Things I saw today (Ghosts in the hollow, Appalachian heart)

April 4th, 2010 by amy

I found this haunting video of coal mining towns of Appalachia.

Ghosts in the Hollow from Jim Lo Scalzo on Vimeo.

I grew up in Appalachia in a small town in the mountains of Pennsylvania in dairy and mining country and the landscapes and tumbling buildings in Scalzo’s video are very familiar.

mountains and mist mountains

While our father’s mother was from Dutch high society, our beloved mother’s mother was definitely a mountain person (a ridgerunner vs. a flatlander) and it’s a form of mild family pride that during prohibition she was a rum runner. Quilts and stories and carefully maintained pieces of furniture were passed to us from our mother. Our Mom seems to have endless second or third cousins and if she doesn’t have an existing connection with someone, with her warmth, interest and charm, she easily makes new connections. She dragged us through and I know now, steeped us, in some of the history, art and traditions (she even made us do folk dancing, once filmed for local TV and mercifully, I hope, lost to time). As a lay person and later a minister our father (who is also a lawyer and was DA for 16 years) did the Sunday and holiday services for more than 30 years in a small, underprivileged coal mining town miles away from the main (2 lane) road. Going to the little town with him was always more duty than joy – the dirt roads bumpy, the company houses all eerily the same, only an outhouse (still in the 80s) for the church – the people varyingly friendly or suspicious, contented or unhappy just like anywhere.

The older I get the more clearly I see how the long-term economic and educational disadvantages of the area is a kind almost institutionalized impediment and the invisibility of, or even worse, the disdain directed at its people is a strangely acceptable and open form of discrimination. I’m not sure I can find the words to write about my anger at the sneering contempt and self-satisfaction which masquerades as humor against “hillbilies” and country people with lower socio-economical status (what the hell is so contemptible about shopping at a discount store, about trying to survive and provide for your family when you don’t have much money or are lacking sufficient hipster style!?). I find this smug, privileged attitude disgustingly arrogant and mean-spirited. People who would probably recoil from telling racist jokes still seem to feel free to mock and demean people based on their socio-economic status, appearance or geographic location. (Hmm. ok, maybe I did find a few words after all).

country road country road

When I was younger I couldn’t wait to move away. Both my twin and I travelled to Australia for a year long foreign exchange in high school and out of state for college (both very rare things for anyone in any of the towns nearby). We were raised to speak (no ‘aints’ allowed) and to have different aspirations from many of the people around us. Fairly or unfairly, perhaps fortunately, different expectations were placed on us. We didn’t quite fit in but maybe we weren’t necessarily supposed to – existing within but slightly to the side of things.

Once when I was working at an arts college in Boston I met a friend of a visiting artist, a woman whose book I’d just happened to read. Though raised in Hawaii it turned out she’d spent a bit of time with extended family in another small town near where I grew up. Looking at me perhaps a bit more closely she said: “I wondered if anyone ever got out of that town.” and, at that time at least, I felt a small bloom of pride at making my way ‘out’ to such a vastly different life from where I started – working in a gallery, passing as a city person.

But no matter how many years I’ve lived in cities, because my parents, sister and nieces were there, PA was always ‘home’ and I always feel a great relief and peace at coming back to the mountains. The older I get the more I realize how strongly attached I am to the place and people and, no matter what urban veneer I might have acquired over the years, how deeply I am molded and held by the place.

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