Thursday, August 13, 2015

Being Appalachian

I am an Appalachian person. I grew in the the southern most county of West Virginia (MACdowell County as we said it). When someone didn't emphasize the first syllable, we knew they weren't one of 'us'.

My wife grew up 10 miles or so from me--but she doesn't define herself as an Appalachian. She defines herself as Italian and Hungarian, which she is. She never had an Appalachian accent, growing up in a household that spoke English as a second language.

I've been in New England for 37 of my years (two in graduate school in Cambridge and 35 in Connecticut) but people sometimes ask me if I'm a 'southerner' because of the way I sound. I'm quick to correct them--"I'm an Appalachian!", I say and then tell them the difference.

Appalachians are from southern West Virginia, south-eastern Virginia, north-eastern North Carolina, much of Kentucky and Tennessee. Some people in southern Ohio might think they are, but they're not, trust me.

All these Scotch-Irish and British folks made it into the mountains and then didn't go further west.

Example: my grandmother used to say, "pon my swanee" when something happened she didn't expect or understand. I was an English major and discovered that there was a Middle-English oath: "upon my Swan Lea". Centuries later, my grandmother was still saying that in an altered form. Those folks just got lost in the mountains and ignored by the rest of the world. Of course, by my time, the coal mines had attracted Europeans of all stripes--like my wife--who still identified with their ethnicity rather than where they lived.

You had to grow up in a place where dawn was an hour late and dusk an hour early because of the mountains to be an Appalachian. You had to wonder the mountains endlessly as a child. You had to see the coal dust on your car every morning. And you have to know you're not a Southerner, not at all, not in any way--your identity is tied to the mountains, deep in their soil.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.