Tag Archives: Kentucky

A Window, Biscuits, a Butter Churn, and a Mule

It was an ordinary farmhouse, located outside Beattyville, Kentucky. But there was a secret inside that we kids loved. The kitchen, of course, was the best room to be in. But getting there was even more fun. The kitchen was obviously an add-on to the house, and the entry points to it included not just a door but a window, leading from one of the bedrooms to the kitchen. Of course, we never used the door like the grownups did.

The house belonged to our Cousins Addie and Jim Mainous. They were old even when we used to visit them during the summers. But every day, Cousin Addie hand-made biscuits and sawmill gravy. (Sawmill gravy is different from redeye gravy. Sawmill gravy uses milk. Redeye gravy uses coffee. But I digress.) The kitchen was painted black, but there was lots of sunshine coming in the windows and the back door. It wasn’t at all gloomy. It was warm and cozy and smelled like the biscuits that were rolled out with a drinking glass and cut to size using the mouth of the same glass.

Addie was a thin woman with a big laugh, who almost never wore her dentures. All I remember ever seeing her wear were dark cotton dresses and white aprons. Cousin Jim always seemed to be sitting at the kitchen table, not talking but drinking coffee and eating biscuits and gravy. We kids used to make butter in the authentic churn, which would now be an expensive antique.

In the living room, we found old paper or cardboard fans that were printed with the names of churches and funeral homes. The beds we slept in were much taller than those we were used to, which made climbing into them a workout. Just beside the house was a kitchen garden, which was endlessly diverting. We pulled up carrots and potatoes (which were usually not full-grown yet).

A little ways from the house was a barn, and it was the site of many adventures. There was a hayloft that contained bales of straw (not hay), but we were too young and timid to jump from it, as kids always do in the movies. There was also a fascinating old iron machine that took the kernels off the cobs of dried corn. We loved using it, though it turned out later that the corn cobs were meant to be left whole. There was also a mule, which I once got to ride bareback. Here’s some advice: Never ride a mule bareback. Their spines are very bony.

Across the road from the farmhouse was a hill that led to an ancient family cemetery. It made a nice walk to swing on the gate across the path and trek up there. I don’t know for sure, but I like to think of Addie and Jim being buried there and not in some huge cemetery far from their home.

Just a ways down the road, there was a drive-in theater, which we could see from the screened-in back porch. It was fun to watch the movies, especially the cartoons, even with no sound. Another nearby attraction was Natural Bridge State Park. There was an impressive lodge that we never stayed in, but where we could buy that sugary white candy that seems mostly made of air and dissolves in your mouth. We took pictures of each other standing under the bridge, though I don’t have them anymore.

If Beattyville had a town center, we never saw it. Down the road from the farm was a small gas station owned by Ollie Dooley, a more distant relative, but you couldn’t really say it was in a populated area. The areas we got to see were in the hill country of Kentucky, which we called “the mountains,” though they were nothing like the mountains they have out west. These were sometimes steep, rolling mountains, grassy and rocky, full of minerals.

Fracking didn’t exist back then, and I am glad. I’m sure the old farmhouse and barn are gone now. They were old when we visited them, and they can’t have survived or been rebuilt. And no one today would want a house with a black kitchen that you could enter through a window from the bedroom.

More Kentucky Folks

Last week I wrote about Kentucky relatives on my father’s side of the family. This week’s reminiscences are of Kentucky folks on my mother’s side.

Our Uncle Sam (yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam, and an Aunt Jemima whom I never met) and Aunt June lived on a farm outside of Campton, Kentucky. We took the Bluegrass Parkway, which was then a toll road, to get there. Every summer, we vacationed there for a week or two, along with visiting other relatives in the area.

We often stayed a night in Campton, where my Aunt Thelma ran a small hotel (Roses’ Hotel) and general store right across from the town diner, which had much to recommend it, including jukebox access at every table, and a pinball machine. (Note: I have no idea whether Uncle Sam, Aunt June, and Aunt Thelma were actually my aunts and uncles. They could well have been second grand-uncles and great-grand-aunts twice removed, for all I know. The only titles we used for any relatives other than Granny (Coburn) and Grandma (Rose) were aunt, uncle, and cousin. But I digress.)

The general store was notable to us kids for having a wide assortment of penny candy where we could get root beer barrels, red hots, and Sugar Daddy pops. There were clothing and tools in the back, but we never made it farther than the candy counter.

