Whenever I’m asked where I’m from I always say, ‘Originally’, pause for originally to sink in, ‘from Kentucky’. Compelled to further qualify the answer I add that I’m not from that part of the state - not those eastern mountains where the hillbillies live. The barefoot, gun toting, moonshining, coal dusted people from the hollows - that wasn’t, that isn’t, me.
Then I feel badly about working so hard to convey that not all Kentuckians are the same. Truth is though, there is a sizeable difference in the section of the state where I grew up that lies within a kiss of Tennessee, and the eastern half that borders the Virginias.
The Scots-Irish influence in the Appalachians was prominent in the 1770s when the first flow of settlers blazed across the Wilderness Road, over the Cumberland Mountains and into a region that was too dangerous for most to conquer.
But by the late 1780s the eastern region of Kentucky could be considered a Little Europe where the Ulster-Scots, English, Scottish Highlanders, German Lutherans and the French Huguenots settled.
Eastern Kentuckians have always suffered from dialect prejudice. The twang is strong, and the dialect is a-prefixing heavy. “I’ll come a-moaning and a-crying.” One might hear, “He clomb a tree,” and “I’m agin that idea.”
I’ve scratched my head several times trying to understand this older form of their language, still spoken today. Hilarious really, given that my Southern accent was once as deep as the yellow loam of Mississippi.
It is true that there is a darkness, a bleakness to the mountains raped of their coal.
The most isolated families somehow survive an incredibly harsh life. But from the depths of the desolation rises the beauty of the old bluegrass music, their gift for storytelling and a poignant tradition that is still honoured – a home wake.
This is ‘Home Funeral’, a photo taken by Shelby Lee Adams in 1990.
At a home wake in the mountains, friends and families would file into the home of the deceased from the coal mines, the farms and the factories to pay their respects, and then gathered in the kitchen for sandwiches and coffee. A country wake in the mountains might last days as opposed to what was then the normal practice of a two-night maximum at our funeral home on the other side of the state. In our town, my father was responsible for turning the tide in the length of visitations by encouraging people to sit for one night instead of two. Even though he was heavy on the charm, I’m not sure how he managed that, come to think of it.
I remember only one family that chose to hold a home wake instead of settling down in one of the dark, cool rooms in our funeral parlour. There may have been a few more, but it was very rare by the time I came along. I thought it would require less work for my father, but instead, there seemed to be an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing and detailed organization. The phone rang constantly with calls from the townspeople who were unused to home wakes. Aggravated and confused, ‘Where the hell is he, Frank?’ It came to that.
Mr. Watson died of a heart attack at a frightfully young age. Not yet fifty the day he fell to the floor in a silent heap, our community was shocked by the news. First, my father collected him, brought him to the funeral home and prepared him, then carted him back to his home. The Watsons (not their real name) lived just up the street from us, but my father couldn’t exactly wheel him across Main Street, so the hearse was employed to transport Mr. Watson back and forth. After he was laid out in his living room in a casket, the Watson’s home was open for visitation for a few days until the funeral. During the unusually long wake I pestered my father with questions. Why so young? Why no warning? What is heart disease? And most doggedly, why wasn’t he here with us? Mr. Watson’s family wanted him near, he told me. Couldn’t bear to part with him, not yet.
Because he was fairly well known and suffered a particularly tragic death, Mr. Watson’s family decided to hold the funeral service in the church, a space large enough to deal with the overflow. My father drove to their house once again to transport him to the church, also on Main Street, and then, finally, to the cemetery.
Mr. Watson was the father of a girl who was only a year younger than me and this made his death more memorable to me than his age, or his home wake. She and her older sister were father-less before they graduated high school. After Mr. Watson was buried, the grief took hold of them like a grief I’d never seen.
Mrs. Watson and her daughters were always late to church on Sunday mornings. No matter what time they arrived for the service, they walked the long aisle all the way down to the front, everyone’s eyes upon them, and sat in the second row from the front, which was always, without fail, empty.
When our hell fire and damnation preacher got going, the three females huddled closely together. They inched towards each other, leaving a long empty space at both ends of the pew. Then my friend placed her head on her mother’s shoulder and soon her little body trembled. The shiver turned into silent convulsions. The harder she tried not to make a sound, the more violently her body shook. She remained silent and animated, lost in her grief throughout the service. Their Sunday ritual did not end in just a few weeks; their grief rode them for a very long time.
Both of Mr. Watson’s daughters were brilliant and eventually thrived…until one day the girl who was my friend fell to the floor in a silent heap. Dead. Heart attack. Before she was fifty.