Essays

Mary Allen

From Around Here Indeed


Mary Allen

From Around Here Indeed

From Around Here Indeed: How James Still Helped Me Find My Appalachian Voice
 
My family roots grow deep in the soil of this region. Although my father would never have identified himself as an Appalachian, I have known few men who were more so. He often worked at more than one job at a time, and, like Brack Baldridge in James Still’s River of Earth, was known to people in our town as a man who was “good to work” and unafraid to “bend his back nor mud his boots”. He was a good steward of the land that had been in his family for generations. He was the youngest of nine children, and the last to leave this earth. Until his last sibling died, Daddy always cared for his brothers and sisters in ways large and small, and loved them well. He always proudly considered himself a Virginian, or more specifically a Lee Countian. He believed our little village of Jonesville was the best place in the world to live, work, and raise a family. And live and work there he did, happily, for all of his 93 years.

The house my father and his siblings were born in was built in the mid-1700s near his grandfather’s mill (in Mill Holler). John Calhoun Breckenridge Wynn, my grandfather, was both a miller and a farmer. Grandmother Henrietta Browning Wynn ran the store on land her parents had owned for nearly a hundred years before her birth in 1866. When just a boy, my father and his family moved to town in a house his parents and older siblings had built by their own hands. Later, he continued this family tradition and built the house where my brother and I were raised.

Education was extremely important in my family. Even though my grandparents’ children were born between 1887 and 1905, all nine of them, amazingly, attended some sort of post-secondary training. Most graduated from college. While in his second year at Emory and Henry College, my father contracted scarlet fever. When he came home to heal, he never went back. He continued to work on his family’s farm and took a job at the local bank, retiring at the age of 85. Because education was a hallmark in our family, neither my brother nor I ever considered not going to college.

In addition to education, using good manners and correct grammar in our daily lives were also part and parcel of our upbringing. We were not allowed to use words like “ain’t” or slang such as “dang.” Despite the fact that I have lived in Appalachia all my life, I have been asked, fairly frequently, “You’re not from around here, are you?” The question – and the sentiment behind it – always left me, pre-James Still, feeling as is if I were not a part of my own culture. I suppose this question stems from my “proper” use of English (and I realize that what is “proper” use of one’s language is debatable). However, what is not debatable, or has not been in my life, is that my voice, dialect, and vocabulary sounded different from that of my Appalachian peers.

Though one could argue that calling myself “disenfranchised” might be a stretch, I certainly felt that way in the sense of feeling deprived of the privilege of belonging – belonging to the community of my peers. Perhaps I was—like author Silas House stated in a recent speech—a “good example of someone walking this tight-rope of not wanting anyone to have misconceptions” about me while I may have had “misconceptions about them at the very same time”.

Confessions aside, I felt different. My father was the community banker, which set us apart; we lived in town, another distinction; my parents were much older than most of my friends’ parents; I used impeccable grammar, and loved my parents’ 1940s-era music more so than the pop music my peers listened to. Each of us yearns to belong – to others, to a place. I loved my hometown, family, and friends. Yet I often felt like I was fundamentally different, that I did not belong to the place where my family had lived, far longer than most.

I must have been 12 or 13 years old when I first heard Appalachia referred to as a region. Our family was watching the nightly news on television. Chet Huntley (or David Brinkley) spoke of President Johnson’s war on poverty – in Appalachia! Not realizing what was meant by the term, I thought he was referring to Appalachia, the town in neighboring Wise County, Virginia. It seemed odd that our nation would wage war on poverty 30 miles from my hometown. I came to realize that Huntley was referring to this vast culturally distinct section of our nation.

The accent my family and I grew up with, which I now know is an Appalachian accent, was somewhat interesting to me, but not nearly as fascinating as those of my peers – and everyone else I came in contact with. I have always known that, as Silas House has said, “the perfect balance would be if we could all celebrate our differences long enough to recognize our commonalities” and suspected that, somehow, language played a large part in that equation. I have always loved the human voice, despite the fact that my own frequently betrays me. Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and adult life, I loved to sing, talk, tell stories, and listen to others do the same. My family’s focus on proper grammar and diction apparently rubbed off on me in positive ways, such as college and career choices. One of the reasons I chose the field of speech pathology was because of my fascination with and love of the human voice. Through graduate school, marriage, career and two children, I have remained in one part or another of this Appalachian region, and yet continued - still - to be asked if I was from around here.

Several years ago I experienced a period in my life where I underwent rather dramatic transformations of both spirit and heart. Around the same time, when our son enrolled in the secondary school that is part of Lincoln Memorial University, I was subsequently asked to serve on the board of trustees. As I learned more of the University’s history, made new friends, and attended events on campus, I developed a renewed appreciation for this beautiful region that has always been my home. My husband and I hiked, attended lectures, concerts, readings and the like.

In spite of all these remarkable events, however, I was left unprepared for what would prove to be a turning point in my life that happened on this very campus. It began innocently enough, with my attendance at a lecture given by Wilma Dykeman at Homecoming, 2002. However, it provided the impetus for real internal change. Dykeman spoke of her friendship with Jesse Stuart and James Still, both graduates of LMU. At the conclusion of her remarks, a multi-media production featuring Still in photograph and film was presented. When I heard Still reading his poem, “I Was Born Humble,” I found that tears were rolling down my cheeks.

I was born humble. At the foot of mountains
My face was set upon the immensity of earth
And stone; and upon oaks full-bodied and old
There is so much writ upon
the parchment of leaves
So much of beauty blown upon the winds
I can but fold my hands and sink my knee
In the leaf pages.
 
Still’s voice was so beautiful, so distinctive and most importantly, so familiar to me. It sounded like home, like my mother and father and me. I belonged here in Appalachia, my Appalachia. Years later when I heard these words in a speech by House at LMU—“In Appalachia, in the end, we accept you for what kind of person you are rather than what ethnicity you are,"—I realized that I finally belonged. That Homecoming 2002 was, in fact, a homecoming of sorts for me. I had finally come full circle. Childhood taunts and comments from those who do not know me no longer mattered, because we are all "more alike than we care to admit," as House says. I am an Appalachian. My voice is just as distinctly, authentically part of this region as anyone else's. In fact, mine is a voice much like Still's. I belong to these hills.

Since that Appalachian literary evening at Homecoming, I have taken a course in Appalachian literature, read more Still and other regional authors, and have been absolutely blessed to meet and know several of them. Still's River of Earth is an incredibly powerful novel. Like Lee Smith said in an interview, "Never had I been so moved by a book. In fact it didn't seem like a book at all. River of Earth was as real to me as the chair I sat on, as the hollers I'd grown up among".

I have learned to appreciate the distinctions in dialect among the native speakers. Authentic speech patterns (or dialect) may, as Still said, make one "appear ignorant when he is only unlettered". Therefore, one must always be careful not to judge another's intelligence or dignity based on the use of "proper" language or natural variations. As for me, I have discovered that even a middle class Southern girl with perfect grammar is one among the many. I am not different in important ways. I am an Appalachian-American woman, proud of my ethnicity and heritage, and like the poem "Heritage" by Still says, "being of these hills I cannot pass beyond." -e-