The C Word

IMG_0044Man Child has moved back home after graduating “university,” and along with him, come a 1949 Packard, a dozen old bicycles waiting to be refurbished, four years of collegiate dirty laundry, a collection of depression era glass, an engine lift, the piquant odor of 70-year-old gasoline and grease, a hearty appetite, a 1940 Packard engine (that is NOT part of the 1949 Packard) and did I mention dirty laundry?

He also brought his energy. I could use summa that energy because mine seems to be taking an extended sabbatical. However, Man Child’s energy whips into a room, makes everybody laugh until either their sides ache, or their pants are wet and then whirls back out from whence it came, leaving the room feeling emptier than it was before he entered. Emptier and somehow trashed.

Spousal Unit and I remain amazed at his ability to leave a trail of destruction. It’s as if the items that were on tables see him coming and just go ahead and jump onto the floor, knowing it is their fate anyway. Maybe I read too many Grimm fairy tales to him as a child and he feels as if he must leave a trail of breadcrumbs wherever he goes. In his world, breadcrumbs become bolts, oil-soaked rags, screwdrivers, 3D printed phallic symbols and half-filled Tervis Tumblers.

Shortly after he moved back, he visited Daisy, who sat forlornly alone, waiting to be finished. I was really, REALLY close to getting her done, painting her counter tops eight million coats of shiny black because $400 for a sheet of retro Formica is more than I paid for the actual camper. I was kinda showing off to Man Child that I was finishing her by myself. She would be complete by spring.

He stepped inside and admired his handywork from four years ago and we reminisced about the time she caught on fire and when his dad needed six stitches from working on her. Then he reached across the counter top of many coats and pushed on her wall. It was soft. He pushed his entire hand through her plywood and pulled out the soft rotted pulp of a water-damaged 2 x 4 and fistful of pink insulation like an Aztec warrior pulling out the still-beating heart of his defeated foe.

I was the witness on a crowded street who says nothing, but watches the carnage with sick fascination. He continued to pull out rot and insulation. I gasped open-mouth like a fish on dry land. Daisy! Oh! God! Daisy! She hadn’t even been given anesthesia.

He mashed his fingers against the 2 x 4 until the wood quit giving way and he removed the plywood and the insulation to the spots where they were dry and solid. I found my voice. “So, you’re going until you find clear margins?” I squeaked, remembering the terminology from a friend’s lumpectomy.

“Yep.” He proclaimed. “Daisy’s got The Cancer.”

His bedside manner could stand some improvement. “What’s it going to take to make her well again?” I whispered, thinking maybe I should get her on our church’s prayer list. “Is it terminal?”

“Well, we need to find the cause of it. I think I’m going to have to take the metal off like we did the other side. I’m not sure where the leak started, but water is getting in here and….” He kept pushing in wood and pulling out guts.

I looked at the pile of gizzards on my shiny black counter top with four coats of shiny black paint and swallowed hard. “Well, I guess Daisy has always been about the journey and not the destination, eh?” I tried to quip gamely; it came out bitter, empty, like Kellyanne Conway faking that she enjoys her job.

Man Child dusted off his hands like Pontius Pilot, and I knew deep in my heart that this was going to be my problem. His work here was done. He’d made the diagnosis. He and his Tasmanian Devil energy hopped down from Daisy and flower pots on her little porch just went ahead and fell to the ground, succumbing to their inevitable fate.

Three months have passed and Daisy’s open wound remains sore and inflamed. It’s a beautiful spring day, the kind of day I want to be able to nestle within Daisy’s pretty pink walls and write. When I stepped into her today, knowing that writing next to her gaping puss-filled, cavernous void would be impossible, a beam of light filtered down from her ceiling vent and I became enlightened. I know how I can cure Daisy’s The Cancer.

Four years of dirty laundry will fill that hole nicely don’t you think?


Not By The…

TweezersI’m curled on the sofa, next to my beloved, scratching him behind the ears as he, Spousal Unit and I binge watch “Better Call Saul.” I absent-mindedly rub my chin and a piercing pain shoots through my finger. I bolt up and run for the bathroom.

I’m brushing my teeth, scowling into the mirror at the oversized woman with the bags under her eyes and compact fluorescent light catches an unmistakable glimmer. I drop my toothbrush, foaming from the mouth like Old Yeller and blindly reach for the weapon I know is close at hand.

I feel an ache, a pain that is familiar, particularly from my youth. I rub the underside of my thumb across it and my thumb crests the mound that holds a pimple. I grumble that pimples and wrinkles should not be on the same human at the same time. I tilt my head in front of a mirror to address the issue in the time-honored fashion my foremothers addressed theirs, push my two pointer fingers together and squeeze. Puss ejects, but something remains beneath the skin. Curled.

I curse and growl.

A pox upon you, chin hair!

Bette Davis might have believed that “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” but the dame had people. Makeup artists. Managers. Sycophants. I don’t have people. There is nobody who will tell me that I’m growing a silver dagger out of my chin, or simply pluck the offender out whilst applying my war paint for Act 3; Scene 1. I have to be my own guardian of the galaxy for the silver constellation that rises from my skin faster than 45 can rage tweet before 6 a.m.

I don’t remember when the first chin hair erupted from my unblemished face, but for years, I’ve had one soft, curled lock twist away from my neck. When my children were young, I was lunching with them, my neighbor friend and her kids, al fresco on a sunny spring afternoon. We were yabbering away, restraining preschoolers from creating mayhem and solving ALL the world problems, when she furrowed her eyebrows and leaned toward me. She squinted, reach out her hand toward me and spellbound, I sat, unmoving. Unblinking. Her outreached fingers rubbed against my neck and suddenly, a sharp pain jolted through my throat and down my chest.

She victoriously pulled back, clutching something between her thumb and forefinger. “It was shining in the sun,” she proclaimed, proffering a blonde hair toward me like an offering. My eyes watered with pain and I felt like my voice box had been pulled through my skin like the still-beating heart of a Mayan sacrifice. She took my tearful speechlessness for gratitude.

