Hillbilly Gratitude on Thanksgiving
Hillbilly Gratitude on Thanksgiving
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance has been controversial since the book came out. Now, it’s a Netflix movie and the controversy is back again. While I grew up in the same Ohio area and my people came from the same Kentucky area, my story is utterly different from Vance’s. On this Thanksgiving, I would like to express my gratitude to my people and tell you about them.
The book was controversial because of it’s depiction of Appalachian Americans as drug-addled, uneducated and incapable of making good choices. While I recognize that vast swaths of Appalachia have been completely devastated by drugs, alcohol and ignorance, it is not a universal truth. To give you a flavor of Hillbilly Elegy, here is the trailer:
Glenn Close has become an absolute caricature of herself. And, they could not pay me enough to watch this movie.
My people come from Hazard in Perry County, Kentucky. My Dad, Al Holt, was born on the sofa in the dog trot house on Hemlock Street, just as his mother, Hazel Cox Holt, had been. My great-grandmother, Polly Stamper Cox known as Big Mom, came to Hazard as the third wife of Big Dad, Samuel Cox. His first wife died and the second didn’t care for mountain life.
In the featured photo, that is Big Mom with me on the right, a cousin on the left, and above us a photo of my Dad in his Marine dress blues. Speaking of my Marine Dad, one story I remember was about a family reunion. My Dad got leave and hitchhiked up to Hazard from Cherry Point, NC. He got there late. Everyone had gone home. Big Mom got up and killed and dressed a chicken. There is a picture, that I do not possess, of my Dad, in his Marine khakis, surrounded by fried chicken and all the fixings.
My Dad grew up in the Over-the Rhine section of Cincinnati, where Memow and Papaw, Hazel and Travis Holt, had gone to look for work. Like I said, my story outline is similar to that of J.D. Vance. I suppose we were lower middle class, but I thought we were rich. I suppose my Hazard family was poor, but to me, they were rich.
The back end of the dog trot house got closed in when a half bath of indoor plumbing was added. I remember where the outhouse was located, to the back and right of the house. I remember the water pump on the back porch. I also remember the perpetual smell of dampness in the house. The house backed up to a fork of the Kentucky River and flooded almost every year. Also, the dead relations pictures on the walls with their scary eyes.
But what I remember most was love. I remember picking chick peas, and snapping beans. I remember running on the dirt roads with a bunch of cousins to wave at the freight trains filled with coal.Hazard is a coal town. My Great Uncles, Athol and A.J. Cox, had the Black Lung. I remember them sitting on the front porch and smoking and coughing.
Since Big Mom didn’t have a bathtub, some days she would light the coal fired furnace and sit a big tub over the grate. She would fill it with water by bucket and by night the water would be warm. The girl cousins would get in and wash up and then the boys would take their turn.
At the end of a couple weeks, Memow and Papaw would come down from Cincinnati to retrieve my sister, brother, cousin Suzanne and I. I never wanted to leave, but my school and dance classes were all in Cincinnati. And, after all, Memow and Papaw had gone North for a better life, right?
I also remember exactly what I was doing when I heard Big Mom had died. I was in the F-85 Oldsmobile that my Dad drove. I was 15 years old. He was driving me to a Master Class taught by Prima Ballerina, Dame Alicia Markova. My Dad told me that Big Mom had gone in for gall bladder surgery and had died at age 82.
Can you believe that? From uneducated in Hazard, Kentucky to going to a class taught by one of the greatest dancers of her age in three generations.
J.D. Vance has his story of Appalachia and I have mine. Big Mom never allowed alcohol to cross her threshold. She was not educated, but she was whip smart. She was a tough old lady who could kill and dress a chicken and then sit down and crochet.
I am not a hillbilly. But, I love hillbillies. Because of those people, I feel at home wherever I go. I am eternally grateful to those hillbillies. I reflect on them this Thanksgiving because they made me who I am.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Cox/Holt Families/All Rights Reserved