Origin Stories Kentucky : Who We Have Lost

My Mom & Her Valentine Hearts of Candy



Every Valentine’s Day, my mom would be sure to come to my house to bring each of us the small hearts of candy for Valentine’s Day. It never seemed like a big deal until we didn’t get them anymore.

Those little hearts with four pieces of candy mean the world to me now! I would give anything to get one — but only from her. I miss you so much Mom …

Just Doing My Job



Michael would say: “I got another atta boy today.” So silly, since I am doing a job I love: Nurse.

Are We Not Our Brother's Keeper?



I am still angry about it. I am angry at Andy and at myself for not asking questions. Andy was a math prodigy. Yes, his father was a beloved math teacher, so maybe for Andy math was naturally a part of him. Can you be a prodigy and still make a miscalculation?

Andy came to work in our group in June 2011 right after graduating from Purdue. His technical skills were tops among his peers. His project management skills were fantastic, if largely just because Andy could do anything and so he just did it all. As years passed, and he was the senior analyst and a consultant, the newer analysts would enjoy learning from him – and the facile way he conveyed concepts to them. He always delivered early and consistently, there was no procrastination in Andy. Was there?

So, it was with some chagrin I imagine, that Andy texted me on July 30, 2021, to say he had COVID. “I’ll let you know … or if they need to hospitalize me. The latter is unlikely because my oxygen numbers are still good.” On August 2, we talked and by way of explanation, he said “I don’t really like needles … I procrastinated on getting the shot”.

I was surprised. We consulted to large companies on their health benefit plans. We both were fully aware of the risks and recommendations. Weren’t we?
email, Aug. 2, 2021

Dear Colleagues,

Andy H. asked me this morning to share the following statement with you:
“I am recovering from COVID and related secondary maladies at Deaconess Hospital. My prognosis is good but the recovery time is long … (there is) no official timeline … best guess is discharge Friday night or Saturday morning.”

But you are a strong young man of 33. You have no comorbidities. You will recover and you will learn a valuable lesson about life, I was sure. And we would laugh together about how it’s a little embarrassing that you procrastinated on the shot. Won’t we?

email, Aug. 27, 2021

Dear Colleagues,

It is with great sadness and regret that I share that Andy passed away yesterday. I know this will come as a shock as it has been shocking to me.

Andy brought so much to our team. His brilliance, his wry wittiness but mostly his underlying sense of care for us and the great work that we do. I have been in contact with HR and his family. We will schedule some time soon for our practice to share our feelings, but for now just want to acknowledge the profound loss we and the world have just experienced. Please keep his family and each other in your thoughts and prayers.

Kind regards–

December 4, 2022. Hey Andy, I miss you. I am still mad at you and at myself. It gnaws at me. I shouldn’t feel survivor’s guilt. Should I?

A Proper Goodbye is Not the Only Goodbye

My Aunt

My beloved aunt passed away during Covid, but did not pass from Covid. This was all as it was just beginning and there were no vaccines and little was known about the new virus. For three years, I’ve been grappling with the fact that the pandemic took away the chance for me to say a proper goodbye.

She was already ill when we first starting hearing about Covid and its rapid spread. She was well cared for in her home, so that was very comforting. I wanted to go see her, but I was afraid. What if I unwittingly brought the virus into her home? What if one of the caregivers was contagious and passed it on to me? I not only had to think of myself, but also my family at home, all of them at risk if I caught it. All of this was agony to sort through. By the time I decided that I would ask if we could meet at her glass door, it was too late. She was unable to leave her bedroom. Things progressed more quickly than expected and soon she was gone.

The funeral was postponed for a period of time, and I was very glad for that. However, when a Fall date was scheduled, the world still hadn’t made much progress in handling Covid. Schools were remote, people were working from home, and many businesses were still closed. I felt comfortable attending the burial outside, but knew family members would approach each other for hugs and conversations. A luncheon had also been planned for afterwards. An indoor event? During the pandemic? How is this a wise decision? I knew if I attended the burial that I would be pressured by family members to attend this indoor get together, therefore I had to stay away entirely. It was not what I wanted, but I knew this had to be my decision for the sake of my family’s safety. This decision has had ramifications. Several in my family have treated me differently ever since and this has hurt me deeply.

We hear a lot about “excess deaths,” the pandemic’s side hustle, as it gets noted on charts and graphs, but what doesn’t get acknowledged is all the excess grief associated with these deaths — the unexpressed sadness about aborted goodbyes, the lost final visits, the moments (like mine) at glass storm doors that never occurred. So, I have chosen not to move on from this loss but instead to honor my aunt by focusing my memories of her whenever I can. To this day, I talk to her often. I visualize her driving her giant car in the 1970s. She was so short and you could barely see her head above the steering wheel, even though she relied on a phone book to lift her up.