Many years later, Man Child (Boy Child at the time, of course) was suffering the slings and arrows of puberty. His voice squeaked. He was as clumsy and leggy as a newborn deer and hair began sprouting in places he’d never had hair before. I told his dad he needed to explain about the hair thing and I’d deal with the rest. I had books. Spousal Unit handled it as he does most of my requests, by tilting his head, furrowing his eyebrows and walking off in a state of confusion. As a result, one of my favorite memories of that time is standing side by side with my pubescent son as we plucked the hair from our chin.

In my younger, fantasy-laden days, I had believed that by this point of my life, I would be either living on a horse farm in the rolling hills of Kentucky, or on a horse farm beneath the moss-covered oaks of the low country. I would stride about in jodhpurs and riding boots, the halls of my estate lined with framed covers of my best-selling novels and posters from the movies made from those best-selling novels.

I would wear my natural-blonde-only-tinged-with-gray hair in a loose bun at the nape of my neck and my wrinkles would be perfectly placed smile lines at the corners of my eyes. Makeup would only require some mascara for my thick blonde eyelashes and a dab of rose-colored Estee-Lauder lipstick on my smooth and unlined mouth.

I would begin each day with a sun salutation in my light-filled atrium followed by peaceful moments of meditative prayer, focusing on my breath and words – or a mantra — that bring me peace.

Instead, I am sitting in a supremely messy, (albeit pretty cool) house, clad in a literal muumuu (thank you Vermont Country Store), with a horse at somebody else’s awesome farm, (because dear God, do you have any idea how much WORK is involved in that?) dreading the detailing job that will be me getting ready for church.

I began this particular day by rolling over in bed, scratching my chin and slicing my finger on the katana springing from it. I waddled to the bathroom and grabbed the tweezers, my mantra as I breathe deeply in anticipation of the pain, “You m%$#@)*ing a$$*%e!”


Embracing the Buttmunch

IMG_9325Baby it’s cold outside and instead of some smooth-voiced crooner tempting me to stay the night by plying me with alcohol, I’m staring into my light therapy lamp while I pay bills and catch up on correspondence.

Why is my correspondence behind? Well, I’m glad you asked. My computer is ticked at me because I’ve allowed it to become more cluttered than a hoarder’s attic and I may have hit a button that made Outlook flip me the bird and wander off to somebody else’s laptop. I’m not entirely certain how computers work, but I do believe they’re spiteful and the programs within hold grudges worse than one of my cousins.

Because I’m passive aggressive and haven’t been to therapy in a while, I’m not dealing with this issue directly and am doing what most southern mamas do. Giving the troublemaker the cold shoulder and paying attention to the other kid.

It usually works, but as per usual, there’s a price to pay. For instance, Man Child has decided that he’s going to spend Christmas with his gf in Arkansas. I’m pretending to be okay with it, but I’m also planning to snub him ever so slightly. I will give his sister ALL the gifts. Girl Child will get tickets to the Fleetwood Mac concert, a flight to Phoenix to see bf, a sewing machine for fashion classes. And albums. So many albums. Man Child might get some new jeans. I plan to talk about ALL the food my mother will cook and rave about ALL the West Virginia adventures we will have. There will be satisfaction in making him feel left out. The price is that I will miss him with an ache the size of a strip mine.

With equal fervor, I recently decided to ignore Outlook and its bad attitude toward my emails. I recognize that ten thousand unread emails might be a lot, but for heavens’ sakes, being pissy and running that little arrow circle loop thing instead of opening up my email is just immature. I treated Outlook like I’m about to treat my firstborn, ignored it and ran my email through the provider’s website, Xfinity.

Because I had missed email correspondence for a couple of weeks, I had a lot of catching up to do, so one morning, I was huffing and puffing and blowing the little house of things-to-do down when I got a text from Spousal Unit.

“You do realize your emails say they’re from Buttmunches Caldwell, right?”

Um. No. No I don’t. My face got that flushed feeling one gets when one has sent a text fussing about a person to the person about whom one is fussing instead of the person with whom one wants to share the fussing. I quickly looked at who had received my morning emails.

Spousal Unit, of course. The horse vet. The neighborhood group email. Oh Lord. The neighborhood group email. A couple of those folk have been trying to figure out how to get me, my liberal bumper stickers and my little camper too sent to the Redneck Riviera for years. I continue to prove them right that I really don’t belong in that tony neighborhood, whether it’s Man Child’s loud motorized bicycle on the street, or my multi-cultural welcome sign in the front yard.

And now, Buttmunches Caldwell has sent the group an email. I might as well have planted marigolds in inside-out Goodyear tires and placed them next to the mailbox. I should set the washer and dryer on the front porch, if only I had a front porch.

I look at the Xfinity website. Sure enough. Right there in the top right hand corner where my name should be is “Buttmunches Caldwell.” Man Child has struck again. He set the account up for me. I knew that it said Buttmunches on it, but I didn’t know that emails sent from the provider would also say Buttmunches.

The kid is almost 24-years-old and a gnat’s ass away from a degree in Aerospace whatchamajigger, but he’s still twelve. When we asked him to help pressure wash a few things a couple of years ago, including Daisy, he wrote “butts” on our driveway with the pressure washer. Guests walk past it, read “butts,” tilt their heads and walk on. We leave it be because, I dunno. Isn’t that how Banksy got started?

I’ll probably leave Buttmunches on the Xfinity account as well. I will pretend it’s because I admire my son’s creativity and sneakiness. The truth is, I don’t know how to change it and because I’m giving him the cold shoulder over his not being with us over Christmas, it’s awkward to ask for a favor. Instead, I shall embrace my email nomenclature as I have embraced so many things that have come with parenting. Saggy boobs. C-section scars. Horses and their expenses. High blood pressure. I’m good with it all.

Just call me Buttmunches.


Version 2As if the world isn’t confusing enough, now there is gender neutrality. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that many folk have spent a lifetime feeling as if they were born into the wrong body or that they look in the mirror and see neither male, nor female. I don’t judge. After all, I had no issue with Caitlyn Jenner until I learned that she never paid the price for a DUI hit and run that he committed and that she is a Trump supporter. Really Caitlyn? You do know his stand on people like you, right?

And, well, okay, I have a HUGE issue with the non-gender-specific pronoun “they.” I have spent my life correcting bad grammar and fighting the uphill fight that is correct subject/verb usage. Not only do I wage this war against others, but also within myself. I was in college before I learned that “theirselves” wasn’t a word.

