I get a lot of questions about why I live in West Virginia. As soon as people learn that I’m not from here and don’t have generations of family living here, the questions begin. They’re even more puzzled when they learn where it is I have lived and I have friends all over the world and a significant other in Boston. So why I do live here? Well, now, there’s a story for you. The short version is I am wildly in love with Wild and Wonderful West Virginia. [And with good reason.]
The long version involves Memorial Day in 1974. I thought about posting this yesterday, but it seemed a tad disrespectful. But here it Tuesday evening, there’s a spectacular thunderstorm going on outside and I’m gazing, with adoration, at the pyrotechnics in the sky and the rain bouncing on my patio. I love it here and I love spring and I love that the on and off monsoons of this day will only make the greening of the mountains more vivid, the wildflowers more profuse, and the sky bluer. It’s all good.
In 1974, my father was wrapping things up with the Marine Corps, but had not yet settled on a second career. We were at Camp Lejeune on the southern coast of North Carolina. We knew we didn’t want to stay there, but were dithering about where to go. While trying to make that decision, we headed north to a family reunion in Michigan (one place that was in the definite “no” column of the decision list). Contrary to habit, we took the route through West Virginia.
In Beckley, late Friday afternoon of the Memorial Day weekend, our car broke down. We sat at the Ford dealer and fair gaped at the West Virginia mountains. All of us were awed. Our mechanic, bless his heart, I don’t know his name, was mournful sad when he broke the news that he couldn’t get the part until Tuesday morning due to the holiday. He was really concerned that we were missing our family reunion.
We were not particularly upset. Most of the kin lived in Michigan and we had all summer to dither. We checked into the Holiday Inn. Beckley was not as developed then as it is now. There wasn’t much to do but hang out in the motel. Sunday morning, about noon, the mechanic and his wife showed up with food and invited us to their family reunion the next day. We accepted the food and declined the invitation, but we were bumfuzzled by such caring and concern.
While there is a great deal of community in military towns, it’s somewhat detached and superficial. I never felt an outsider, but I also never felt like any of those places was home. Moreover, in terms of natural beauty, West Virginia won hands down – and I was comparing it to Hawaii, California and coastal Carolina. The mountains and the flowers just knocked me out. My parents and my brother were having the same reaction. The people, their warmth and hospitality, just made it all that much sweeter.
Without much forethought or planning, we moved here. Through a twist that you wouldn’t believe if it were in a novel, we discovered we had old family friends in Huntington. Next thing I knew, we’d bought a house and had joined a strong church community.
My high school experience was less than stellar; it was my first time going to school with non-Brats. Brats, military personnel offspring, have a unique culture. We move so often that you learn to make friends really fast – even with people you don’t like. Nothing is worse than being in a new place with no friends. Brats adapt and they do it quickly.
My classmates had been born in the same hospital, went to preschool together, went to church together and, in short, had spent most of their 15 or so years with the same people. My outgoing, let’s-be-friends Brat manner didn’t go over well. They didn’t know me and didn’t know anyone who did. While I wasn’t mistreated, in fact I was treated very well, I wasn’t included in things because no one thought to do so. What I had experienced for years in moving from town to town and school to school, they wouldn’t experience until college. Once again, I was ahead of the curve.
Nonetheless, my love affair with all things West Virginia deepened into a serious, life-long commitment. I did leave to live in Wisconsin for awhile. The entire seven years in exile, I spent plotting to get back here. I finally did in late 1985.
In these intervening years, I studied Appalachian culture, the stereotypes, the myths and the history. I may know this state better than those born here. Warts and all, I love it. Memorial Day is the time of the year that I reflect on the good fortune of finding my spot on the planet. I don’t want to be anywhere but here.
Because I adopted this place, I go off the rails when somebody lights in about hillbillies and rednecks and outhouses and lack of teeth. It absolutely corks me that Appalachian culture is one of the last remaining ethnicities it’s politically correct to bash. It’s akin to the saying I can criticize my family, but don’t you dare. I can go from zero to bitch pretty quickly in such circumstances.
I had a spectacular Memorial Day. I gardened. I admired the lushness of my version of the 100-acre wood and I pondered all the military folk, some I know and some I don’t, for whom this holiday means something entirely different. But those in war zones probably just want to come home and, perhaps, spent their holiday thinking about home. The holiday for me is the anniversary of finding my home. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the levels prior to self-actualization is belongingness – the need to feel you are part of your community and appreciated as such. I belong here.
And it’s good to be here.