My aunt had fiery red hair until she let it go gray in her later years, but I always still saw her as a soaring, enthusiastic woman whose signature red locks seemed to embody her personality. She lived an amazing and long life, making it past 90 years old. And, I’m so glad that she lived that long so that my own children could get to know her. They now have Great Aunt stories that will travel with them throughout their lives. All of us treasure a memory at a popular seafood restaurant where we sat outside at the concrete tables eating fried fish and onion rings. While we were waiting for our food my aunt stood up, hummed a tune and danced with each of the kids right out in front of everyone. She was spontaneous and joyful at all times.

One afternoon a few weeks after she died, I was watching one of our Governor’s 5pm Covid update press conferences and I found myself speaking to her. I realized suddenly she is still here, in spirit, just a quick thought away. I’ve apologized for not being there at the end. I like to think that she would understand my decision. We were close and my aunt knew it would take something very big to keep me away from her. Nothing short of a global pandemic could have done so. She knows that I loved her dearly and she is still here to provide me with support and comfort (and a good chuckle as well) whenever needed. So, this is my goodbye. It may not have been done the traditional way, but I’ve resolved that it was the only way for the times we were living in. I’m okay with that now and it has provided me some necessary peace. To this day, I talk to her often.

Should I Fall

My Granddaddy

Granddaddy and I were not afraid of snakes.

When he killed a copperhead, I stood beside him as the axe fell upon the diabolically beautiful body, flecking its diamondback with bright blood. Looking at the faded photo of Granddaddy and five-or-six-year-old me glorying in our spoils (my baby brother, on the verge of tears, stands in the background), I imagine I remember it.

I was proud, not the least bit horrified, without an ounce of compunction. I was chosen.

With Granddaddy, it wasn’t about whether I was pretty, whether I was ladylike, whether I was all that a little girl should be. I need not be a bunned beauty in a cotton candy tutu twirling round and round. It didn’t matter that I was never graceful. I accompanied him on adventures because I was worthy, brave, alert. He never doubted me.

When I was with Granddaddy, it was about being of and in the natural world, unmown grass, wild daisies, sky blue robin’s eggs magically appearing if I just looked hard enough. We shouldn’t touch them, he said, for if we did their mother would abandon them, and they’d never hatch. Horrified that a mother might abandon her young, I resisted the urge to run my hands along the eggs’ smooth surfaces.

It was trudging up the hill from Grandmother’s and Granddaddy’s boxy cedar-sided house, turning right, wading in the dewy, chiggery grass, heaving open the heavy metal gate with what he let me think was joint effort, disturbing the dusty yellow slate soil as we walked down the barren hill to the springhouse and old barn.

Grandaddy was born in that house in 1922, his children were raised there, and he remained after Grandmother died in 2011 until 2019 when he was 96. But the old barn was older. It was built in 1904 and still bore his father’s signature – Harrison 1904. I never knew the age of the springhouse.

As I understand it – and so much I long to know has been lost – Grandaddy’s family were dairy farmers. The six Houser boys headed out in the pre-dawn dark to milk the cows and calves lodged in its stalls. By hand, of course. As a child, Grandaddy’s hair was so white that his mother – who died when I was an infant – more than once feared that he was missing, only to spy him in the chicken coop, his feathery hair blending with the downy plumage.

The cows and chickens were long gone when I scurried up the rickety loft ladder with its missing rungs. I wasn’t fearful, for Granddaddy’s strong bronzed arms would catch me should I fall.

But Granddaddy’s last years were ugly. He resented his children for ripping him out of the house of his youth and fatherhood and grandfatherhood and great-great grandfatherhood when his propensity for falls, broken hips, and an increasingly addled mind led his children to proscribe the independence and adventure that defined him.

He turned on his sons, thrashing, throwing punches, spewing hatred. But he luxuriated in the doting affection of his daughters. The week before his death, he had been diagnosed with Covid, though my mother insists that in his 100th year he beat Covid. His quarantine had been lifted a couple of days before he died.

But the correlation is undeniable.

My mother likewise consoles herself in the knowledge that the last word he uttered was his pet name for her: Annie.

I imagine that in his final, peaceful moments we were on an excursion, me skipping ahead, him guiding the way from behind.

A selfish wish.

Perpetually Underwater

It stormed last night in Shelbyville. Lightning streaked through the windows of my second floor apartment, keeping me wide awake and in fear. There was no rainfall but I could hear it still. I was never scared of lightning before this. Now anything but clear skies strikes up a dose of bad memories and anxiety.