Still, with a daughter in a Chicago art school, it is my duty to stay hip to the kids these days and allow gender fluidity into my heart and into my sentence structure. Sometimes I wish that I could allow gender fluidity into my marriage. Why does Spousal Unit have to be such a MAN?

I just walked the back forty with the dog to oversee the destruction that was Spousal Unit’s version of weeding a couple of weeks ago. Dead piles of honeysuckle lay along the fence line. Did he think after he butchered all of the plants that the dead stuff would just disappear into the ground Harry Potter style? The ugly-assed chain-link fence leers at me like a drunk unable to stand straight. Honeysuckle used to hide the drunk uncle as well as its equally ugly-assed wife, the neighbors’ old wood fence. Now they stand, expecting a kiss and a hug from their long-lost niece.

I thought Spousal Unit and I had communicated. Apparently we didn’t. Sometimes I have imaginary marriage counselor meetings in my head. They go as such.

Me to MC: He asked how he could help in the yard. I told him the weeds in the side yard were out of control.

MC: So, did you ask him for what you need?

Me: Well, yeah. I asked him to weed the side yard.

MC: Did you ask that specifically?

Me: I’m not sure I used those exact words, but surely he knew what I meant.

Spousal Unit: You said the side was out of control. I hate honeysuckle.

Me: But we NEVER pay attention to that side of the back yard. I was talking about the chest-high weeds that are visible from satellite view alongside our driveway that EVERYBODY sees. In the FRONT yard.

MC: So appearances are important to you? Talk to me about your inability to set boundaries and your inability to ask for what you need.

Spousal Unit and Marriage Counselor look at me expectantly. Even in my imagination these things go south.

In a world where a word such as mansplaining exists, tell me why oh why oh why do we have to explain so much to a man. My mind can’t begin to jump to the conclusions his does. I can’t foresee that my mentioning that the weeds on the side yard (which is the term we have ALWAYS used for the patch alongside the driveway) house saber-tooth tigers will trigger his hatred of honeysuckle.

As I do in any situation that is unfathomable to me, I call my mother. Although she’s somewhat sympathetic, she can’t send much pity my way because she needs it all for herself. After all, she’s been married to my dad for more than sixty years.

My mother likes for things to be beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. It’s where Girl Child gets her artistic bent. She also likes for things to be clean. I’m assuming that gene is waiting for generations yet to be born. My mother still spring-cleans, bless her heart.

Several years ago, when my paternal grandfather was still alive, my mother had spent an entire week spring-cleaning the family room. In Nanna vernacular, spring-cleaning means washing curtains, dark-paneled walls, woodwork, light fixtures and knickknacks. Not dusting them, but washing them, carrying each knickknack, each piece of Blenko glass or collectable stein upstairs to the kitchen to a pan of warm ammonia water and washing it.

In recollecting the incident, she disassociated and continued her recitation of what entailed spring-cleaning in a monotone voice. “I clean the windows inside and out, even if it is fifteen degrees outside. Vacuum. I vacuum all the dust out of the upholstery. Vacuum the lampshades. There had to be hundreds of encyclopedias and books.” She grew quiet, but I remember what happened.

Shortly after this particularly energetic spring-cleaning, my dad and his dad decided that a long-awaited home improvement project was in order. He would install lovely French doors, replacing dated and unwieldy 1970s sliding doors that led from the family room to the patio.

They brought in lumber. They measured twice and cut once. They framed the doorway and installed the lovely French doors. A fine layer of sawdust settled upon everything. “Everything on the shelves in the family room turned a sudden whitish grey,” my mother recalls, speaking in the detached way a crime victim repeats his or her story.

That tragic day is etched into my memory banks forever. My mother cried. Literally. Real tears. Anguished tears. My dad and his dad were incensed. After all, didn’t she WANT those lovely French doors? What an ungrateful shrew to wail and gnash her teeth after they worked so hard to install something she’d wanted for so long.

She remembers another day when she arrived home from work to see her beautiful silver maple, her favorite sight from her kitchen window cut to less than half its previous height and roughly shaped like a truffela tree. She had made the mistake of mentioning that the tree needed trimmed. My dad and his dad had saved money by doing it themselves. They were proud. She was devastated. She asked my dad if they’d sat on lawn chairs and just sawed from where they were sitting.

It’s not just lawn care and home improvement projects where women risk great loss if they aren’t precise with their requests. When we were in the trenches of child-rearing, where I was fairly certain that the two beings who had sprung from my body were hell bent on destroying me, that they received their sustenance from eating my brain and sucking out my soul. Occasionally, I would realize my limitations and raise the white flag of surrender.

“Can you bring home dinner?” I would plead to the father of these beasts, believing that Taco Bell was the least he could do. “I don’t think cooking is gonna happen today.”

“Sure,” he would answer good-naturedly and I’d wonder if three o’clock was too early for wine.

He would arrive home, expecting his Father Knows Best moment of clean, adoring children reaching up to him for happy kisses and stories of adventurous days. Instead, there would be a mud-covered girl child screaming at her big brother to give it back while the equally muddy boy child told her he just needed it for a minute, for this one invention that would….”

I interrupted with my own scream. “WHAT IS THIS?”

“It’s dinner.”

I would paw through the bags of raw chicken, fresh vegetables and uncooked pasta.

“No, it’s not. It’s GROCERIES. Dinner is what is already cooked. Dinner is what you put on paper plates and throw away because if I have to wash another dish, human, toy, or wall that somebody smeared with mud, somebody is going to get hurt. I did not ask for GROCERIES. I asked for DINNER.”

His face looked much like my dad’s and grandfather’s after installing some lovely French doors. It is a sad and pitiful face and one I would feel sorry for if it didn’t remind me so much of a puppy who has just piddled on the floor. That face that makes me want to scream, “No!” at and smack it across the nose with a folded newspaper. (Please note that I smack neither puppy, nor spouse with a newspaper; I simply fantasize.)

Because I don’t want to deal with that pitiful face this evening, I shall not tell him that his lawn care attempts are as effective as a climate-change denier heading the EPA. Because I can’t explain to him what I meant when I said weed the side yard, without getting a nervous tic that simulates stabbing him with a dull knife, I shall remain mum.

I do think I’ll ask him to bring home dinner. Is three o’clock too early for a glass of wine?


