Denise Bates

Denise Bates, Public Relations, Mountain Comp Health Care; Blackey, Kentucky:

"I’ve lived in several places, but I was born and raised here. [My childhood] was magical. I’ve written several stories about it. I grew up about a mile down the road. We call it the compound. It's the Bates’ Compound and almost everybody in my family used to live there. My Dad still lives there, and my brother. 

We had a farm up on the River Road. My Papaw had livestock, and every day we would hop in his truck and get on the tailgate, go to the farm and feed everything and take care of stuff up there. They didn’t have any worries about us kids riding on the tailgate back in those days. 

Over there was Joe Begley’s store. It’s CB Caudill’s, but all my life it was Joe Begley and his wife Gaynell’s. We never went by there that we didn’t stop and get a pop. We grew up swimming in the creek and the river, going barefoot and picking berries. It was a beautiful childhood. 

We were carefree, and my cousin Amy’s dad built us a treehouse up at the farm. We started a club and named our club ‘The Unspoken Roses,’ after a bottle of perfume. It was just a bunch of us girls that lived up there. We would conduct the meetings with the upmost of meeting decorum. 

We had a basketball team. We had a rock singing group. It was all imaginary. I don’t remember what we called our singing group, but the imaginary people in our group were Donny and Marie, Elton John, Cher and Olivia Newton-John. Everything we did was a lot of imagination. I regret that I think kids today are doing video games and watching TV and movies and stuff, but we really didn’t have TV. I mean, we had TV, but nothing was on so we always were outside and running around.

We’re just old mountain people. That’s all. We worked hard growing up. We had to work in the garden. I’ve shoveled manure, picked hard corn, shelled hard corn, strung beans, canned beans, made applesauce and apple butter and soap and just all that stuff. 

“It’s a heritage that my daughter [never] really got to experience, because I was a single mom and I was just working. I was busy while she was growing up. Not just with my stuff, but with her stuff. She didn’t get the same exact kind of upbringing as I did, but she got to experience some of it. She got to know Pap and Granny. 

I’m a schoolteacher by degree, and I did that for a long time. After high school, I went to college. I first went to Clinch Valley over in Wise and I lived with my Uncle Willie and his wife Teresa and their daughter Heather, who was a little baby at the time. I did that for two years, and then I went to UK. That’s where I got my degree. I lived in Lexington for quite some time. 

I moved back here, and that’s where I did all of my teaching career. In 2006, I moved back to the Lexington area and I just came back here recently. I did some other stuff. I had a paralegal business. I always was interested in the law, and so I did that for quite some time. I lived a year in San Diego, which was different. [When I lived away] I was coming home frequently. 

As my grandmother always said, ‘The mountains just beckon you.’

They once had to move to Florida because my uncle, who is now 70 and is fine, but he had some real serious health problems when he was a baby. So, Pap and Granny and my dad and all of his siblings had to move to Florida. She said they stuck it out as long as they could, and they had to come back to the mountains. 

My grandmother, Eunice Cornett Bates, comes from a family from up here on the River Road across from our farm. Her parents had 12 children, and all 12 children were college graduates. Most of them are gone now. Some of them are still here. Elwood Cornett, who is the pastor at this church is her brother. I think that’s a pretty incredible story. 

Pa Cornett was a farmer and Ma Cornett was a school teacher, she only had an 8th grade education, but back then, I guess you could be a school teacher with that. It would be amazing if anyone now could do that: have 12 children and all 12 children graduated from college. I guess all of them [attended] Alice Lloyd or Berea, because it was free. But they all finished. They all went on to be very successful people. 

We have such a sense of place, and I don’t think everybody has that. I knew almost all of my great grandparents. I’ve been to so many funerals. Not too long ago, I met people who have never been to a funeral in their life. It’s weird because a funeral around here is almost a social event. 

An Appalachian funeral is like nothing else in the world. Sometimes, there is drama at funerals. People get upset or angry with each other. It’s a very high emotional situation. So many, many, many, many nights my dad has sat up in this church with a body. [The church] is Old Regular Baptist and they meet once a month. Yes, [they believe in the families sitting up with the bodies]. Not everyone still does that, but a lot of people still do that. I’ve been to wakes where the body was in someone’s living room. 

I wrote a poem about it one time, “Sunday in Blackey,” because you wake up and look out the window, and there’s not a place to park in this whole town. Everywhere you look on this side, over there, it’s full of cars because they [funerals] get a huge crowd. 

A funeral is just a part of the culture. Baptisms are also part of the culture. Been to many of those. 

I remember a story, I was too young to know really what happened, but my great grandfather’s name was Washington Russel Bates. Everyone called him Wash. He was a sheriff and he had a moonshine still. There’s just tons of stories about Wash. He died when I was in the third grade. 

At the funeral, one of the preachers said that when Wash got baptized all the fish down river died. I don’t know [if they still do baptisms in the creek here behind the church]. I’ve not seen a baptism here in a long time, but the last one I went to in the river was across from there because it’s easy to get down to the river back there. 

[At an Appalachian river baptizing] everybody goes down to the river after church and the person being baptized is in a white robe of some kind, normally. The preachers wade out in the river, and the person to be baptized does too. Everyone sings. “Shall We Gather at the River” is a staple. Then of course, there is a little preaching and a prayer and they baptize them, they put them under water. They raise up and they feel like they are glorious. 

Oh, I’m a hillbilly. I like Bluegrass music and riding around on the mountain. I like the way I talk and the way the people I know talk. I like everything about being a hillbilly. I have been all over the place, and it’s never been anything but a plus for me."