When my mother married her high-school sweetheart just returned from Vietnam, her mother told her the bed she left behind at her parents’ house would not stay open like an all-night diner. It was a daunting time for the young bride who grew up with a house full of siblings and farmhands. She now came home from community-college classes to a dark and solitary trailer, her salesman husband still pounding the car-lot pavement.
After she gave birth to me, they moved to Mudlick and lived within shouting distance of the farmhouse where she was raised. Helen Johnstone could have walked over and helped her daughter puzzle out the wild mystery of an infant, advised her what to do about colic. Instead, she hopped into her car every afternoon, regular as a thunderstorm, and headed to town. She visited friends. She went to the flea market, apple orchard, bank, beauty parlor. She did not rush to coddle every earache, or even half of them, although as I grew up she started devoting many of those afternoons to me.
My mother says now, “I wouldn’t have grown strong enough to handle all that I have if she hadn’t taught me early on to stand on my own.” She means the death of her parents and her only son, the chemotherapy used to fight her cancer, the car accident that gave her only daughter a stroke, the court battle for land rights when the gas company came through to bury a pipeline. Not even my aunts and uncles know the details of these stories. We are Appalachian. Privacy and independence are the way we show others we care, by protecting them as best we can and managing what we can alone. This form of respect stems from willingness to lend a hand when someone needs it no questions asked, knowing they would do the same for you and are beyond themselves. Now that I’m older, I realize this particular breed of person is akin to the Blue Ridge two-lined salamander and equally subject to the health of their surrounding habitat.