SB2k18 Take Me Home, Country Roads Day 6


When Going Home Feels Like Leaving Home

Families aren’t easy; nor do they have to be hard. My “first family” is as complicated, dysfunctional and screwed up as the next one, but by golly by durn, if it isn’t the best family I have. My mother might purse her lips at some of my liberal ways of thinking, but she will sit down (no she won’t; she’ll flutter around while I sit) and talk in depth about world events and how we’ve gotten to where we are, as well as what we might do to make it better. I’m not lying when I say my mother is one of the wisest women I’ve ever known. Pretty is AS pretty does.

My dad is a gruff old fart with an uncanny sense of humor who worked in a steel mill for a million years, retired and because the world is unfair and the law is never on the workers’ side works at Wal-Mart for a million years more. How a plant can file Chapter 13, sell to another company and cut its retirees off at the knees by dropping their pension plan is a concept beyond my ability to comprehend. Gregarious 81-year-olds should work at Wal-Mart because they enjoy their following at Register 10. (Seriously, the man has a fan club.) NOT because they have no pension. Of course Wal-Mart keeps him just under full time so they don’t have to give him benefits.

Be still my angry, thumping, inner redneck heart.

My sister is a single mom who is private, so I don’t say much about her. She’s gorgeous. We both used to be; she stayed that way. She’s got a dry, cutting sense of humor that can slice steak. She scares me.

Her daughter – her doppelganger – is my heart. She is my parents’ heart. She is my sister’s everything. That’s a lot for a teenager to carry, but she does it well.

Because my sister never left the hills of West Virginia, the four of them are a unit. When I come to visit, I disrupt it a little. When I feel dramatic, I disrupt it a lot. It’s like they’re all comfortable sitting in a pew at church and I come in and expect them to scoot over and make room for my ample rear end. They smile in welcome, then they have to scootch over, pick up their church bulletins, scoot their purses, stand up to let me through, then scrunch up a little bit because the fit is a little tighter than it was before I arrived.

The week that Man Child and I spent with my family, exploring just a little bit of my home state during his senior year spring break was one of the best trips “home” that I’ve ever had. There was room in the pew for us and like any good church service, we left feeling uplifted and loved.

Still, we left feeling unfinished. There was so much we didn’t do, didn’t see. We brought bikes to ride around the small town of Milton. It snowed. We didn’t bike. We didn’t go see where my mother was born. We didn’t visit graves. We didn’t climb around in my parents’ attic. We didn’t go to Blenko Glass. We didn’t see a lot of folk whom I love. My Aunt Pat. Aunt Janet. Jennifer. Shelley. Bari. Liza. Kim. People I’d told I’d stop by while we were up there. We didn’t go get ice cream with my niece.

We DID do so much, though. We did so much it’s taken me a month to write it down. We did see people. I saw my twin aunts. I love those girls and yes, they will always be girls to me. They’re only a couple of years older than I and they make me smile wider than most people do. They love dogs almost as much as I do. (Okay, maybe even more.) They have the most generous hearts of anybody I have ever known. Lisa is an artist. She and her husband are regularly featured in the local news for their holiday décor. Teresa is a cook. She’s her own Meals on Wheels. She literally feeds the town of Milton. If you get a wart removed, be sure that Teresa knows and you’ll get a slice or two of mouthwatering pound cake, my grandmother’s secret recipe. If you get a limb removed, you’ll probably get the whole cake.

We did all that we could do. We explored curvy roads. We ate our way through at least ten counties. We saw monsters and we saw men. We experienced history already made and history being made. We saw despair. We saw hope. We saw lawmakers, law breakers and law enforcers.

On our way out of town, after tearfully waving goodbye to my mother in her driveway, we stopped at Stewarts Hot Dogs. Spousal Unit declares Frost Top the best; I declare Stewarts and we always argue on the way out of Huntington as to where we will stop. When he’s not in the car, it’s no contest. The carhop came to the window and we ordered. A mini van pulled up and I’ll-be-durned if it wasn’t two people I always intend to see, but never really get to squeeze into the schedule.

Man Child and I jump out of the car to love on Rick Haye and Marilyn Testerman. Those incredible shots of Marshall athletes at games? The just after dusk photos of the Memorial fountain? Rick, and often Marilyn, took those photographs and they’ve been taking those photos for a few decades. Rick is the Photographic Services Manager at Marshall. The above photo is of the Marshall Memorial Fountain.

I used to work with Rick and Marilyn when they were wedding photographers (there’s a whole series of blogs I could write about that) and we reminisced about the time their daughter was born while Rick and I were shooting a wedding. Rick missed her birth by mere minutes and we ran into the hospital where officials of some sort stopped me and said, “Family only.”

I didn’t miss a beat. “I’m her sister.” We ran back and I saw my very first newborn baby. Oddly, nobody questioned how Marilyn and I could be sisters. She’s dark-headed, tall and round-faced. I’m not. I watched this couple with their newborn baby and I felt like something from the poorly-written Twilight trilogy. This baby is imprinted on me. That kind of community isn’t bought.

Rick and Marilyn are grandparents now. We caught up as best we could, before hot dogs arrived and I spilled Marilyn’s Diet Pepsi. They needed to know that some things never change, including my inherent lack of grace. We returned to Pollyanna, our hot dogs (yeah, definitely beans in the sauce – shame on you Stewarts!) and a six-hour drive back to Nashville.

I’ve been slightly depressed and a little lost since returning to home that isn’t quite home. I built up my West Virginia library. I’ve followed Hillbilly Hot Dogs, the World’s Only Mothman Museum, Maria’s Drive-In and Matewan’s “Depot Replica Museum and Welcome Center” on Facebook. They don’t seem to miss me.

Girl Child came home from college over Spring Break. She was happy to be home, to see her horse, to be fed, but she was restless. I understood. She loves Chicago. Nashville is home. I squeezed her and said, “Welcome to my world, honey. For the rest of your life, you will be torn between two places you love.”

When I first got that 1959 Tour-A-Home canned ham camper and named her Daisy, I really did imagine I would pull her behind my trusty Honda Pilot and write from places far and near. I imagined my computer open on my lap as I wrote next to a campfire, golden retriever by my feet, Spousal Unit strumming mandolin down by the river.

