When I was a child, my family would travel
Posted on October 3rd, 2016
A post from last year’s trip. I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy, which is reason enough, but kH’s aunt is now dying, and if it weren’t for kH’s Kentucky mother and kin, I wouldn’t know half of what I do about family and love.
Once upon a time, a man frantically pounded on the door of my mother-in-law’s house in Central City and asked, “Are you S—- B—?” She said yes, and he said, “I heard you were the fastest driver in Muhlenberg County and I’ve got to get to Bowling Green in forty minutes to catch a plane. I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you get me there on time.”
She broke every traffic law on the books, but she did it–and got the money, which went a long way then. On her way back through Beaver Dam, she was pulled over for all those broken traffic laws and said to the sheriff, “You can’t give me a ticket because you didn’t pull me over then.”
“I couldn’t catch up to you,” he said. And she wasn’t ticketed.
I never met my mother-in-law–let’s call her the Queen Mother of Hats, because she was a hat model as well as a coal miner’s daughter–but there’s a reason why my husband is as stubborn as a mule and will refuse to do anything he believes to be unethical. (The phrases about her are usually “she did whatever she wanted to, let me tell you,” or “nobody told her what to do.”) Along with two of her sisters, she sang on a radio show; she even babysat one of the Everly Brothers. I’m leaving off all the stories where she and her sisters beat the holy hell out of anyone who dared mess with them (there were a lot of those sisters and a lot of those stories), but I doubt anyone would have known all of them, except qMH herself.
That she died when kH was in his twenties is one of those supremely unfair things that no one can ever quite reconcile. The best I can do is say that she did more living in her years than her sisters managed in theirs–combined.
Last week we went and visited Western Kentucky for the first time (me, pH) or in decades (kH). I drove all of qMH’s country roads and while I was sensitive to the fact I was carrying around one of kH’s two surviving aunts, a frail, tiny woman–the baby of the family–she laughed when I gunned it to pass slow cars. kH’s mother taught his grandmother to drive in her 60s; when she shocked qMH by pulling out into a good deal of traffic, his grandmother said, “It was my turn.”
kH and qMH had seen the world’s largest shovel back in the day, but smack where Paradise lay is a TVA coal burning plant. Perhaps it’s because I grew up breaking rules and/or assuming they never applied to me, but I was damned if I wasn’t going to drive up and look around, so I made kH’s cousin extraordinarily nervous (she reminded me she had to live there, and I explained I was driving a rental car with Illinois plates) I’d never seen anything like the pile of coal there, nor anything so sad as one of the two remaining cemeteries. The song gets it right: the town is obliterated. I’ve spent plenty of time in old silver and gold mining camps in the west, either ruins or historical sites, and there’s always something there–the ruins of a bank, a jail, something. Holes in the ground, in the mountains.
Paradise? Nothing but signs and gravestones…