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.”
Main photo by Melissa Stilwell Photography