My heels clicked on the hardwood floor of my first apartment. After two weeks of crying myself to sleep with homesickness, I was finally starting to feel comfortable in this new city. Through the living room window, I could see that the sun was going down, offering some hope of relief from the sweltering Savannah sun. Even in early spring, the humidity melted my lipstick. The man who would become my husband was rushing me out the door to make a dinner date, and as he locked up the apartment, I went ahead down the steps to escape the thick air on the top floor of the building. The aging stairs creaked underneath me as I made my way down. I noticed our new neighbor at the bottom floor, leaning against the doorframe of the bottom floor apartment, talking with another tenant. He was a middle-aged British man whose wire glasses always seemed askew, and his greying hair was sparse. He did not pay for electricity or running water in his apartment, and he played the violin on the street for income. He had once attended Juilliard, and his talents were undeniable, yet he had chosen the life of a nomad. As I walked down the steps that day, dressed for dinner in a city that was both new and exciting, he said “Wow, you West Virginians sure clean up nice. Wearing shoes and everything.” Meanwhile, this man was missing two teeth and standing barefoot in the doorway. I did not point this out to him, but instead just let out a half-laugh and walked on, my forehead already sweating, my heels clicking all the way.While I later grew very fond of this man, his first impression filled me with a familiar frustration. The amount of times I’ve felt the need to defend myself or my state are too many to count. The times I’ve had to inform someone that West Virginia is not actually western Virginia are even greater. We are either mocked or forgotten, raped of our resources or abandoned entirely. I, too, left the state for “better opportunities,” but ultimately ended up returning to my people, my heritage, after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and longed for the comforts of home, the embrace of these hills. Typically, these jokes come quickly and without warning from people who think they are being clever, as if I haven’t heard that one before. I long to explain to the people who mock me and my state, whether for our apparent stupidity or for our poverty, that their assumptions are incorrect, and explain to them that we are a people of strength, perseverance and loyalty. I long to watch their self-indulgent humor fall from their faces and give them my diatribe of facts and feelings. While West Virginia struggles to survive, people continue to place us into categories — stupid, uncivilized, incest, addicts, lazy — and I long to ask these people, “Why is that funny?” But I won’t. My state can sometimes disappoint me, but I will always stand by it. I come from a family that says “plum tickled,” warmly welcomes strangers into their kitchens, makes chocolate gravy on the weekends, and always has a pot of coffee ready. I am proud of my heritage, and I will not be mistaken for a woman who will bash where she is from — my father taught me better.There is an old black and white photo of my father and his family, taken before his father, Paul, died of lung cancer. They are all dressed in church clothes, and my father, wearing a tiny tie and holding his mother’s hand, is looking up to the camera with a smirk, the same smirk he has now, 50 years later. Looking at that photo now, Paul looks strikingly like my own father. Though he spent less than a decade with the man, my father’s memory of Paul is clear, poignant. I imagine he remembers a lot of crying that day, his mother probably holding him tightly, smelling of hairspray and cigarettes. My grandmother was left alone to raise five children on pennies in a trailer in a West Virginian holler.After Paul died, my father’s eldest sister Diana kept the household running. She was 15 years old. They grew up in a home that shared bath water and ate bologna sandwiches with the heels of the loaf of bread. My father’s youngest sister, Angie, was almost always the first one awake when they were growing up in that trailer, and would make herself some breakfast while everyone else was still snoozing. Standing on the couch peering out the window, she would announce the arrival of the school bus with an excited “Bus went up!” to alert her siblings that they must hurry if they were to make it to school. My father, Diana, and their brother Josh would roll out of bed at the last possible minute, and they would often wear plastic grocery bags over their shoes to keep the deep mud of the yard out of them as they walked down to the bus. This is now a story that brings tears of laughter and knee-slapping during holiday gatherings and kitchen conversations. Angie was 6 at the time. I’ve heard these stories for as long as I can remember, some of them so many times that I feel like I was actually there, but the stories that I’ve had to piece together myself, the stories no one wishes to acknowledge, have been the most tragic ones.
I never knew my father’s oldest brother, Danny, or his wife, Sara. They were killed in a car accident before I was born, but they left behind two children, Jamison and Laura Lea, who were later adopted by Diana. A decade later, I have a vague memory of headlights, a car driving along the curving gravel driveway of my parents’ house. A messenger. My parents rushing out the door, and my maternal grandmother was urging me to go to sleep, telling me that Mommy and Daddy would be home soon. I watched from the French doors of the living room as the headlights backed away, the hem of my nightgown grazing the floor.