Uncle Sam, down the road a ways, was a sharecropper. He owned the land where the house was, on one side of the road, and farmed the other side of the road for some other owner. He had cows and chickens and a horse. When I brought my then-fiance Dan to visit, he and Uncle Sam went off to bring in the cows. Dan, having no experience with cows, wandered along behind them with a stick, while Uncle Sam made polite conversation by pointing at various plants and asking, “Do they have those where you come from, Mr. Reily?”

Sam’s wife, Aunt June, was a round, comfy woman with bright, black eyes, who was at least part Native American. She was famous for her biscuits. Dan won her heart when, just before we left, he stuffed his pockets full of them.

We had, I would say, a strained relationship with the chickens. We would try to gather eggs for breakfast, but were never assertive enough to reach under the squawking and pecking fowl and collect the eggs. An adult had to be summoned for that. I was also mildly traumatized when I saw Aunt June wring a chicken’s neck for that night’s dinner, and I learned what the saying “like a chicken with its head cut off” really meant. I still ate the fried chicken, though.

The horse was another matter. We loved to ride it, but once when I was on its back, one of the farm dogs came yipping at its heels and the horse took off at what seemed to me great speed toward the barn door. The closed barn door. I bailed off sideways into the cornfield and the horse sensibly stopped when it got to the barn door. But for a moment, it was terrifying.

There was lots to do at Uncle Sam and Aunt June’s. There was a fishing pond. The path to the pond was lined with blackberry bushes and if we visited at the right time of year, we picked the berries on our way to the pond. I don’t remember catching any bluegills longer than about three inches, of which we enormously proud, but which were fed to the barn cats.

Another notable feature of the house was the plumbing, or the lack thereof. There was running water in the house for washing or cooking, but there was no inside toilet. Instead, we had to make do with the outhouse or, at night, with the “slop jar” under the bed. The bed was cozy with handmade quilts and it seemed a shame to leave their warmth to grab a flashlight to trudge to the outhouse.

Living along with Sam and June were our cousins, C.B. (Benny) and Betty Sue. C.B. was kind of a hellraiser and too old to be interested in young cousins, but Betty Sue, although among the shyest persons I’ve ever met, liked to hang around with us. Later in life, she became an attendant in a senior care facility.

The farm was a special place, with a traditional porch and rocking chairs. If it wasn’t too hot – and it often wasn’t, this being in the Kentucky hill country – we would sit and rock and drink lemonade from Mason jars.

Perhaps my memories of these idylls are why Dan and I choose to spend weekend getaways at a bed and breakfast called The Farm, where we get a small cabin with a porch and rocking chairs, beds with patchwork quilts, chickens and goats and rabbits that have the run of the barn and the yard, and huge country breakfasts. We’re going again this August, and I can’t wait.

Kentucky Folks

Not a lot of people know it, but I was born in Kentucky and lived there for the first four years of my life. My father, who was very attached to his mother, took us to visit on school or government long weekends, and sometimes even regular weekends. Summer vacation invariably involved a trip to see Granny, Pete, and Willie; Uncle Sam and Aunt June and their kids, C.B. and Betty Sue; and Cousin Addie.

One object of all this travel and family bonding was to make sure we kids didn’t pick up “Northern” accents, which I did anyway through speech and debate classes and watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news. I could still pull out a Kentucky accent when needed, such as when trying to appall my sorority sisters in college.

I suppose I should start with Granny, Pete, and Willie, who lived in a small house in Lexington. Granny was my father’s mother, and Pete and Willie were dad’s siblings. Pete was actually named Edna Mae. As far as I know, the origins of the name Pete are lost in the mists of time, and no one ever called her Edna Mae unless they were mad at her.

She was, frankly, a homely woman with thick ankles, but we loved her dearly. She had a good heart and a sly sense of humor that seldom showed itself, except when we kids did something goofy, like when I go-go danced for Granny to “Winchester Cathedral.” Every year for Christmas she gave me and my sister identical presents, differing only in color. The gifts always included an Avon roll-on perfume and a box of stationery.

Granny’s house was wonderful. There was a magnolia tree and a peach tree in front, and a black walnut in back. There were touch-me-nots growing all along the front porch and we loved to pop the fuzzy little pods and scatter the seeds everywhere.

We kids had the run of the house and Granny would frequently open her coin purse and give us spare change so we could go down the street to the store to buy penny candy. Next door was a parking lot that connected to the back door of a laundromat. We would often take the shortcut to get to the Woolworth quicker for comic books and sundaes.

