My foray into genealogy has provided me with a clearer understanding of the history of at least one branch of my family. My paternal grandmother was a Smith, descended from John William Seth Smith and Christina Rowsee. Her roots center on Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Despite the southern bent of her background she was not a child of Dixieland. In fact, her father was a soldier in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers. Still her hard scrabble story was typical of the people from those places who lived in an era during which life was often uncertain and harsh.
Grandma never had the time or the opportunity to take advantage of education, leaving her illiterate but not unwise. She possessed a folk knowledge and a strength that came from living in corners of the country that were often untouched by modernization. She embraced what she saw as her role in life, that of a partner in the daily contest for survival. Little in her life was easy, and yet she was a happy and content person, not out of ignorance but out of a feeling that she had enjoyed the fruits of progress in the march of time.
She reveled in the joy of knowing that her son had achieved levels of education and success that were beyond her dreams. She took pride in having plumbing and electricity in her home as she recalled times when such things were yet to become the norm. She took little for granted and was a model of thrift even going so far as to make clothing out of the flour sacks that held the lovely white ingredient for her biscuits and pies. She was a woman who straddled the agrarian society of her birth and the industrialized wonder of her later years, and she marveled at the glory of it all.
I try to imagine the kind of life that she and those who came before her must have led. I recall so well her folksy manner of expressing herself that seemed quaint and of another time even in the early nineteen sixties. Memories of her ways have become for me a kind of link to her parents and how they must have talked and believed. I witnessed the hint of her Kentucky background even though she never actually lived there. Like the earnest and hard working folk who struggle to this very day in that part of the country, she was never afraid of long days filled with sacrifices and back breaking labor. She was a survivor, someone who gallantly faced whatever came her way with determination and a sense of wonder, but still she worried. It was as though she understood all too well the fragility of life. She knew how quickly all for which she had worked might go away.
Kentucky has been in the news of late with sweeping generalizations about its nature as a state. We’ve been hopelessly focused on an event in which nothing really happened until our collective anger and beliefs set our discourse on fire. We’ve aligned ourselves with one side or another without actually knowing anything about the players in this farcical debacle. We’ve drawn conclusions and made judgements based on soundbites of a few seconds and photographs taken out of context. In an instant we’ve turned on a group of young boys and even more so on each other. Our outrage and indignation has occupied our thoughts for days which is ironic given that if we want to focus on Kentucky there is a far graver issue of which we barely speak.
Much of the state of Kentucky is reliant on coal mining, an industry that is slowly dying and causing its workers to die as well. Entire generations of people have worked in the dark cramped caves filled with dust that invades their lungs and quietly begins to ravage their bodies. We have eagerly taken that coal to run our electrical plants. Coal has fueled the very progress that so awed my grandmother. It has kept the northern climes warm in the dead of winter. We have given little thought to the price of our modernization. We don’t worry much about the people who have been left to face harsh economic times and even worse medical problems that are decimating young men who never realized what the act of working each day would do to them.
The real tragedy related to Kentucky has nothing to do with a few teenagers who may or may not have reacted well to a supercharged situation. It is instead to be found in the towns where the mines and the factories have become empty shells. It is to be witnessed in the rising numbers of people with are literally suffocating as they attempt to breathe with their damaged lungs. The fact that we are not outraged for them on a national level speaks to the twisted ways in which we find ourselves viewing the world these days. We have somehow got it wrong all the way around as we quibble over nothing while real problems fester.
My great grandfather who served in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers was sick and tired after the Civil War. He eventually hid himself away in the remote forests of Arkansas where he quietly tended his land. He had seen and buried the dead at Shiloh. He must have understood the horrors that come when we lose our way in anger. I suspect that if he had the chance he would caution us to calm down and strive for more understanding and compassion.
We are all far more complex than the sides that we choose, the uniforms that we wear, the work that we do, the places where we live. Life is a continuum, a marathon, an opportunity. It’s time that we once again learn how to move forward from our mistakes and agree to disagree now and again without pushing each other away. There are very real problems that we must tackle, and none of that will happen when we are distracted and filled with anger. It’s past time to prioritize. There are coal miners needing our help, young people watching to see how we guide them, issues crying for our attention. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and reach across the chasms.