Laura Lea, was only 17, he tells me. She had the characteristic hair of my grandmother’s side of the family, blonde and thick, and she loved to hold me when I was a baby, as the photographs suggest. She was tan and athletic, I’ve heard, and full of life. She was driving home with her boyfriend with her feet up on the dashboard. I imagine her tapping along to a song on the radio, looking out the window. My mother used to tell me not to put my feet up on the dashboard when she was driving me places. “Laura Lea had her feet up like that,” she’d say. I didn’t need to hear another word to understand what she meant. I was in my twenties before I felt brave enough to ask my father any questions about Laura Lea. When he speaks of her, his face simultaneously lights up and fades away, and he makes this sound that I’ve heard him make before at funerals and exciting church services, as if he’s trying to decide whether to laugh or cry. Today, my nightstand and dresser were pieces from Laura Lea’s bedroom.
These are the stories that shaped my father, and ultimately shaped me. His fervent affection for his people and his home have become his foundation. It would be easy for a person to become cold and push out the world, but my father and his siblings have somehow managed to hold tighter to our sense of family. When I moved away, my father called me about once a week for five years to ask when I was moving home. Sometimes we would laugh about it, but other times, I could hear in his gravelly voice that he meant it. After years of bouncing from state to state, I finally called to tell him I was truly moving back. He made his characteristic sound of weep-laughing. The year I moved back to West Virginia, I ran my first half marathon. My father was getting off work from a midnight shift around the same time the race started that morning, and as I finished my first mile, I saw him standing on the sidewalk in his black Steel of West Virginia cap and brown Carhartt jacket. He was looking for me among the thousands of runners, a sea of neon lycra. We caught eyes and waved. I did a little deer leap for him and made him laugh, but I could tell he was choking up a little. For the rest of the race, I held onto that moment.
My father has never worked a 9 to 5 desk job, but rather grew accustomed to working swing shifts for nearly every factory he’s worked. My father began working at Steel of West Virginia decades ago and worked his way up to foreman, where he will retire. There are plenty of things my father can’t do, but there is nothing that he isn’t willing to attempt. He is not a carpenter, but he has built me a swing set, a bookshelf, a pool deck. He is not a mechanic, but has taken care of a dozen cars during my lifetime. He is not a writer, but has read more books than I have. He is not a politician, but has taught me to think for myself. While we had our own periods of financial struggle, my father has provided my family with a much more privileged life than he had for himself. As a child, I remember my father eating the heels of the loaf of sliced bread. I asked him why he did that, when there was another fresh loaf in the cabinet. “That’s wasteful,” he said. “The heel tastes fine.”
It was the end of January, just weeks after my December graduation and surprise going away party. With a fresh diploma in my hand and a red Jetta packed full of shoes and books, I was off to Georgia, a 10-hour drive from my father and everything I knew. My bones ached for independence, but leaving my siblings bawling in my brother’s bedroom was near crippling. I stood anxiously in my mother’s buttery yellow kitchen, preparing to say goodbyes, when my father decided to check the oil in my car. My cotton sweater was clinging to my sweaty back as I nervously implored my father to leave the car, that my oil was fine, that we had already checked it. That sound my father makes when he is trying not to weep is among the most gut-wrenching sounds my ears can remember, and in this moment, that is all I heard. Goodbyes were said. I hugged him last. His thick arms clung to me, and his distinct smell of tobacco smoke and earth seeped into me. As I was about to close the door and pull away before I changed my mind, he leaned his long face into the car, the wrinkles around his eyes looking a little deeper than I remembered. He put his enormous, scratchy hand on the side of my face, and said “Don’t forget who you are, or where you came from.”
About the Author: Kayla Dyer is a daughter of Marshall University and the founder of Mountain Gypsy, a blog for the hippies at heart and lovers of Appalachia. After living in several different states, she moved back home with her husband, and enjoys their life in Huntington. She has a journalism degree from the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and is now back at Marshall getting her master’s degree in secondary English education while working on her writing skills. She likes to crochet and do yoga (not at the same time), and her go-to karaoke song is Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”