Granny had long, white hair – I doubt if she had ever cut it. I still remember her sitting in a chair, with her hair flowing down the back, and Pete brushing and braiding it for her, then wrapping it in a neat coil at the nape of her neck.

We kids loved the coal fire grates that heated the house for the longest time – they were replaced later with gas heaters, which weren’t nearly as much fun. Pete had one of those old popcorn poppers that was a rectangular basket with a sliding lid. We held it over the coal fire and shook it until it was full of popped corn, then emptied it into a bowl and start over.

Names are different in Kentucky. My dad, James Robert, was invariably known as Jim Bob. All names ending in A were pronounced “ie. I was surprised when I went on an ancestry site and found my grandmother listed there as Calla. We all knew her as Callie. There was also a Callie Jo in the family, who smoked cigarettes and had a questionable reputation. Naturally, I found her fascinating, as she was the only “bad girl” I had ever met up until that time.

When Pete died, I was chosen to represent the Ohio branch of the family as my father was bed-ridden with cancer at the time. When I returned, I described the funeral to him, including the car that followed the hearse and was filled with flowers. “A truck,” he insisted. I knew he was talking about what she deserved rather than my account of what actually happened. Apart from relatives, most of the people there were from the Greyhound Bus company, where she had worked all her life.

There’s lots more to tell about my other Kentucky relatives, but I think I’ll save that for another time.

Facebook, What Have You Done Now?

We all remember going to an amusement park or a store and seeing a rack of hats or keyrings emblazoned with people’s names. What a thrill it was for kids to find their own names, and how disappointing when your name didn’t appear or was spelled another way! (Now, of course, parents are wary of putting children’s names on their clothing because of potential kidnappers. But I digress.)

Custom printing can be a wonderful thing. It meant that I was able to order two t-shirts for my husband and me featuring the cover of my new book. (Shameless plug: Bipolar Me, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and in bookstores.) Friends of mine have ordered multiple copies of shirts with screen prints of albums or book covers or business logos to give or sell as promotional “merch.”

But custom printing is also getting a little bit creepy. I’ve seen ads on my Facebook timeline recently for t-shirts that say: I May Live in Ohio But My Story Began in Kentucky. Now, this is true: I was born in Lexington, KY, and I now live in Ohio. But I can’t believe that some company has t-shirts that feature every combination of states in America and sells them to anyone who finds them appropriate. It would take 99 sets of shirts to account for former or current Ohioans alone. If my math is right (which I don’t guarantee), that would mean nearly 5000 shirts for every combination of possibilities. And I can’t believe that a t-shirt company routinely stocks thousands of differently worded shirts against the hope that someone will buy one.

No, these are targeted t-shirts. I’m guessing that Facebook has sold my birthplace and current address info to some company who has a template they fill in with Ohio and Kentucky, if I should be so inclined to buy one. Until or unless I do, that shirt may never actually exist.

But with all the brou-ha-ha about Facebook selling people’s information, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. After all, I was silly enough to tell people where I was actually born and now live, just in case, ya know, someone wanted to make sure that I was the right Janet Coburn they wanted to contact, rather than the one born in Hawaii who now lives in Minnesota.

I don’t really mind when Facebook sends me ads for shirts featuring my favorite singers with a list of all their songs. I can believe that John Prine and Emmylou Harris have enough fans that might want t-shirts but can’t get to concerts. Someone could actually have pre-printed those shirts. But again, the fact that I liked them on Facebook sure seems as though the fact’s been plucked from my favorites listing and sold. I never get ads for shirts featuring Metallica’s greatest hits or songs by Justin Bieber.

So what else does Facebook apparently know about me? That I’m a science and science fiction geek and a literature lover and a word nerd and crazy cat lady. That info could easily be generated by the pass-alongs I pass along. So, of course, I get ads for Star Trek items and book-themed gifts and shirts about the Grammar Police and anything connected with cats.  I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I just saw an ad for cat book shoes. And I guess I’m fine with that too, although I wonder how much such companies pay Facebook for the use of their algorithms.

But the home state/current state shirts have me a little spooked. Am I going to start seeing ads with my high school’s name? My favorite quotations? My political associations (if I had been bold enough to list them)?

Frankly, I’d prefer to remain a little anonymous and just wear nightshirts that say I ❤ My Bed.