#1: Look Homeward, Y’All
by Kathy Giuffre
We had gotten well into Oklahoma, driving east on I-40, before I realized that it was December 21, 2012 – the day of the supposed Mayan Apocalypse.
“Yes,” Aiden said. “Welcome to the apocalypse – nothing has changed.”
“You mean Hell is the outskirts of Oklahoma City?” I asked.
“Pretty much,” he said.
It was a good line, but he was not (completely) correct. We were still too far west. As everyone who has ever spent a major holiday with relatives knows, Hell is Home.
“Home” is Arkansas – the Ozark Mountains, where I was born and raised and from which I fled at the first reasonable chance. Now I was taking my husband and children back, partly for the character-building opportunity afforded by the Family Reunion Christmas, but partly for other reasons. This is the first step on my personal journey – the quest to rediscover my hillbilly heritage.
Hillbillies, you might have noticed, are all the rage now, socio-culturally speaking. For instance, having explored every last facet of the culture of the Jersey Shore in all its stultifying glory, the geniuses who dictate our television viewing have finally gotten around to giving West Virginia hillbillies their own reality show. It’s a hit! Is there any more definitive marker of cultural relevance in America? This is just one example of recent hillbilly success. There was also a recent New York Times Style Section article about artisanal lye soap-making in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Twenty-seven states now allow first cousin marriage (as compared to nine that allow same sex marriage – go figure…) The November edition of Gourmet Magazine featured possum bruschetta on the cover (OK – I made that last one up. But, seriously – it would be fabulous!) Hillbilly is the new hipster!
I figured that I had better jump on the cultural zeitgeist bandwagon while the jumping was good.
“Is this going to be like the time you made moonshine?” Aiden asked.
“It wasn’t moonshine,” I said, haughtily. “It was homemade apricot liqueur.”
“It had cyanide in it from the apricot pits,” he said.
“You recovered your full eyesight,” I snapped. “Quit whining.”
I have only hazy and dreamlike memories of most of my childhood, possibly because my mother had no qualms about giving her children eggnog stiffly laced with bourbon on every possible occasion, including not only Christmas but also Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day, and the 4th of July. (There were a lot of us – one born every year for a while – and the alcoholic stupor kept us quiescent. “Besides, eggs are good for you,” she says. “Protein.”)
But I spent some uninterrupted deep-thinking time on I-40 (the Texas Panhandle – Jesus! Have you been there? Nothing but prairie grass and despair as far as the eye can see…) trying to recall some appropriate hillbilly childhood memories.
Is ankle-deep, red-clay mud hillbilly or does everyone have that? What about ticks? We used to get our ham at a smokehouse up higher in the mountains – that sounds pretty hillbilly, I guess. I remember how in junior high my friend Margaret learned to play the banjo – that must count for something.
I remember the smoky smell of the woods in autumn and how we could never see very much of the sky. I remember kissing boys down at the riverbank at night. I remember the little cloud of mud the crawdads kicked up under the shallow surface of the creek when they suddenly zipped backwards under the rocks just as you thought you had caught one.
Being outwitted by a crustacean and a rock – there’s your hillbilly childhood memory! Boy howdy, those were the golden days.
But there was a moment when I chose to forget my hillbilly heritage. It exactly coincided with moving to Boston at a time when the hip cultural scene there still revolved around wearing kelly green pants and learning how to make a proper Sauce Béarnaise by watching Julia Child on PBS. Hillbilly reality TV was still 30 years in the future.
Now I want my heritage back.
Lord knows I’m trying.
“Do we have any, you know, hillbilly stuff around?” I asked my mother.
“Oh, no,” she said, slowly sipping an eggnog. “We were never really hillbillies.”
“Nothing? There must be something. Didn’t anybody in the family ever marry a sibling or distill something or shoot any revenuers?”
“Well, a squirrel died in the attic last spring. Is that hillbilly?”
“Did you eat it?”
“No blood feuds?”
“Not so far,” my mother said, pouring out another eggnog. “But, of course, we haven’t opened the Christmas presents yet.”
The problem here – as is so often the case – is Walmart. Northwest Arkansas is where Walmart was born and where the headquarters still are. Unlike everywhere else in the world, where the onslaught of Walmart has killed small businesses and ultimately wrecked the economy, in the Ozarks the rise of Walmart has actually gentrified the whole region. It really says something about a place when the presence of Walmart significantly elevates its social status.
But it’s true. There’s a new highway up to Bentonville now that shoots you straight up the mountain, bypassing all the little towns that used to have a pretty good source of outside revenue in smoked meat, hillbilly crafts, and speeding-trap tickets handed out like Ritalin in a kindergarten to everyone trying to get from Oklahoma to Missouri. (It was surprisingly lucrative on account of the bat-out-of-hell speeds that people fleeing Oklahoma typically achieve.)
Now the smokehouse is long gone and my second son, Tris, found a Hand-Carved Authentic Mountain Walking Stick in Bentonville for $137. One hundred and thirty-seven United States American dollars. For a stick. A. Stick.
I myself ate an “Ozark Harvest Salad” for lunch that was “lightly tossed in a maple balsamic vinaigrette.” Once you’re tossing things around lightly in a maple balsamic vinaigrette, unless it’s a dead squirrel from the attic, you’re out of hillbilly territory.
I went back home.
“I’m lost,” I wailed to my mother. “I went away from here trying to find myself and all I ended up being was lost. It doesn’t seem like anywhere is home anymore. The place I came from has been paved over to make a Walmart parking lot.”
“Hand me those eggs,” she said. She was measuring out the bourbon and her hands were full. “The important thing to remember, honey,” she said, looking me in the eye, “is that bourbon kills salmonella, so you shouldn’t ever skimp on it.”
These, I guess, are words to live by – or, in any case, they’re the words you have to make do with.
My friend Ian once said to me, “It’s your culture, even if you have to go to the library to look it up.” He was talking about his own culture, which is six thousand miles away from the Ozark Mountains, but he was right about me, too.
Being a hillbilly, or a Latino, or a New Yorker, or anything else, does not come from things you buy or from being in a place that never changes. It comes from loving and being loved by certain people, and though the mountain distilleries of my childhood have been replaced by the liquor section of Walmart, the hillbillies who raised me (or failed to raise me) remember deep in their hearts – even if they won’t admit it out loud – the magic smoky smell of the sky-less woods in autumn and the foolproof ways to catch crawdads and the real reason that it is called “moonshine”.
It is these people who are to credit or blame for my hillbilly heritage and the things they try to forget are the things I’m going to try to remember.
Christmas is over now and we drove through a snowstorm back across Oklahoma and Texas to Colorado, where even though we live in a city, I can always see an infinite expanse of sky.
We walked in the front door and dropped all the luggage in a heap in the living room.
“Whip up some maple balsamic vinaigrette, honey,” I said to my husband. “We’re gonna eat us a squirrel!”
Next month in “My Hillbilly Heritage”: Janie and I go shopping for squirrel meat.
Kathy Giuffre was born and raised in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas where her family goes back at least five generations. She is the author of “An Afternoon in Summer: My Year in the South Seas” and lives in Colorado with her husband and two sons.