Earlier this week, my middle child's school announced they are having a cultural fair. They asked parents to volunteer to present their family's heritage. I got kind of excited and went right to the online sign-up form . . . and then I wasn't so excited.
If you know me, you know I've been working on several historical novels, the first of which is set in southwest Virginia in the 1930's. While sharing some of the research I did with my mother, I found out that my parents were raised in a coal camp, a really unique one compared to the others in the same time period.
How did I live this long without ever knowing my parents lived in a company town? My parents don't talk about the place they came from. My dad has retained his sense of who he is, but doesn't talk much in general and never with much detail, so it's difficult to get any information out of him. My mom has some sort of shame from being a "hillbilly." She has done her best to wash off her accent and pretend like she's from Cincinnati. I think this is not uncommon among the masses that moved to Cincinnati from Appalachia.
I'm proud of my heritage and embrace the qualities I love about my grandparents - inner strength, the thing where they saw the good in things when there really wasn't any good to be seen, the depth of their love for their family, and their kindness.
I love the idea of being self-sustaining and living as simply as possible.
I can see the look on my grandma's face now, the smile she would have - not laughing at me and not putting me down, just a smile that would say with no words at all that she senses the hypocrisy of that line. She would want me to see the hypocrisy so I can make my life better. I am in no way living the self-sustaining, simple life I admire so much. I am surrounded by electronics. I live in the middle of suburbia. I have purchased enough processed foods to buy my kids' school a new playground from those 10 cent boxtop coupons we collect. Two of my kids go to private school. Much of the time I am more sarcastic than loving (sorry, honey).
When I read through the sign-up form for the cultural fair, I saw my disconnect with my heritage very clearly. They want us to present items like this: music or musical instruments, food specific to our culture, artifacts like toys, art, games, or clothing. It made me sad that I didn't have any of that. I don't have my grandmother's recipes. My mother tried so hard to disconnect from her past that she didn't save anything like that. The fact is they were so poor, they simply played in the creek for fun (yes, the creek that was polluted from the coal mines). All I have are memories, stories I've written, and research I've done.
At least three of my grandparents were part Cherokee. Their ancestors escaped the Trail of Tears. No one in my family has any information about how they hid or what their lives were like except for my mother's grandmother who was half-Cherokee. But no one remembers her parents' names. My great aunt told me about her life, the parts she remembered. She told me she was a "throw-away," a child no one wanted. I am amazingly proud to be an ancestor of this woman that survived despite all odds - even though I didn't meet her, and a lot of what I see in my mind when I think of her is actually the character I created.
I wonder if my kids would be proud to have me present our Appalachian heritage. Or would they be ashamed of it the way my mother is?
I think the best I can do for the cultural fair is to skip this one, do my best to finish my novel so I can present it at the next one, and make sure my kids know where they come from and how strong their grandparents were.