Those people. The ones who are in many ways the same ones, from the same places and circumstances my mother warned me about when I was little girl. I mean, Mr. Romney, we’d visit my grandmother's little house in Dwale in Floyd County in Kentucky, the one later taken by public highway 23. We’d sleep, my mother and daddy and me, in the bed in the front room, and sometimes I’d have to get up in the night. My mother would take me down the hill to the outhouse and the whole way down there she’d fill me with warnings about everything. The dirt path we walked. The door of the outhouse, how you should touch it as little as possible. How once you were in there you should sit way up, on your hands even, so you wouldn’t come in contact with all the germs and nastiness the others had left behind. And Lordy, she taught me right from the start not to look down in there, in the pit itself, where who knew what resided, cast off from the unclean selves of that whole world.
That world she warned me about, my mother. A world unlike the clean, safe place she wanted, a world untouched by even the very people she came from. To be fair, my mother was ill, a bad case of OCD, untreated, undiagnosed. There’s that part of the story, but still, she taught me a lot you’d have agreed with. The things and those people. The ones with coal dust on their walls. The ones with dirty hands and faces, like all those Estep children, all dozen of them, miner’s children, them walking to school up the road in Harlan County. My mother taught me warnings and fears about all of it. In the mix, she taught me for a good long while to want more, to think I was doing just what you describe, Mr. Romney. To take responsibility. To care for my life.
If I think of it as a metaphor (and I can do that, since this is just story), I see myself standing by the well out back of my granny’s house. I’m just little in this part of the story, but I can see it just like it was. The well drew sulfur water, the kind that left shirts and towels and the palms of your hands red, and I stood by that well and I looked at the pail my granny lowered for water for us to drink and what I did was fill it up with all the things I’d leave behind in my life, for years and years. The two lane roads and kitchen pans for washing up and the butchered bodies of hogs in the smokehouse. The dresses and rolled down socks and the free clinics and the sickness, even that, those people in their drawn-curtained houses, the women and the men who made me, the get-your-check-on-the-first-of-the-month people, the holy rollers and the speakers of tongues, the black lunged, the no-necked children born of their very own daddies, the can’t-read-can’t-write, the callers out in prayers. All of it. I cast it all down in that deep bottomed sulfur water well and taught myself to want more. To shake off my past like a dog shaking off water.
What I did, finally, was buy myself a 1967 Dodge Dart and set myself on the road to upward mobility. I mean, I went places. I left all those people behind, Mr. Romney, and boy, did I take responsibility for my life. I put myself through a no-tuition Eastern Kentucky school, sent myself to an ivy leaguer in Virginia. Parked outside of fancy houses and even once sent the smoke from my mufflerless car right inside the door of a cocktail party with writers in black dresses and bow ties. Oh, occasionally, in a writer’s workshop, I’d write about the little towns I grew up in. I’d take it well, the criticism I got about the little mountain hamlets I described. I climbed my way through a master’s degree, a doctorate, through jobs as instructor, visiting professor, assistant professor, visiting writer, associate professor, professor on her way to the stars and planets and moons. I did it up right. Who I became bore no resemblance to the slackers of my past. I cut those folks out of my life clean as the top right off a mountain. Learned how to say my i’s just right. To lend a pretty French phrase at the right minute. My little stories now and then about hills and women with gold teeth and gardens a mile long to hoe? Thank god, you might have said, Mr. Romney. I’d made something of myself.
But this is the part where the story alters. It alters via time, distance, illness even. It would be inadequate to say that I almost died of cancer, some sickness that took me and shook me out and set me back down again, altered forever. Altered via sheer lack of who I was and where I came from. Altered by knowing I had failed to honor the gift of my people. Me, in my Dodge Dart, set along the path of a better life and left remembering, over and over and over. Remembering my people. Those people, Mr. Romney. The people who made me. Their mountains and coal dust, their banty hens and blood-specked eggs. Their gardens and warm houses, their poverty and dignity. I will not belabor you with the details of what picked me up by the scruff of my neck and shook me hard enough to make me see them, these people I love with all of myself. You look yourself, Mr. Romney. Look at the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron. Of Doris Ullman. Of Rob Amberg. Study the photos for light and dark. For the curves of faces, the palms of hands, the absence of having, the have not. I come from them. I have come from them and will return to them in my writing, my life, my work, my memories, my truest dedication. That, Mr. Romney, is responsibility. That is caring for lives.
What will I do with this part of the story? How, exactly, will I take the responsibility I claim? Will I teach in prisons? Spend afternoons in nursing homes? Hand out free food in shelters? Teach reading to young adults, to seniors? Spend one afternoon a week on a meals-on-wheels? Find a way to teach children in a school system where teaching the standards has overshadowed the arts? Spend one weekend a month at a women’s shelter, a rape crisis center, a food bank, a church, a nursing home, a hospital ward, an oncology center chemo room, a take-back-the-night? I’m pitiful, Mr. Romney. I’m still seeking the ways and means. What I do know is that I’m finding my voice again. I’m reaching my hand back down into waters, looking without flinching into the long dark well. I’m driving the back roads in my new, shiny car again. I’m going home, but I don’t yet know how. What I do know.
Those people. One memory of myself I could not let go of. In that memory, I am nine and we go to visit my great grandmother, Beck. She smokes a pipe and wears a cotton dress and anklets with canvas shoes. She frightens me when she pulls me into her lap and whispers next to my neck. You’re a good girl, ain’t you? Smart, too. I escape after awhile and let all of them talk and where I go is the sulfur-water well out back next to a shed. I find a penny in the depths of the pockets of my shorts and I throw it out over the top of the well. The penny shines and tips and shines as it falls, light as air.
Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Her novels are The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick by Oxford American, and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Her writing has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She has taught in the MFA Program at Georgia College, the Sewanee School of Letters, and Murray State University’s Low-Residency MFA. She currently teaches at St. Mary’s College and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan University.