee in my cream,” she’d always say.
After supper, Kyle and I ventured out to the porch where everyone was gathered around for a story. The uncles were huddled around Neil as he quietly told a tale of his childhood when he mysteriously came down with Wayne County’s only case of snow blindness.
According to my mother-in-law, Ruby, Neil didn’t care for school very much. He made good grades, was even on the honor roll, but he much preferred to be outside, hunting rabbits or squirrels or coons. Today, Neil is a weathered, Godly man, full of wit and humor. He grins in a gentle way as if he knows a joke that he’s waiting to tell at the right moment. He hugs me hard like my dad does, and his hands are like rough stones.
He sat in the rocking chair again, and his story had his brothers hanging on his every word.
“One Sunday, there came a big snow,” Neil said. “I walked outside and the sun was shinin’ off the snow so bright that I came down with snow blindness.” The story goes that Neil developed a splitting headache and pain behind his eyes. Ruby says she even remembers him putting on a pair of sunglasses.
“Mother had everyone pulling the blinds shut and getting me aspirin and a washcloth for my head and eyes,” Neil said. He was still too sick the next day to go to school, so he stayed home with the snow still shining brightly off the yard.
“By noon Monday, I was cured,” Neil said. “I told Mother it was a miracle.”
The brothers bellowed with laughter, wiping tears from their watering eyes. This was not a new story. They had probably heard it a hundred times—I know I have over the last twelve years—but they laughed as if it was the first time.
When Manda Lou died, Neil and the rest of his family grieved hard for their mother. I saw the gentleness living on the inside of these outwardly rough men. Their faces were soaked with tears, weary and wounded from the loss of their matriarch.
Walking into her house later that day felt wrong, even though it was filled to the corners with friends and family, pies and casseroles, laughter and tears. The air grew thin in the crowded kitchen, so I grabbed my coffee cup and headed to the porch. The uncles were there in their usual spots. I smiled weakly at them, and as I walked down the steps, I heard the last of Neil’s tale about being cured, the punch line they all needed.
And then, laughter.
If you’d like to read the rest of the stories, you can get a copy of the journal here.