Sometimes I think that I’ve healed; moved on. But when rain pours or lightning strikes, I’m back home in east Kentucky — underwater.

The Black Water

I collected every book I had ever read for an English class. Gathering Blue, Night, The Lightning Thief. They were like keepsakes to me. They reminded me of my favorite teachers, some who have passed and some who have left the state. When I opened the container my books were kept in, they were drenched in black water. Probably from the ink getting wet. There was one that had been my favorite in middle school; the last book in the Percy Jackson series. I had loved it so much and read it so often that I had put off returning it for years. When I realized I could not save it, I felt guilty that I hadn’t returned it. One day, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw that the library the book came from had also been flooded. I wish there was something I could do to replace everyone’s books.

Field Notes: Mucking Out

Early on the morning of August 5th, almost a week after the floods, and four days after the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) put out a call for hands to help with disaster relief, I was driving down the Bert T Combs Mountain Parkway to Martin, Kentucky. I had signed up to drive over from Lexington on those days I could in order to help in clean-up efforts. As I drove through Powell County, there were early morning thunderstorms. Still, when the sun rose everything looked as the mountains always do in summer, green, lush, calm, even. But parkways are made for ease of transit—bridges span the hollers and valleys that aren’t filled in, sides of mountains are cut to level and widen the road. You ride above a landscape, removed from it. From that distance, the world looked fine.

That day our crew worked in Martin; there in Floyd County, on the northern edge of the flooding. Mucking out houses is slow, dirty work, so we stayed with the two we were assigned and didn’t go into Prestonsburg or even Martin proper. The first house was a single-wide on a six-foot tall, cinder block pediment. The only signs of the flood were what could have passed as a layer of dust on the asphalt and the muddy debris already removed from the house. If you looked really close at the door to the bathroom, just inside the backdoor to the home, which we used as our means of ingress and egress, you could see the waterline about two and half feet above the six-foot pediment. If you knew the kinds of yards you were looking at, the absence of early August garden plots, green and full of vegetables, also spoke to the devastation.

Nothing, though, prepared us for the inside. The carpets, sofa, bed, clothes all reeked of sewer. One of the homeowners we worked with, one who had seen his fair share of floods said, “In all my years, the waters have never stunk like this time.” And they were rancid. Wastewater plants, sewer containment systems, and gas lines had failed, and the waters had been a toxic sludge of various wastes.

The young man who lived in the first house we mucked out had an eye swollen shut. He had been washing out his clothes with drinking water, still the clothes had all been submerged and dirtied by the sludge. A day or two before, he had scratched an itch with muck soiled hands and now his eye was infected.

On the second day, we were down on Lonesome Creek. We had to drive through Hindman to get to the houses we were assigned. The glass paned fronts of downtown stores were all boarded up, and those that weren’t were broken and the insides were covered in mud. We mucked out the houses of two 70-year-old women. Their memories, photos of children and grandchildren, hand-stitched quilts, knick-knacks and mementos collected over a life, and libraries of books by Silas House, Thomas Hardy, Thoreau, and others, were all mud-stained, all sitting in their front yards, exposed to the sun and rain.

These women had the security of homes long-ago paid off and, thankfully, their social security checks and Medicare covered their needs. But now, with the memories of their lives spilled across the lawn, with their houses fully gutted, FEMA had told them they weren’t destitute enough. Their governments checks placed them outside the threshold for financial help to rebuild.

Floods have always been a part of the ecosystem, yet climate change and mountaintop removal have exacerbated the flooding. Rain patterns seem to be changing, seem to be getting more intense in shorter amounts of time, and where once there were mountains with trees, roots, spongey, rich loam, there is compacted, barren soil.

Appalachia, despite the work of people like Carl Dewey Perkins, whose statue in downtown Hindman was covered by the flood waters, is still being neglected. The neglect of the people and the infrastructure is part and parcel of the history of extractive economies. During boom-times resource removal matters more than land care and once landscapes are sucked dry, communities are left to fend for themselves. When disaster strikes, they are blamed for what devastation might visit.

One of the homeowners was a young drug user. In fact, he shot up while we were cleaning out the front of his house. Our crew leader, a former engineer who had quit being a television designer in the mid-80s to join CAP, a man who, in an understated manner, described himself as not given to much emotion, had to leave and gather himself as we cleaned out the bedroom. This shell of a house filled with muddied clothes and a soaking sofa was all the young man had. Among the crew there was talk of maybe having given the young man hope. Maybe. Though it seems that whether hope or something more is given, is not on us. We are simply called to help, called to care for fellow human beings.