I believed I had to make those trips in order to have something to write about. I was wrong. I had forgotten that the stories are like Zen. Wherever you go there you are. Wherever you are, there the stories are also.

*Photo credit: Rick Haye





SB2k18: Take Me Home, Country Roads Day 5 Part 2

Cops and Trains and Bullets, Oh My!



The farther you go into coal country, the higher the mountains are, the more rugged the terrain. It seems as if there is a collective goal to cut into the mountains. Rivers cut through them, with millions of years of erosion forming valleys and hollows. Roads cut through them, and around them, with the occasional backlash from Mother Nature as she sends boulders plummeting onto blacktop. Coalmines cut through mountains, and to the dismay of anybody with a lick of sense, cut off the top of them, in a misguided attempt to glean from planet earth the fuel that she can provide.

With John Ramey stories in our head and John Ramey food in our belly, we continued moving southwest, to our destination, Matewan. The 1987 movie stars, among others, David Strathairn, who starred in another West Virginia story, “We Are Marshall.” He portrays beleaguered, but strong, leaders really well.

In “Matewan,” he played the part of the town sheriff, Sid Hatfield. What I did not know is that the Matewan area is also where the seeds of dissension between the Hatfields and McCoys were planted. We aren’t huge followers of that particular story. I kinda hate that a bunch of poorly-behaved hillbillies recreated a tawdry rendition of Romeo and Juliet that included a pig, pawpaw trees, and long-held grudges. I really hate that those poorly-behaved hillbillies get far more attention than a man named Sid Hatfield, who isn’t even part of that clan.

Sid Hatfield was the law in those parts and when push came to shove, Sid Hatfield stood by his people, and stood up to the big city bullies who came to town. Coalminers and their families wanted to unionize; mine owners and their minions did not. When Man Child and I came around the bend to Matewan, it was Sid Hatfield’s story we wanted to hear.

The most notable thing about the town of Matewan is a mammoth flood wall that guards it as if it were Jericho. Flooding is an issue in West Virginia, just as tornadoes are an issue in the Midwest (and sometimes Nashville). My dad just test drove a truck, saw some rust where rust shouldn’t be and furrowed his eyebrows. My mother noticed, when the passenger door was open, that there was mud inside the speaker in the door. The truck had been in a flood. Be careful buying “pre-owned vehicles” from West Virginia.

After numerous floods and do-overs, Matewan finally got a flood wall. The problem is, after numerous floods and do-overs, Matewan also lost a great deal of its population. People get tired of trying. People leave. I know because I’m one of the ones who left.


There is really only one street in Matewan, besides the main road. Everything was closed, except for the bank and a Mexican restaurant. When some folks get their way and everybody is deported, I imagine the Mexican restaurant will shut down. We stared at the closed sign on the door of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum and pouted. As a tourist attraction, I suppose it doesn’t get much spring break activity.

We circled back to the street that crosses the Tug Fork and enters Kentucky. On the other side of it is a train depot. Oh, look! It’s a museum! I barely got the car in park beside the depot before Man Child was running across the parking lot. “I like trains!” he hollered. It is his mantra. Sometimes he’s still nine years old.

Inside the Matewan Depot Replica Museum and Welcome Center was my holy grail: swag. There were also three extremely friendly and helpful folks, one of which took Man Child back into the museum and started up the videos. I stayed to shoot the bull with the other two and check out the swag.

There are museums such as the one where Girl Child attends school, the Art Institute of Chicago. There are museums such as the musty-smelling Civil War shop and museum in Murfreesboro where Man Child attends school. There are even museums where there are three arrowheads and a snuff can under glass and an admission charge. Although not quite the Art Institute of Chicago, this museum was much better than the Civil War or DIY museum and when I wandered back to find my offspring, I slowed my pace, drawn in by the history this one small town holds.

When we could tear ourselves away from the museum, we told our three new bffs that we’d be back. We wanted to see some of the places highlighted in the museum. We wanted to see Sid Hatfield’s grave. They said it was across the river, in Kentucky. We drove past the floodwall, over the river, into Kentucky, We forgot the instructions. We stopped to ask a Kentucky State Trooper parked in front of the dollar store.

West Virginia and Kentucky State Troopers have earned my respect over the years. I’ve known several personally and been rescued by their ilk when I was broken down on the side of the road. Generally, they’re nice guys who are also bad asses. I was more than a little nervous with Man Child jumping out of the car and hollering towards a Kentucky patrol car “Do you know where Sid Hatfield’s grave is?” This guy busts meth labs. Do we REALLY wanna ask him directions?

Trooper Jason McLellan shook his head, no he didn’t know where Sid Hatfield was buried, but he knew where the pawpaw trees were. “Follow me,” he commanded.

Yessir. Rightawaysir. That’s not mine, sir. I’m holding it for a friend. And I have no idea what the hell the pawpaw trees are, but yessir.

We followed him up a hill, back down into a steep drive and parking lot next to the river. I was ready to wave thanks, y’know the pointer finger salute from the steering wheel that shows just how cool I am. Instead of driving off, Trooper McLellan climbed out of his cruiser and walked over to a historical marker. He wasn’t as tall as Man Child, but he shor was bulked up. I had no doubt he could take a guy DOWN. Man Child and I looked at each other. What? Is he giving us a tour? Or is he gonna make my kid raise his hands above his ankles?


He pointed to three pawpaw trees about 25 yards away, then pointed to the historical marker. I’d heard the stories and saw the mini series, but I never really realized there was a “Pawpaw Tree Incident” as part of the Hatfield and McCoy saga. Now, I do.

Once again, Man Child and I listened and learned things. We learned about the Pawpaw Tree Incident. We learned that a pack of cigarettes can be a cop’s greatest weapon. “I had a tweaker in the back seat banging his head on the cage. I said, ‘Buddy, stop that.’ He kept on banging his head. I said, ‘Hey, quit banging your head on my cage!’ and he just kept on doing it. Finally, I said, ‘If you quit banging your head against my cage, I’ll give ya a smoke.’ He looked up like huh? And he quit banging his head.”

One day, our Kentucky State Trooper friend was serving an arrest warrant. As he pulled up, he saw the perpetrator running off into the woods. He hollered at him. “Come on Jeff! Get back here!”

