“Don’t ever look down on anybody, because everybody’s been through something.”
Rhonda Kretzer, Artist, Disabled; Xenia, Ohio, Originally From Ashland, Kentucky (Photo & Interview By Jennifer Molley Wilson):
“I grew up in Ashland, West Wood, Kentucky, and I went to Fairview High School. I lived in Kentucky thirty-three years. I’ve lived in Ohio for twenty-three years. [Due to] my husband’s job, we had to move, and it was a heart-breaking move, but it’s not so far, so I can come back. He works for a company that runs malls.
I was a wild child. I loved playing in the woods, climbing trees. I was a quiet kid, believe it or not, and I wrote stories and poems when I was a kid. Everything was a story and a fantasy for me. I was terrible in school. I never paid attention. (Laughs)
I’m an only child. I was raised in a big house, and with the only child imagination, it was part of my little stories. I had three [imaginary friends. (Laughs) Their names [were] Keenrus, Konrus, and Konkees. I could see them, and they were redheaded little girls with little pigtails. I didn’t even know any redheaded kids at that age, but they had to be included in everything. I always would get up when I’d hear Dad get up to leave for work, and I’d say, ‘But you got to kiss…,’ and I would go through [all the names] and Dad would have to kiss my imaginary friends, and he was looking at my Mom, and going, ‘This kid needs help.’ They did everything with me. When I was a little bit older, I didn’t see them anymore, but I wrote a story of my three imaginary friends, and it was actually horror. They were never scary when I was little.
My Mom stayed at home. Dad was self-employed, and she kept the books. She had a little office in the house, and I would have a lot of just me time in that big house. [Dad] did everything, and I think I’m like him. I’m more into the arts part, but Dad was a jack-of-all-trades, and he was a master of each one, which I haven’t made that part yet. He did cleaning services, and he had a cleaning supply store, and he was also a heavy equipment operator. He got tired of the public, and he went back in his later years to heavy equipment, and then he retired. He passed away at fifty-seven, right after he retired, so we didn’t get to see what all else he had in mind.
One of my great aunts loved photography. I never got to know her, but she took most of the photos that we still have. My grandmother wasn’t as much into preserving the past, but my Mom and me, we loved where we came from [and] we wanted to hold on to these people. Mamaw said, ‘Do you want this tin of pictures? If you don’t, I’m just going to throw them out.’ Mom and me took them [and] framed them. My great uncle had these two old family Bibles, and [we] had no knowledge of them. I looked in them, and [our family history] went all the way back to 1700. I have them in a cedar box.
We’re Scots-Irish, and my Mom’s great grandfather on her dad’s side was from Northern Ireland, and we’ve always had a bond to our ancestry. He came over here with his brother. I think it was the Lady Washington he sailed on to come over here, and was up in Elliot County, Kentucky. That’s where my Mom’s dad was raised, and then Mom and Dad, when they decided, ‘We’ve had enough of city life,’ [and] they packed up and moved [back] to Elliott County, close to where her own dad was raised.
From the dates, I figure the potato famine had a whole lot to do [with ancestors coming to America]. His [great-great-grandfather’s] name was Caldwell. His wife was English. She came over through the Civil War and she was in Virginia. She said, ‘if the south looks like they’re going to win, I’ll just keep pushing north.’ She traveled at nighttime, alone, on horseback. With the Civil War and Morgan’s Raiders, and all this going on, she traveled at night, through all those canyons, and all that stuff to Elliott County. That’s a strong woman! Apparently, she was some kind of a sympathizer because an Englishman married a Northern Irishman, and it’s wonderful that we have that [information].
My Mom’s mother was my best friend. We did everything. There was an old house in Greenup County. It was a Civil War era home, but it had been abandoned, and it was running down. Well, they had the best pear trees that were still living and produced fruit. Nobody ever said anything if they’d see you over there. We’d just park the car and go through the gate, and we’d pick pears and walnuts, and we’d just have the best time.
We were down there, and we took my grandmother’s cousin and one of her friends to go show them this place. There’s still an old piano in there, just what people hadn’t stolen or destroyed. My cousin and me went upstairs. I was showing her up there, and all of a sudden, you could hear this piano plinking away. We always called my cousin, Sis, and she grabs me by the arm, and [hollers downstairs} Dophie, (everybody called Mamaw, Dophie) is that you? That better be you!’ She blasted down that hall [and] Mamaw’s friend had already ran to the car. She was gone. Mamaw was down there dying laughing. We got into everything. She was a very fun woman, but she was raised in a rough life, worked hard, and so when we had our times out, we made the best of it.
She loved to crack walnuts. She had a big table outside, and she’d dry then. I’d go over and help her bust them open, and she’d pick them clean. She’d either give bags away, or she would bake something with them, and oh, I hated walnuts. I couldn’t stand the smell of them, but she loved doing that, and I would always help her.
Colonel Sanders has nothing on her fried chicken. Her fried chicken was my favorite thing in the world. I never learned her secret. She said, ‘I fix it just like everybody else.’ I was pregnant, and I didn’t know it yet, and I felt so bad. I was at work, I used to work at a print shop, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to have to go home. I’m not feeling good. Then I started thinking, ‘I want Mamaw’s fried chicken.’ I said, ‘Mamaw, are you frying chicken, by any chance?’ She said, ‘Well, I am now. I’ll have it ready for you.’ She could fry it so fast. I went over there, and she had chicken, biscuits and gravy. That tasted like pure heaven to me. I felt a hundred percent better.
