Last week I finished the J.D. Vance's brilliant book, Hillbilly Elegy. It is an insightful look at hillbilly culture. But before reading it I would vehemently argue that I am not a hillbilly. Despite having a lovely, safe childhood in a town that was idyllic in a lot of ways, I've fought back against where I come from. It's not because I'm not proud of it, but it's because from the time I was a child I thought I was more. Ultimately that's what hillbilly parents (and all parents) want for their children: more than they had. I was raised by two kick ass parents, a coal miner and homemaker, who worked their tails off so that our lives were easy. My three siblings and I all graduated from college. Two of us have advanced degrees. Even now that I objectively know my parents struggled financially at times, I didn't want for anything.
Reading Vance's book felt equally familiar and unfamiliar. We did call our paternal grandmother "Mamaw", something northerners do not do. I still call an El Camino a "car truck" because, for real, what else would you call it? I spent summers playing in the woods behind my grandparents' house climbing trees and playing in the creek catching crawldads (crayfish for those of you who don't speak Redneck.) It still takes effort to say the word "dog" like it doesn't contain the letter 'w'.
I am a master at what I'd call hillbilly loyalty. Loyalty is like trust; it must be earned. I have two speeds of loyalty: I will throw myself in front of a train for you, or I'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding. There is no in between. If I have not been loyal to you, it is because you did not earn and do not deserve my loyalty. It's quite simple.
Like Vance and those who leave their Appalachian hometowns, I am sure there are those who think I've forgotten where I come from, and to some extent they are right. But I loved growing up in West Virginia, and after more than a decade in Michigan when I talk about "home" I do not mean Lansing, Michigan. I mean West Virginia.
My parents moved from my hometown of Hundred, WV to Morgantown (where I went to college and law school) in 2006, and I've only visited my hometown a handful of times in the last eleven years. Hundred feels foreign to me, like a place I used to know. And I've forsaken it for sure. When I go there I get a little (okay a lot) Sweet Home Alabama, where I channel my inner Melanie Carmichael and think "How do y'all live like this?" It's not very charitable.
|Downtown Hundred,West Virginia|
I'm from the middle of the giant lilac bush on my grandparents' property where I used to hide as a child. I'm from the cherry tree I'd regularly climb into and get stuck. I'm from the back pew of the Hundred United Methodist Church where I'd sit with my friends, talk too much, and get dirty looks from my mom. I'm from the front porch of the house in which I grew up where we'd sit for hours on the porch swing in the summer. I'm from the sidelines of the high school football games where my love for the Hundred Hornets shone through in my cheers and constant smile. I'm from the greenhouse and meats lab behind the high school where I spent at least one class period a day in the FFA.
It's easy to look at my life today as a lobbyist rocking 3-inch heels every day working a room of "important" people and forget where I come from. When I'm running or visiting a new city, Hundred, WV doesn't come to the forefront of my mind. Despite being from a tiny town, I adore big cities and consider myself a big city girl. I live in an urban downtown. I'm obsessed with things like public transit, walkable communities and pubic art, things I didn't think about growing up. But that doesn't mean I have to be only a big city girl. In the words of Don Henley, "somewhere back there in the dust, that same small town in each of us."
For me there was still more than Hundred, West Virginia, but that doesn't mean it is a bad thing for those who stayed. It's filled with hardworking, awesome people who are good humans and good neighbors. They are passionate about family and community. The school is close knit and it's a town where everyone knows everyone else (at least that's how it used to be. I hope that's still the case.) I am a city girl, but I am acutely aware of how I got here.