Jeff was hiding behind a tree, and a beer can. “You got a warrant?”

“Yeah, Jeff. I gotta warrant. You know, Jeff, I can see you.”

“I ain’t goin’ to jail agin McLellan.”

“Come on out here and we’ll smoke a cigarette.”

“McLellan, you ain’t gonna whip my ass are you?”

“If you get my shoes dirty, I might.”

We glanced at our reflections in his spit-polished black shoes and took a step back.

Jeff emerged from his hiding place and had a smoke. Then he went to jail.

Jason McLellan originally hails from Maine and calls himself a Yankabilly. He seemed pure Appalachian to me, but he pulled up his trouser leg (must be a cop thing – pull your pants above your ankles) to reveal the story of his life on the back of his tree-trunk-sized calf. A beautiful mosaic of colorful tattoos encompassed a life fully lived, with representation of the states of Maine and Kentucky, military service, police service and even time in Italy. Not all of the tats were explained and I imagine Jason McLellan has lived a life as colorful as his tattoos.

One of his first calls as a state police officer in Eastern Kentucky was for something along the lines of “adolescent beyond control of parent.” He told us the story. As McLellan climbed aboard the front porch, a wood pallet propped up four cinderblocks high, he heard, “Shit! The Law’s here!”

It was the first time he’d heard his profession called “The Law.” Standing precariously on the porch, he greeted a large woman who answered the door. A very large woman. She had a Camel unfiltered in one hand and was yanking on something with the other. He stood, waiting for the cinder block and pallet to collapse if she stepped out of her trailer. She yanked and yanked and tugged on a tube of some sort.

Finally she hollered back into the trailer at someone unseen to the trooper, “Gitcher fucking rocking chair off my HOSE!” The item in her hand was released. She takes a pull from the Camel, expels smoke, then lifts an oxygen mask to her face and takes a larger pull from that.

Officer McLellan stuttered. “Just doin’ a wellness check ma’am. Looks like everything here is okay.”

We could have listen to his stories for the rest of the day and probably would have, but for two hard-looking women rising from the riverbed like zombies from graves. One held a leash with a beagle attached to it; the other held a metal detector.

“There ain’t nothin’ here,” they claimed as they stepped toward us. They were in overalls and boots. Their skin was wrinkled parchment, their hair over processed straw. The wind blew and I smelled skunk, the same kind of skunk scent that wafted around Bonnaroo.

They continued to bemoan that there ain’t nothin’ here and apparently the area’d done been picked over. McLellan advised them of another lesser-known location where bullets and such could probably be found. I thought he meant the trailer with the pallet front porch, but apparently they were all talking about numerous Hatfield and McCoy battlefields. He gave them directions. They repeated them. Incorrectly. A gust of wind rifled the straw on top of their heads and a smell of burnt coffee tickled my nose. I always wondered how so many people could burn coffee around high schools and colleges. They must not be paying attention.

Initially, I’d assumed these old battle-axes were lesbians and I was ready to raise the rainbow flag and shout, “You go girls” for being so brave in the bowels of coal country. Then I noticed they were flirting with our state trooper (we found him first) and they told us they were sisters.

They wandered off to their pickup, the front grill covered in vertical sections of pvc pipe, looking for all the world like a pipe organ in a church. That evening I asked my dad what that could possibly be and he grinned. “For their fishing poles.”

I need to let my sister know that my retirement plans of living with thirty cats, drinking cheap gin and eating cat food have been replaced with traveling the hills of West Virginia with her, wandering riverbeds with a beagle and a metal detector and fishin’ on the warm days. It’s a goal.

As they climbed into the truck, they kept hollering back the road number. “Three nineteen?” Since their destination had apparently changed from finding shit to finding home, the road number had changed as well.

McLellan hollered back. “One-nineteen. Go left and then down the road and you’ll find one-nineteen!”


McLellan repeated his instructions.

“We go left and then git on three-nineteen, right?”

Man Child, State Trooper and I were LOSING it. We all chimed in. “One-nineteen! Corridor G! The Robert C. Byrd highway! That will get you to Charleston!”

“We go left and then three-nineteen, right?”

McLellan shook his head. “Yep! That’s it. You’ve got it.”

They waved out the windows of the pickup truck, gravel crunching beneath the tires, skunk/burnt coffee smell following behind them. I looked at my offspring and said, “Whatever way they’re going, we’re going the opposite.”

We hated to leave, but Nanna was going to have dinner ready and it was our last night there. We said goodbye to our new best friend and wished him health and safety. Of course we Googled him, learning that when he graduated from the academy, he received the “Ernie Bivens Award, an honor presented to the cadet who, in the opinion of the Kentucky State Police Academy staff supported by input from the cadets themselves, distinguishes themself as a class leader, strives for academic excellence and has excelled in all phases of the academy’s physical and vocational training.”

It didn’t say anything about common sense policing that knows to carry a pack of cigarettes as a calming agent, give directions, serve as tour guide, tell great stories and become an integral part of a community that is as different from Maine as marijuana is from burnt coffee.


We stopped back by the Train Depot to buy the swag and say goodbye. The fellow who had taken Man Child back into the museum asked him if he wanted to see something cool. Does a bear crap in the woods? He disappeared for a minute and returned carrying yellowed papers in plastic sleeves and handed the original police reports from the Pawpaw Tree Incident to my son. If he’d shown us those the first time we were in the museum, we would not have understood what was in his hands.

We played tag with a coal train on the way back to my parents’ home. Every time it went through a tunnel and beat us to the crossing, we knew the engine was winking at us like a favorite uncle who continually wins at checkers. He’s not going to give it to us. We have to earn it. Finally, the tracks went down one side of the mountain and the road went down another. Man Child sighed. “I like trains,” he muttered.

We made it back in time for my mother’s Swiss steak. This week had gone much too quickly.


SB2k18: Take Me Home, Country Roads Day 5 Part 1

118796-MMS-1522166754676-attachment1-20180309_141007The Liars Table and Other Stories

From the last supper, to the Knights of the Round Table, to women gathered at a table on “The Talk,” movers and shakers of the world have always huddled around tables to share ideas, progress reports, predictions, plans and bald-face lies. In this spirit is the world renowned Liars Table at Shonet’s in Milton, West Virginia. My father grins and calls it the “Table of Knowledge.” We don’t contradict and we don’t scoff. Like beauty, knowledge is in the eye of the beholder.

