Appalachian?

“They’re in the chesterdrawers” I said.

“What?” Kyra asked.

“They’re in the chesterdrawers” I said.

“What in the world are chesterdrawers?” Kyra asked.

I walked down the hall and into my childhood room and pointed.

“That” I said.

She started laughing.

“What?” I asked.

“That is a chest…of…drawers” she said.

I was well into college (maybe out of college) before learning that “chesterdrawers” was not one but three words.

It was a small correction.

One of many that began when I went away to college.

Not far.

Just an hour and some change away from home to Earlham College in Richmond, IN. But, linguistically and culturally, I could not have been further away from home. I was a first-generation college student and the first in my family to go away to college. And, Earlham’s reputation drew students from all over the country to enroll. A large majority of them were from the east coast. During classroom discussions, my professors and classmates were using words I ‘d never heard before. Words like:

  • Recalcitrant.
  • Idiosyncratic.
  • Serendipitous.

I’d jot them down in the margins of my notebook to look up later.

I’d practice pronouncing them by myself.

Try them out in class.

Use them wrong.

Get corrected.

Try them out again on friends.

“Did you just learn that word?” they’d ask with no patience (and rightfully so).

I wouldn’t answer.

Just look away.

But, I had.

I met Kyra at the end of my sophomore year.

According to the social rules at Earlham, we should never have started dating. I was a football player from a small Ohio town who wore muscle shirts, gold chains and snake skin boots (with gold tips). I was at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Kyra and her friends wore patchouli (a perfume that smells like dirt if you can believe that), didn’t shave their legs, and ate only vegetables.

Spending time with Kyra meant spending time with them. And, they’d use words I’d never heard before. Words like:

  • Facetious.
  • Bourgeois.
  • Proletariat.

I’d note them down and look them up later.

When Kyra and I got serious, I moved into the gravitational orbit of her family. Her Dad was a professor. Her Step-father was an MD/PhD. And, her Mom had worked for years in and around higher education.

I felt out of my depth.

I was navigating a world I did not believe I was worthy to be a part of.

During family discussions, I ‘d mostly stay quiet. Occasionally, I’d try to contribute. But, my insecurities would flare up and I’d end up mumbling.

“Shawn you have to speak up and enunciate” they would say.

A small correction.

Not a mean-spirited one.

Not at all.

But, one of many corrections that I’d grown accustomed to receiving since leaving home to go off to college.

Nowadays, I’m in higher education. I no longer feel self-conscious when using big, multisyllabic words. I still mis-pronounce some words. And, I still find myself jotting down words to look up later. Words like:

  • Eponymous.
  • Liminal.
  • Numinous.

But, I speak differently than I did.

Before I left home.

I speak differently than my Mom does.

Not that differently. But, there’s a difference.

I no longer say “chesterdrawers”.

She does.

That little girl in the picture below that’s my Mom: Donna Jean.

She’s surrounded by my Grandma Ruth, my Great-grandma Elise May, my Great-great grandma Cora Wolf and Great-great Grandpa Bowles.

A couple years ago, I was giving a talk at Elon University (North Carolina) and fielding some questions about my background when a professor in the audience said “You’re Appalachian.”

That declaration rocked a remembrance in me.

I sort of knew I was Appalachian. But, I also did not know.

It’s more like I forgot.

But, that declaration sparked a longing to know more.

So, I started asking questions of my family about our family.

And, that’s how I came upon that picture.

Here’s some of what I learned:

My Great-grandma Elsie grew up in one of three Kentucky counties: Hazard, Perry or Harlan. My Grandma Ruth arrived in Cincinnati for elementary school sometime in 1928. And, my Mom grew up in Hyde Park before settling down and raising me and my sisters in North Bend, OH.

According to people who study these things, I’m part of the Appalachian urban diaspora.

And, I feel this calling to come home.

Not to a physical space.

Although I feel that too.

It’s more of calling to come back to a culture that I had turned my back on and a heritage I may have been incentivized to forget.

Those small linguistic corrections (which I have a sneaking suspicion started way before I left for college) may have been part of a larger decades-long process of scrubbing away a part of my identity.

I would like to believe that I am just another casualty in modernity’s slow insidious stripping away of cultural differences.

I want it to be this.

But, it’s not.

I actively participated in the erasure of my identity.

No, it’s worse.

I’ve used “hillbilly” and “redneck” as slurs before.

I’ve used the Deliverance Banjo Duel to deride others before.

Without knowing it (maybe I was aware of it), I was hating on myself.

Devaluing myself.

Diminishing myself.

My family.

My people.

The shame burns my face a deep shade of red.