When she was in the nursing home I would sit with her all night, and we’d just talk. We were watching Animal Planet, of all things. It was about elephants, and she had tears in her eyes. She said, ‘you know, watching them big animals, they’re so human, but a little better.’ She was an awesome woman, and her mother was, too. My mother’s a strong woman. She didn’t have anything when Dad passed away, and she pulled up, built her own house, and she’s still going on all on her own. If something happens and I’m left in the world alone, I hope I can carry on like that.
[Lessons learned from Mamaw] I think embracing everybody; don’t ever look down on anybody because everybody’s been through something. I learn that more and more, and I could remember how she treated people so good, and knowing what she had been through in her life, and she was so good to people. She said, ‘It don’t matter. There’s no color or nothing to people. People are people.’
(Appalachian culture) I believe in Appalachia there’s spirits. They’re always there, and it’s us. I’ve lived in Ohio for almost twenty-five years, and I’m still me, I’m still Appalachia. I can live fine there, but that’s not me. (Laughs) This is. As soon as I’m driving down through Ohio, and I start seeing the hills forming, and then they get higher, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m almost home.’
Appalachia is very creative. [Again] it’s that spirit in these hills, and I think that’s where all of our inspiration comes from. When I first moved to Ohio I couldn’t even think of art. I’m like, ‘I can’t do anything in this flat place. There’s no landscape. There’s nothing here.’ It took me a while to get used to it. I would look at old pictures I had taken, and I’d think, ‘Just bring it with you, Rhonda. It’s in your soul. It’s like God. It’s not a thing, it’s you.’ That’s how I did it, and I went right back to being an artist.
I have had a firsthand encounter [with stereotyping]. My daughter’s twenty-six now so it’s been a lot of years ago. She was in school, and out of the University of Cincinnati, one of their editors wrote an article in the newspaper about Appalachian children that’s uprooted into Ohio, and how their grades fell, or [were] not as up on things because they do the 23 southbound travel every weekend, and it takes away from their study time.
I fired off a letter to him. I said, ‘Sir, I do not know what Appalachian children you are speaking of, but this is my Appalachian daughter. She’s on the honor roll. She’s very intelligent, and she even has an award signed by President Bush for her achievements. We make that 23 south trip, sir.’
I live in Ohio, and I get talked down to because I still have my accent, thick as all get-out. They all talk down to me like I may not understand. I’ve met so many very old ladies that are bitter against their husbands that have passed away. [They] went up there [Ohio] to work, and they got stuck. They say, ‘I just want to go home.’
The hardest thing [I’ve ever gone through] was within six months time, my husband lost his oldest sister. She’d been very ill forever. She passed away, and then I lost my best friend, my grandmother, in October. In November, we found out my husband’s second oldest sister had inoperable lung cancer, and right after that, my grandfather had a stroke and fell. He was ninety-six years old. We’re getting around to February, and my grandfather is taking his last breaths, and it was just me and Mom, and the pastor standing there. I get a phone call, and I thought, ‘I have to take this.’ I went outside, and I answered it. It was my husband. My sister-in-law and my grandpa died the same morning. I think I kind of broke down. All I remember was nurses. I got home, and that’s when I started being pretty sick myself, and I got a phone call again. My cousin’s husband dropped dead of a massive heart attack at fifty-two years old, at the breakfast table. That was a lot to get through.
I didn’t grieve my grandmother because I said, ‘If I grieve, I will hold part of her here, and it’s time for her to fly.’ She said, ‘ I know where I’m going,’ and she couldn’t wait. She was a very spiritual woman, and sometimes so spiritual it was scary. It was like she had this big connection from somewhere.
I’ve been disabled for a long time. It’s a lot of arthritis, a lot of wear and tear, and then I was diagnosed with lung problems and a heart condition. It runs in my Dad’s family. He passed at fifty-seven, his brother passed at fifty-seven, and his sister passed at fifty-seven. Mom always told me, ‘don’t think about anything, when you turn fifty-seven. Put that out of your head.’ You can’t help but think of that.
Obviously, it wasn’t the same year, but they were all fifty-seven, and it gets weirder. It was the very same day, May 24, all three of them. My Dad’s baby sister, which was the last to go, she was fifty-seven, May 24, and she died in a really bad car accident, but the brothers died of heart problems. We say we’re not superstitious, but I think it’s that Celtic root thing. It’s very creepy.
My daughter being born [was my most triumphant time]. I had a C-section with her, and when they pulled her out, she had the prettiest little red curl on the back of her little head. I said, ‘Oh, that’s my little Irish baby.’ Her name is Katherine Elizabeth. We gave her a big, queenly name. I said, “’She will be another strong person out of this family,’ and she is.
I’ve lived a colorful life, but what I’m grateful for is I was raised knowing the richest of the rich, and the poorest of the poor, and there’s no difference, as long as you’re a human being. I’m very grateful for that kind of upbringing.
I want [people] to remember me as just a good, friendly person. Somebody they could come to if they needed a friend. I’ve learned a lot of lessons in life, and I’ve been through a lot. It made me stronger.”