by Sharon May
Chapter 1: How Did I Get Here?
I was born in February 1957, which might be a good place to start my story. My birth was lost on most except my mother’s immediate family and nosy neighbors because of one of the most devastating floods of the century. I’m sure my mother and family were relieved my birth was overshadowed by this event. I was a bastard.
Maybe my story begins when my mother found herself pregnant in the summer of 1956, which set off a chain of events she and I have briefly discussed and will probably never discuss again. She determined long ago that those events are none of my business.
Or, maybe my story begins in 1981, when despite my mother’s attempt to prevent my following in her footsteps, I found myself unwed and pregnant though I had the ability to prevent such a thing. I made the decision that my mother wishes she could have made; I had an abortion.
Yes, that is when my story begins. The moment I set out to determine how I came to be in that situation, living in Appalachia again after college, dating men though I had known from age six I loved girls. Not only did I set out to determine how I had made the same mistake, I set out on what appears to be a never-ending struggle to understand myself, family, and heritage.
Or maybe not. Events do not make a story. Thinking about those events does not make a story. Trying to find oneself in the events and to discover what one thinks about those events makes a story – maybe not “the” story, but “a” story.
Mountain people have a love/hate relationship with the hills and their impact on our lives. Everyone knows the stereotypes of hillbillies – wary of outsiders, standoffish, poor, illiterate, anti-revenuers, living off the government, and just downright mean and crazy, not to mention they have an accent and odd vocabulary. In short, hillbillies are quare – strange people created by geology and geography.
A single foothill of the Appalachians can block the power of the sun, making days seem shorter and the nights longer. Farmers know plants don’t grow without sunlight, but the hill farmer lives it, struggling to make food grow on the rocky mountainside or in a narrow field that receives only a sliver of light as the sun rises and sets behind the hills. Patty Loveless, in her song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” describes the hills: “Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin’ / And the sun goes down about three in the day.”
Humans don’t grow without light either. Most of the adult men I knew when I was a child are long dead. The underground coal miner of my youth spent his day in darkness unlike any other. They died after the hills swallowed them up for 12 hours a day. Died after praying away their youth – praying Monday through Saturday they wouldn’t be buried alive, that their bodies wouldn’t spend eternity trapped in the hill that killed them. From Friday to Sunday, they prayed over a bottle of whiskey or moonshine; prayed the liquid would warm them like the sun that warmed the clay dirt that produced the corn; prayed their hangovers would ease in time to return to work.
Younger miners skipped church, too busy working and praying to stay alive or drinking hard to forget. Once injured in the mines or too sick to work, miners more than likely were baptized only after having survived the mines or the drinking, sensing they had used up all the prayers God might allow a single soul.
Coal miners, regardless of attitudes, are not rednecks; they never had the luxury of the sun beating down on their necks while bent over in labor. They crawled along in 18” high tunnels so freshly dug that they sucked in the dust with each labored breath, dust that never left their lungs. Songwriter Dwight Yoakam aptly describes in “Readin’, Rightin’, Route 23,” the power of hearing a coughing miner:
Have you ever heard
A mountain man cough his life away
From diggin’ that black coal
In those dark mines, those dark mines
If you had you might just understand
The reason that they left it all behind.
Caregivers for TB patients must have felt the same pain and helplessness mountain children feel when they are awakened by the racking cough of a grandfather, father, brother, or uncle. As I grew older, I realized that this hacking, while created by coal dust, was also the result of cigarettes and alcohol most hillbillies use to medicate a variety of mental and physical ailments, and to relieve anger, boredom, and resentment.
Outsiders, anyone not hillbilly, see the beauty of the never-ending rows of hills covered with treetops. When they look below the treetops, they see the signs of poverty carved into every nook and cranny along the creeks and roads that snake through the mountains. Occasionally, a generation is so moved by the poverty it floods the area with social programs and their missionary daughters. Some outsiders see another mountain to be stripped way for coal. Now, miners die of brown lung instead of black lung; they have fewer hills to farm or wildlife to hunt, and occasionally one of those mountaintop sludge ponds overflows killing whatever lies in its path. But it is cheaper processing for coal companies, and it provides much needed jobs.