The other family whose house we mucked out that day was grateful, they said as much. But they were still deep in shock, the kind where you show little to no affect and little to no initiative. It is all too damn exhausting.

Disasters and the response to disasters can be a bit like traveling on a mountain parkway. You don’t see the devastation until you get off the highways made for ease of transit and drive on into town. You don’t know a life until you’re invited into the home, until you sit with someone. Lives and worlds, homes and cities take time to build, years and generations even. Devastation comes in flash. The natural world can quickly move in, begin to sprout again, and cover over the damage. But homes, cultural and civic institutions, livelihoods, take years. We are three weeks out from the floods and, still, there are so many houses that need to be cleaned out, so many families still sifting through the ruins left by the flood, so much work still left to do.

The day we worked down on Troublesome Creek, we were right by the Volunteer Fire Station, the antique fire truck was still pinned beneath the bridge. An Amish group, one who had lived through the flood and cleaned up as much as they could of their own homes, were out feeding lunch to families. They not only fed us and all the work crews from the area, but also the residents as well. They had a generator and were dishing out hot meals in takeaway plates for all who came. They knew that for many who came this lunch was their one meal for the day. They knew that for those of us who had been working in clean-up, the food and conversation was what we needed to energize us for the long afternoon ahead.

The Boone Building

When I was fifteen, and figuring out life, my first job was in Appalshop’s Boone Building.
Eight years ago, I met the love of my life there.
Years of “Youth Bored” punk shows, workshops, yard sales, and friendships.
A place many have loved for so long and so much.

–Washed away in a night.

What I Know of Tom



I don’t know why, but who am I to know such things? He was our kindly next-door neighbor whom we’ve known for four years. The neighbor down the street to whom he bequeathed his wood-boring machine, a man who has spent countless hours with him in his basement workshop, is also in the dark. So is Carol, his wife. He left no note. And there was no real indication that things were amiss.

Sure, he didn’t pick any blueberries from the bush he gave us last fall while we were gone during the height of berry picking season. Nor did he pick any from his, which mysteriously failed to fruit this year. Sure, the Triumph TR6 he’s been rebuilding since we’ve lived here was not ready for the Concours show this summer. And yes, there was the mysterious vertigo from which he suffered. Originally diagnosed as crystals in his ear canals, a recent re-diagnosis discounted that cause but gave no new explanation. And there was the frustration with his internet service. But who knows why a methodical man will do something that seems so impulsive.

We try to find reasons, comb through behavior, frustrations, discover something to explain a desperate act. His dad, who had fled the West Virginia coal camps in the night with his family in tow, also killed himself. But his father’s death came at a much younger age than his.

What I do know of our neighbor Tom is that he was a maker. He painstakingly crafted the pickets of his fence, the gate to his backyard, the stairs that led down from the deck to the carpark. He was a tinkerer who worked on cars, who replaced his own windows and doors, who made cabinetry in his house to fit the space and the object.

What I do know of Tom is that he was kind toward our children and toward us. Knowing our son professed an interest in computers and electronics, he introduced him to Arduino, thinking that he too might find a similar joy in making and programming electronic devices. Knowing our son was interested in cars, he introduced us to Saturday car shows at the feedlot on the northside of town.

These memories seem so small now. Though we’d have cul-de-sac dinners in June, though twice a year he would invite me over to see his car and talk about the progress and the challenges and dream of the first spin down the highway, though we compared notes on lawn maintenance, and though he walked me through the various steps to ensure our blueberry bush took root, there was much more to him, as there is to all of us.

Tom was generous to everyone, those on his street, in his circle of friends, and in his various interest and hobby groups. When a widow a few houses down, wanted to give her MG, purchased brand new in the 80s and with barely any miles, to her son, he helped her move the car from her garage to the trailer. Our woodworking neighbor has many more stories to tell of his largesse and camaraderie. Though these acts of neighborly kindness, attention, and fellowship, seem small, they are the measure of a life, they are the memories shared among those who knew him, who remember him.

There was more, much more going on beneath the surface, but he let no one see. Carol speaks of his high standards, of his being particular. Engineers seem cursed with the blessing of knowing the right way of doing things, seem prone to frustration with self and the world when neither self nor world go according to plan. Could he be curt when faced with the failings of internet companies or builders? Sure. Still, his neighbors remember him as a kind man, generous with his time and tools, open to friends and neighbors, even while suffering from a debilitating, painful vertigo.

What will I will remember of Tom? The handful of Arduinos he, my son, and I worked on together; the joy my son takes in Saturday car shows; how we worked side by side to transplant the blueberry bush and to replace their kitchen window; how he praised his Carol’s cooking; the twinkle in his eyes and how a chuckle was never far from his lips.

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