I have not lived in the mountains of Appalachia, so if I can tell you anything about them and what they did to me, it would be the reason I have bad eyes, defective lenses as my birthright, a need for more windows between me and the visible world.
The boy who gave me bad eyes was named Francis Conley. He was born in Bon Jellico, in Whitley County, Kentucky, in 1916, a town where pediatric medicine was tobacco or a hickory switch applied as needed and the coal company owned nearly every house but those of the blacksmiths and farmers. According to the scant records at the local three-room school, Francis made a B- average in sixth grade. He worked Bon Jellico’s mines, which shut down in 1937 when the mountains refused to choke up any more coal. Francis married, sired two legitimate children, and moved his family to a place with the nervous name of Highsplint, where he operated a hotel. His belly became significant, a public affair, and he wore bifocals with lenses as dense as manhole covers. In the 1950s, he devised a homecoming picnic for former residents of Bon Jellico (Bon, as they called it) who wanted to revisit their origins, a jolly tradition that ended early in the new century. Too many had died, and too many vandals had ravaged the residue of the former town that still clung to the mountainside. The coal company, after all, had designed Bon with impermanence in mind.
Francis would die, too, but he did things that didn’t die. Sometime in the fall of 1932, when he was sixteen and brimming with the vague, aimless energy of adolescence, he met a girl named Emma, and in the spring of the following year she had a child. Emma was my great-grandmother, fragile and serene. She was unable to speak or hear, two-thirds Helen Keller and not half as rich, which was why she wore loose gray garments, panhandled, and communicated in her own version of sign language supplemented with meaningful hissing. Emma’s lack of faculties left her unintentionally neglectful, though she did love her child, my maternal grandmother. Oftentimes the deafmute girl would go out to find the other panhandlers and leave my grandmother without any food in the house. The two of them lived with Emma’s father, Marion, who worked at the mine’s tipple, the coal-screening plant. Alone all day, my grandmother found her meals elsewhere. The neighbors were the only black people who lived remotely near Bon, an elderly couple and their grown daughter, and they gave bread and milk to the young white girl who came asking. One day during my grandmother’s third year, happenstance provided her with food: an ornery rooster in the family’s yard spurred her across the temple. When her aunt saw the wound, she caught the rooster, wrung its neck, and served it to her niece for supper.
Francis lived to the age of seventy, the Biblical threshold. For decades, he didn’t acknowledge his daughter with Emma, until too late, when he offered to write and call her on the condition that his wife not find out. My grandmother refused. Her nearsightedness was the only acknowledgement her father merited.
Even if the Jellico seam of coal hadn’t quit producing, the town still would have faced a reckoning day. The company refused to pay the miners in cash. Instead, it rented houses to them and compensated them with scrip, a ticket they could exchange for goods at a commissary owned, again, by the company. This store happened to charge higher prices than any general store that took cash—imaginary money suffered from crippling inflation. Several times the miners attempted to strike and form a union in hope of securing true wages, but in the early ‘30s the mine’s manager, Jack Taylor, offered them his final terms and emphasized his company’s readiness for a lockout by dumping a wagonload of coal—one ton—on the commissary’s front counter. The miners conceded; after all, the Depression reigned, and there was nothing to fear but fear itself, and starvation and bankruptcy and nakedness.
Union organizers from out of town weren’t the darkest clouds threatening Bon, though. If blight had struck the corn crop, the famine would have eradicated more than just the coal company’s profit margin. In Bon the people didn’t worship corn, (surely nothing so pagan was found in the David C. Cook texts they studied at church) yet the crop had a kind of omnipresence that unwittingly matched that of the Son of Man. The people planted corn, grew corn, picked corn. They ate it on and off the cob, boiled, salted, buttered, popped. They walked through and by it. They heard the clatter of the wind through its wheeling leaves as they fell asleep. Their children played in its fields, thrilled and terrified at the thought of getting lost in the humid maze. Many of the families, including my grandmother’s, slept on pillows and mattresses stuffed with cornhusks instead of feathers, so that the plant that filled their conscious hours formed a crackling basement to their dreams.
In contrast, fruit was as scarce as pearls, especially the citrus kind. It came twice a year at Easter and Christmas, if at all, and was easily substituted for any lasting, more practical gift, like a pocketknife. Bloodline, kinship, and etiquette ceased to matter in the presence of the fruit crate. One Christmas Day, when Marion took my grandmother on an errand and they came home late, every orange left from that year’s load was gone. Not one fiber of pulp or peel remained to testify that the holiday had even come, only the ordinary, guiltless faces of family. My grandmother was hardly old enough to fathom her mortality, but that morning’s disappointment must have felt like death, the same profundity, the same uselessness of words.
Soon, though, the days of fruit crates seemed a thoughtless indulgence. When the company folded, Marion lost his job at the tipple. Now the gifted man who could process columns of numbers with nary a pencil or an abacus in sight, who exhorted all of his coworkers to vote and who had run for a minor county office on a platform of inexperience, who took my grandmother for Eskimo Pies on payday and still publicly accused innocent men of fornicating with his daughter, worked as the janitor at the Baptist church. For the week in between jobs, his family suffered their stomachs. Some foods, some tastes, come to be entwined with lack, poverty, absence. For my grandmother this taste was hominy, a meal of dried corn without the germ, cooked in a diluted solution of lime. For three meals a day, the family consumed nothing but creek water and hominy, and each day drove the nail of embarrassment a little deeper.
Eventually, my grandmother left the life where you set tin saucers of kerosene around the legs of your bed to kill bedbugs. She attended nursing school, left that also, married. Gave of herself to others. Sometimes she returned to the place that made her, or tried to make her—though not for any homecoming picnic, so far as I know. When my mother was nineteen, she determined that she would come along on one of these trips and confront her biological grandfather, but her relatives didn’t tell her when they were going and drove away without her. They seemed to think it best she not become a part of Bon Jellico, that town that disappeared into the coalfields and its own mistakes, that survived even as its people departed the mountains.