Hillbillies do their part to destroy the mountains; just count the Clorox bottles hanging in trees after a flood. But we too recognize the beauty of the hills, attuned to the passing of time, to the signs of life not created by human hands, but by the creation of the universe. The first three seasons are beautiful and allow for a feeling of growth. Once winter comes, the sun is replaced by darkness. Not darkness, grayness. I knew the sun was out there, just hidden by low, gray clouds.
The best days of winter were those after a snow storm had dumped inches and inches of snow. The sun would appear with a vengeance, bright and welcome after the grayness. The reflection of light off the snow made everything sparkle, everything bright, so bright you needed sunglasses. No matter how cold, no matter how much snow, I walked for miles in the hills and would lie in the snow, not making snow angels, but basking in the sun and the sparkles of light that arose from the snow beside me.
The mountains also have their mean streak, just like mountain people. The hills are like kudzu, wrapping their tentacles around the person who lives there, binding mind, body, and soul to the region regardless of how far one moves away. To be a hillbilly from Eastern Kentucky is to be one who can leave or stay, but never detach from it or the associated stereotypes. Some reconcile themselves to life there, others leave and try to pass, while others leave and forever long to return “home”.
And, here’s when my story begins – when I was ready to admit that I was made crazy by the hills, the lack of sun, and the inability to see the horizon. I am like the hills, wanting to be a mountain, to be tall enough to see the sun, to stand in the light, to see the horizon, to do more than imagine possibilities, to be honest about
who I am and what I have seen, and to be out as a lesbian. Maybe telling my story will help me feel proud to express my hillbilly heritage.
In the 1950’s, the coal market collapsed, and many were out of work. Most turned to the northern factories, a story beautifully told by Harriet Arnow in The Dollmaker. My grandfather was the first in my family to leave. With eight living children to provide for, he found a job on the merchant ships of the Great Lakes. He returned a few years later, not leaving Kentucky again until his 50’s when he decided retiring to Florida is what the elderly do, especially if their children are turning against them, a paranoia brought on by combining bottles of Nyquil with medications to improve his breathing.
Born into poverty of Appalachia and the Great Depression, my mother longed for a better life. She didn’t necessarily want to leave but saw no other options. My mother, Billie, graduated high school and went on to college, which was interrupted by my birth and a failed marriage in Michigan. Bob May, her first husband, turned out to be an abusive alcoholic, and she had no tolerance for that. I don’t know if he was abusive to my younger brother Neal or to me, but he was definitely mean and very disappointed in my little brother for not living up to his expectations.
My mother had difficulties birthing Neal, and he suffered both mental and physical weaknesses as a result. After escaping Bob’s abuse, she took Neal and me home to Kentucky. I had already learned a lot of northern linguistic rules, pronunciations, and vocabulary by then, and my hillbilly uncles and aunt made fun of my northern accent when I returned.
In Drift, I attended first grade under the watch of my grandmother, a cook in the cafeteria. Can we say spoiled? It was a wonderful first year, until the last day, when my uncles teased me about my getting a new daddy since my mother was getting married that afternoon.
First I’d heard of it, or at least that’s my memory of that dramatic change in my life. I knew a boyfriend visited us, and he and my mother were quite lovey-dovey, but marriage? He was a former high-school sweetheart, who had called her up when his father told him that she was divorced. Several phone calls and visits later, they decided to marry as soon as I finished the school year. Education was so important that they did not want to disturb my schooling; they did the same in my senior year when they decided to move to Floyd County.
After a civil ceremony in Clintwood, VA, where no blood tests were required, they returned to Drift to pick up me and my brother. They had more surprises up their sleeves as I had to meet my new grandparents that evening. These strangers were polite, but stiff and clearly not happy with the new bride and new grandchildren. We ate supper with them, and the one thing I took away from that meal was that Anneth, my new grandmother, had ruined perfectly good corn by pickling it. Later, my new daddy loaded us into his two-seated sports car (he hadn’t planned on a family), and we moved to Lexington with its horizons and gently rolling knolls of bluegrass and possibilities.