Amish have Rumspringa. Jews have Bar Mitzvah. My father celebrated his grandson’s coming-of-age by inviting him to the Table. Man Child was floored. He was going to the Liar’s Table! Unlike any other college spring breaker anywhere in the world, he was going to awaken at the ungodly hour of seven to do it, but by golly he would have a seat at the Liar’s Table! He chose his wardrobe carefully, wearing the jeans he’d only worn three times without washing, as opposed to four.

I spit on my hand and wiped a smudge from his cheek before he took his leave. My mother and I sniffed, waving tear-stained handkerchiefs in the air as our men pulled out of my parents’ steep driveway in Pawpaw’s beat-up truck. That poor thing is Mater in the original “Cars” movie. It coughs and pieces of it crumble onto the Wal-Mart parking lot. “But the engine’s good,” Daddy grumbles and he takes my child with him to the land of biscuits and gravy, manliness and that particular clink of flatware against china only heard in a diner.

While the men were doing man things, my mother and I worked out at her gym. Once again, white-headed octogenarians circled me like piranha as I grunted, huffed and begged my body to not pass gas. YMCA swim class flashbacks triggered me. The Silent Generation is stealthy in its steely-eyed ability to supersede my place at the gym.

I wondered if it were intentional that women were working out at the gym while men were eating biscuits and gravy at the diner. There are far more widows than widowers in my small town. Is this part of a plan?

When we reconvened at Casa Nanna & Pawpaw, Man Child was splayed out in the family room floor like a starfish washed ashore. He clutched his distended belly. “Omigod Mom. So. Much. Food. The omelet was as big as the plate. They used twelve chickens for the omelet.” He rolled over and farted, not demonstrating the restraint I used at the gym.

He mumbled into the carpet. “There are leftovers in the fridge. Like an entire meal of leftovers. Half an omelet. Biscuits and gravy.” My dad was in his recliner, lips pursed, head shaking in disappointment. His offspring had failed him once again. I had raised a weakling who couldn’t finish a simple Shonet’s breakfast. I’m sorry Daddy. He can’t shoot a basketball worth spit either. He’s really smart, though.

My foremost concern was that Man Child’s infirm stomach would ruin our plan for the day. Our raison detre. Driving into coal country. When I tell people I’m from West Virginia, usually the first response is, “I have an aunt in Roanoke.” I refrain from asking if they were home schooled or just slept through American History and politely comment that I’m happy that they have an aunt in Roanoke. I have a sister-in-law in Kentucky, which is ALSO a state that borders WEST Virginia.

The second comment usually centers around cousins-marrying jokes and I smile through bared teeth. Shortly after they’ve made themselves feel superior and brilliant, they will ask me about coalmines. “Well, I’m from the Huntington/Charleston area,” I say. “And that is usually more steel mill, chemical plant kind of industry. The coal mines are farther into the mountains….” As I continue with my soliloquy, their eyes glaze over and they mumble something about their aunt in Roanoke having married her own cousin and wow that’s really interesting.

Man Child had never been into coal country and he was fascinated by the entire concept. One of his favorite movies is Matewan. One of my favorite books is Denise Giaradina’s Storming Heaven. Both are only slightly fictionalized accounts of the mine wars. I had a kickass history teacher in college, Dr. David Duke (who is married to my kickass English teacher, Dr. Rainey Duke) who taught a class in industrial history that forever marked me as a pro-union kinda gal. The people of coal country, their plight, their rugged, challenging lives pull at me and I can’t explain it. The fact that this also pulls at my son, who has never lived in West Virginia is unexplainable even more.

Clutching his distended belly, he insisted he was up to a trip to coal country. Obviously I would be driving. He was barely coherent, continuing to mutter about the omelet the size of a dinner plate, biscuits and gravy. As we made our way to Charleston, via I-64 for the third time in a week, I asked him about the Liar’s Table. He confessed he was slightly disappointed. The day’s agenda seemed to focus on bellyaching that Trump was being treated unfairly. One man, a pro-union Democrat, sat quietly as the others teased him. I advised my offspring that perhaps today’s lesson at the Table of Knowledge was observing that man sitting quietly, remaining with his friends, despite their divisive rhetoric that has become rote words of recitation. Perhaps his allowing those words to bounce off him will show his friends that he is still there, still their friend, and contrary to what FOX News would have them believe, still the same American he has always been.

We turned onto US-119, known as Corridor G, and also known as the Robert C. Byrd Highway, the same Robert C. Byrd for which the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope is named. There are few things in West Virginia NOT named after the famous pork barrel king who directed federal money to his poverty-stricken state whenever and however he could. My loftier self “tsk tsk” judges for this overt use of power, but the underdog fighter in me high fives the fiddle playing Renaissance Man and wishes the Mountain State still had that kind of champion.

We passed the Chuck Yeager Memorial and Man Child woke from his stupor to holler, “This is where Pawpaw and I were yesterday!” His head swiveled like the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. “Except it wasn’t this road. It was curvier.” Good Lord, my dad had driven all this way the day after driving the Monongahela Forest? What the hell is he made out of and can I have some?

Man Child was surely getting his life allotment of curvy roads. His veins running with 75% West Virginia blood (his paternal grandmother was a Kentucky lady), he wasn’t one bit tired of them, either. In fact, he became petulant as we sped down the four-lane highway. “This is a boring road.”

“Oh for cripe’s sakes, son. Sometimes it actually IS the destination and not the journey. If we take the rural route to Matewan, we won’t get there before the sun sets.” Besides, I still had PTSD from driving Route 10 when I worked for my uncle.

Right after getting a BA in journalism, my first post-collegiate job was as the Marketing Director at Associated Grocers. AG was an independent wholesale grocer who tried to battle the chains by offering independent grocery stores the benefit of bulk supplying and therefore lower prices. My uncle ran Associated Grocers and yes, I, the beneficiary of nepotism, became his Marketing Director.

As such, I coordinated all of the advertising for the stores, which meant I regularly had to go to each store to have them sign off on their ads. Although not quite the era of stone tablets, this was before FAX machines were a common office supply. Independent grocery stores are notoriously rural and in less affluent garden spots of the world. I was driving to Chapmanville, Logan, and Williamson West Virginia, with the occasional foray into Pikeville Kentucky.