After all of that, do I even have a right to say that I’m Appalachian?

I find this great comfort in the possibility of being part of something distinct – a people, a place, a lifestyle, a laugh, a way of gathering, a way of being and a way of existing.

Is it too late?

Have I moved too far away?

Forgotten too much?

Can I go back after turning my back on a part of myself? 

I don’t know.

I do know that “chesterdrawers” is one of my favorites words.

It beats “serendipitous” (which is a truly magical word) hands down.

“Chesterdrawers” is like a trout line – running from me to my Mom, my Grandma Ruth, my Great grandma Elsie May, and to my Great-great grandparents.

It takes me all the way back to Harlan, Perry or Hazard County.

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Questions or comments? Just fill out the CONTACT form on my ABOUT page and I will get back with you right away. Thanks. – shawn

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PS I hope that I have not given anyone the impression that the people of Appalachia or of Appalachian descent do not or cannot use any of the ten-dollar words I’ve enumerated. That is not my intention. Those words were part my journey back to my myself. That’s why they make up part of my story.

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PSS Usually when writing a blog, I’m not too overly sensitive to spelling and grammatical mistakes. If I make them, I’ll correct them as a find them or as they’re pointed out to me. Not this blog. With this blog, I’ve checked and re-checked my grammar, spelling and use of words. I even looked up the difference between “farther” and “further”. Not sure why; but, since I’m talking about my Appalachian heritage, I feel like I cannot make a mistake.

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Here’s some of my mom’s remembrances about this picture:

“This was a family reunion at my great grandparents home down in Appalachia. The man is your great great grandfather, last name Bowles. He was blind with cateracts  until he moved in with Grandma Elsie in the 60’s, it was fairly a new procedure. We were so happy he was able to see before he died. It was the first time he had seen me. Great grandma Cora Wolf is on my left. She was from Cherokee Indian descent, this is what I have been told. I would love to learn more. Aunt Linds may have more information about our Indian heritage. Of course Grandma Elsie behind her Mom and my beautiful mommy behind her Grandpa.

It looks like a park setting. We always had family reunions down in the mountains. There were 13 kids in my Grandma’s family, haha. Nothing else to do I guess. I don’t know who is still alive.

I can remember that day, I picked a bunch of wild flowers. I remember the dress I had on. It was one of my favorites, orange top with tiny rhinestones, I thought I was fancy. Thank you for the wonderful memories hon, it’s great to remember.

Would love so much to learn more. I am very proud of my heritage from the mountains and Hyde Park both, that’s what makes us so interesting. We Americans are proud mutts, lol. Love.”

Some more thoughts from my Mom after posting the blog:

“Hon, I love this so much, you are saying some of the things I use to feel as growing up. I too am very proud of my heritage from Appalachia. I remember when I lived in Southern California, I went to a brand new school called John Glenn, it sure wasn’t like the schools in Cincy or Kentucky . More like buildings spread around like a modern College. Anyway, I felt so out of place, I had to wear my Aunt’s clothes because it was a surprise we were still there for the school year. My first year in High School as a Freshman looking and sounding totally different. That was in the sixties with surfer girls, beehive hairstyles and go go boots, lol. Which I did have later hahaha. This is the long way around the point of the English Teacher use to make me stand up and talk in class because he said I was speaking the correct English, I was embarrassed but also grateful because he made me feel like I was special when I felt like I sure wasn’t. Oh my gosh, talk about a book hahaha, love you hon, loved the blog. Sweet and bittersweet memories. God bless you.

 Did you notice the coffee pots on the table? We always had wonderful down home cooking, always corn bread homemade biscuits, some sort of homemade bread. Lots of greens, green beans, mustard greens, collard greens of course with ham or bean bacon. Of course can’t forget all the bean soups. Wow, I’m hungry. Just remember bacon fat, lol.

Yes I do, please for pardon, warshrag for wash cloth. Lol some of this might only be Cincy slang, it is fading away unfortunately and sad. Being different is what makes us great.”

“Hey I wanted to clear something, when I said Hyde Park , that was the area where Grandma and Grandpa Schoonover lived. I was making a difference between City and Country. I was born in Mt. Adams on Kilgore Street, at the time it was a grocery store on the bottom of building, we lived on second floor, then there was a third floor. The house is the only one left on that street. When they were making Ft. Washington Way. All the construction literally destroyed the other homes. Grandma said the German lady who lived there would scrub the stoop every day with a bar of soap of lye. Stoop meaning front steps.  Cincy ‘s German heritage. There are lots of pictures of the building and inside. Need to find the pictures.”

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