So Willis Newsome, the man I call Daddy today, adopted me though they also failed to tell me that as well. At first, I was leery of this new parent, but turned out he was the best father a girl could have. In 1964, he was then a student at the University of Kentucky, studying to be a CPA, after a stint in the Air Force and a few years at Pikeville College, decisions he made after his father took the then-12-year-old boy deep into the mine and said, “This is where you will work soon.” My dad pledged to study hard to get out, ignoring both his father and the guidance counselor’s career assessment that he should become a farmer. After graduating and passing the CPA exam on the first attempt, we moved from Lexington to Louisville.
Longing for home got the best of my parents, and they went back to Eastern Kentucky when I was 12. I spent most of junior high and all of high school in the hills even though I never truly fit in. The influences of the world outside Appalachia were not easily erased. Or parts I was unwilling to let go. So there I was – knowing I had been born there but feeling as much an outsider as if I were visiting from Venus.
When I arrived in Paintsville, Johnson County, I was an outsider to the girls who hated me because I was the foreign girl that all the guys wanted to date, a threat to steal that boy they had selected in 2nd grade. Those boys did their part in making sure the girls thought I was a slut. They felt threatened, even if they couldn’t put a name to it, because they thought I wanted their girlfriends, which I did. Other boys were threatened because they had no idea what to do with a girl who wasn’t interested in sex with them.
For the gay and bi-guys, I was a safe date, and one date with me would keep both school friends and parents from harassing them for months. All the closeted gays and lesbians made sure we were paired up for the inevitable kissing games my parents allowed at the parties occasionally had for my classmates. Being out was not an option in the 1970s, especially in Appalachia.
Ironically, the young gays and lesbians knew all the adults who were gay, though closeted, and we could identify all our school mates who were to be gay if not already acting on their sexuality. Apparently, our parents were naïve or thought we were. Mother said she didn’t want me to attend the all-girls college I chose because there would be lesbians. Little did she realize that was the very reason I wanted to go there.
Academics had already become my saving grace. In sixth grade, something changed in me or I selected academics on which to expend all the energy I had burning me alive. Most of my schoolmates may have had hillbilly educations, but the smart kids at Johnson Central did not. I rarely felt intellectually challenged as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky because, in high school, I was challenged in all subjects by at least one teacher who saw in me what I could not see and who taught me how to excel.
Once I graduated, I wasn’t to be a coal miner either. Could have been, but my parents were determined that I wasn’t going to be a miner even though feminism promised during the 1970s that I too could kill myself the same way many men had. I left for Lexington in the fall of 1975. While all Kentuckians may sound the same to those from other states, Kentuckians can pick up on one’s region of birth instantly. During those seven years in Appalachia, the hillbilly dialect merged with the influences of the cities I had lived in as a child, and I was immediately labeled hillbilly.
My many college roommates taught me that I didn’t fit either because I was interested in only college’s academics. I actually went there thinking that all high school graduates had read Sartre, and not only could, but wanted to discuss existentialism at length. Was I in for a surprise! As a result, I shut down socially in my freshman year.
I did nothing to seek out other lesbians while in high school or college, because most of them acted worse than men, mistreating women, fighting, and just being jerks. I couldn’t see there was any love in their relationships. Any desire to be male disappeared by age eleven when I developed friendships with boys and discovered their lives might be more privileged, but they were as clueless about women as I was.
In college, I quickly learned that everything that I was – a very intelligent, gay, female hillbilly — had to be denied and rejected. Being hillbilly is to be kept secret just like being a lesbian is. And being a smart female in the male dominated academia of the 1970s would be better kept quiet too. I lived in so many closets I had no clue as to who I was, which made it all the more difficult. I heard the jokes – spoken and implied – about gays and hillbillies. Inherent in all those jokes were attacks on my intellect, my love, my abilities, my family, my home, my history. Attacks I fought to not internalize. Closets, like the hollows of Appalachia, can be dark places that must be destroyed before one can become healthy. Everyone has struggles which create our individual stories. The one that follows is the story I choose to tell.
Sharon May co-authored a composition textbook, Reading, Analyzing, and Writing but had not published fiction or creative non-fiction before this. She has taught composition and reading for 25 years at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina. She is married to Peggy Thompson, and they are owned by five cats, all rescues.