We had company cars. K cars. Lee Iacocca, I gotta tell ya buddy, those cars were AWFUL and they couldn’t stick a curve to save their souls – or OUR lives. There was one instance where I took a curve too fast and the tail end of the car swung out into the gravel just as a coal truck was coming toward me. After that, I took my own car into coal country. A Datsun 280ZX Turbo. I shouldn’t be alive.

I regaled Man Child with these stories as I pulled off of 119 and into the city of Logan. Man Child lived in Flint, Michigan during his freshman year at Kettering University. When the K car and its ilk failed and the automotive industry changed, cities such as Flint and Detroit deflated, like a jumpy castle after a birthday party. The silhouette remains, but the substance is gone. In similar fashion, from a distance Logan looks like the town it always was, but as we drove down the streets, passing shuttered storefronts it seemed as if the air had been let out. This happens when a place, or a person, or a generation, or a culture depends fully on one thing. The car industry is different than it used to be. GM will never be the heartbeat of Flint, Michigan. The coal industry is different than it used to be. It will never be the heartbeat of Logan and other towns like it.

We circled up and up and up, to the top of a hill, so we could have an overview of the city. I felt uncomfortable. Unsafe. Later, an uncle told me he’d been placed in Logan with his job for a while and it wasn’t a good place to hang out. I remember Lettie, who owned the grocery store in Logan, a large gregarious woman who always made me feel welcome and safe. Sometimes it’s not only industries that change.

We continued southwestward, off of 119 now and into the small burg of Delbarton. Even back when I considered Logan more or less safe, I have always been wary of Delbarton. Back in my day, the cheerleaders weren’t allowed to go to the away games if we played Delbarton. Those people were rough.

Because I had NOT eaten an omelet the size of a dinner plate or ANY biscuits and gravy, I lost all sense of wariness and reason. I was getting peckish and after all, middle aged, menopausal hangry me is as much a threat as anybody who grew up in the hills, valleys, and hollers of coal country. On the left side of the road a bright red building with a bright yellow door beckoned. I whipped into the parking lot spewing gravel from the tires. Sat in the idling car. Food characters cut from plywood danced on the façade. We read directions on another plywood board, “Blow horn for curb service.” That seemed complicated, calling attention to ourselves. I put it in reverse. The wooden happy face hamburger frowned. I put it back in drive. Moved forward a couple of inches. A fellow in what looked like turnout gear, but could also be coalminer clothes, or even what the stylish hunter wears, overalls with fluorescent horizontal stripes on the legs, motioned for Man Child to roll down his window. We have Very Liberal Bumper Stickers on our car. We were going to die.

“Go on in. It’s the best steak sandwich you’ll ever eat.” He grinned to reveal perfectly aligned beautifully white teeth. Delbarton was dispelling one stereotype after the next.

“In fact, that steak sandwich is so good, I pay for mine in advance, so I can just go in and say, ‘Gimme my steak sandwich.’”

Man Child and I looked at one another and shrugged. I slammed Pollyanna into park. I mean, if they’re that damn good. “Tell John that Jimmy sent ya!”

John Ramey, a shy, reticent man, was behind the counter when we walked in. “Sit anywhere!” he bellowed as he gestured to the two tables. We bellied up to the bar, errrr, lunch counter and told him that Jimmy sent us. “That Jimmy’s a crazy un. He pays for his steak sandwich in advance.”

I have no idea how long we were in Maria’s Drive-In because I think it might be an alternate universe. We learned that John and his wife Jan have an ugly daughter who is a student at Marshall, for whom they named the restaurant. Poor thing is so ugly that they had to create this restaurant for her so she’d have something to do with her life. He whipped out a photo of her. Poor thing indeed. Scarlett Johannson should be so ugly.

Like any waiter in a fine dining establishment, Monsieur Ramey explained the menu to us. Man Child was fixated on the steak sandwich. After all, it was Jimmy’s rec that got us to walk in the door. I looked down my nose through the reading glasses part of my progressive lenses. I wanted to know my options.

Apparently, their secret chili recipe is so good that Taco Bell offered him a “small fortune” for it. No dice. It’d been in the family for 118 years and in the family it would stay. I bemoaned the loss of deliciousness of my favorite hotdog stand, Stewart’s. Their hotdogs just hadn’t seemed the same to me in recent years. John had the answer. “They put beans in it now, to save money.”

The gall.

We placed our orders. Hot dog for me. Steak sandwich and fried mushrooms for Man Child. Sorry nutritionist. I’ll get back on the wagon when I return home. We waited on the food. We learned things.

Delbarton was a kinder, gentler Delbarton than when I was in high school. Civic pride was in place. Parks were created. John owned a lot of land and was cleaning things up. “But that across the street. My brother’s in charge of that and he doesn’t take care of things like I do.”

I can attest that John takes care of things. The place was spotless. The two women working in the kitchen behind him cooked like real cooks do. As they methodically made our meal, silently dancing to a choreography known by families who cook together, by friends who cook side by side, there was no loud diner clanging, no assembly line production. There were simply two women making food and rolling their eyes at John Ramey’s stories they had to have heard a thousand times already.

We continued to learn things. We learned that one of the reasons West Virginia split from Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War was because of the Greenbrier Military School, to which John Ramey had gone. Federal funds had created the school that was creating soldiers. So much for believing my noble people had divorced themselves from slaveholders. Still, anybody in West Virginia who waves a Confederate flag is certainly not celebrating his or her heritage. West Virginia was Union and being Union is why it became a state.


We learned that his father placed John Ramey on a train to Ohio, when John was only four years old. He was sent to live with his grandmother because his dad was a ne’er do well who knew he couldn’t do right by his son. Although painful, this parental rejection, John Ramey is grateful for his dad’s foresight. He was, indeed, a ne’er do well and spent time on West Virginia’s most wanted list.

We wiped up the last bit of hot dog sauce, licked up the last crumb of a steak sandwich and we bid adieu. We promised to come back and we will. I love, love LOVE a good hot dog and I like to learn things, no matter where the table of knowledge may lie.


Next: Mines, mine wars and a Kentucky State Trooper.