Kelli Haywood, Writer/Blogger; Littcarr, Kentucky, Knott County:
“I live close to Dead Mare Branch, where James Still lives. I grew up in Whitesburg and Isom, in Letcher County, Kentucky.
Growing up was great. It’s a lot different, than the way things are now. When we lived in the holler, I was just turned loose all day, and expected to be back by suppertime. I roamed the hills all day long, as often as the weather would let me, and even if my mom wanted to find me, she wouldn’t have been able to.
My dad made sure I knew what poisonous snakes looked like, and what to do if I saw one, and what to do if I came upon any other animal. I knew basic first aid. They taught me what to do if I got bit by a snake, and turned me loose. (Laughs) That wouldn’t be acceptable now, I don’t think. I’m not really sure why, but I feel like it was a good time.
I have one full sibling, and I have a half-brother, and two stepbrothers, and a stepsister. We were The Brady Bunch. There were three girls and three boys, when we were all together.
I’m a pretty introverted person, and so most of the time, I like to be alone. But on occasion, they would go with me [to the hills].
My Dad was a star athlete at Whitesburg High School, and my Mom was a cheerleader. They had dated from the time she was in the eighth grade, and they got married not too long after they both graduated from high school. I was their first child.
They were divorced when I turned eight years old, so I had a stepmom and a stepdad.
My Dad was a pretty big part in teaching me about my environmental surroundings. He’s an Environmental Engineer, and works with coalmines on reclamation, and making sure that things comply environmentally. He taught me all about the geography, the geology, the plant life, the flora and fauna, and got me out into the natural world, and got me comfortable with it. That has always been where I’m most comfortable.
Even more than that, my grandparents played a huge part in me becoming who I am today. And I say that because they made sure I knew where I came from, what kind of people I came from, and how we got here in the mountains, and why we came. That story: all the superstitions, and all the, especially ghost stories, and things like that; Our family tragedies, and the funny things that happened; even down to what they ate for breakfast. I learned all of it.
My grandfather was an electrician in the coalmine, and then he ended up teaching at the vocational school. My grandmother was a paralegal at the Letcher County Courthouse, worked with Polly and Craft. And then my other grandmother was a secretary in the Letcher County Board of Education.
I guess the one [story] that really strikes me the most, is how one section of my family ended up in Southeastern Kentucky. My great-great-grandmother, her name was Arizona Walker, Webb Walker, her family had been on the Trail of Tears and had been separated.
Some of them went with the eastern band [Cherokee] as they escaped, and then the rest were out in Oklahoma. She had traveled back and forth, and her father had caused their home life to be pretty bad. Because of some disagreements and some issues with her father, at fifteen, she ran away from home, and walked. She had a bad leg, it was way shorter than the other. She walked alone, at the age of fifteen, from Georgia to Dayton, Tennessee, where she set up a life for herself.
After she got married, her husband went to work in the mines in Hazard. And that’s how they ended up in Eastern Kentucky. She was a Cherokee. So that, that story of our family being torn apart in that vicious circle of events, I can still feel the impact of that in me today, and how I was brought up. So to me, that’s the one that captivates me the most.
[My ancestry is] Cherokee, of course, and we still have cousins on both reservations. I am Scots-Irish. My great-grandfather, his name was Stacy, and he definitely looks still very Irish, what you would imagine the stereotypical Irishman to look like. My maiden name is Hansel, and that is Welsh and German. Nobody really knows where one of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side came from. He has a very interesting appearance, but my great grandmother had told me he was a Blackfoot Indian, and those are from the north, you know, west area, but I don't know that for certain.
(Other family stories) I love the ghost stories best of all. Other than the family history, were the ghost stories. Both of my grandmothers believed in ghosts, and had seen a number of them.
My grandmother told me a story of one time she lived on Goose Creek, in Neon. She was sitting on the porch swing, swinging. She was just a little girl, and she looked up at the cemetery and, from one of the graves, the graves of her grandparents, rose up a ball of fire, and it was raining. She was sitting on a covered porch, but the fire didn’t go out, and the ball rolled down the hill. The fireball got bigger and bigger. It rolled across the road, and then when it hit the gate of their yard, it turned into her grandparents, and they came in the gate.
Her grandfather opened the door for her grandmother. They walked up the side path, and up the steps to the porch, and then when they got up to the porch, they disappeared.
And that was the story. It wasn’t anything other than the ball of fire. There wasn’t anything extravagant; she didn’t say they spoke to her, you know, didn’t describe the ghosts in grand detail. And so in my head, I’m like, what is there not to believe about that? Why would she tell that, if there wasn’t any other big, extravagant thing? That is not made up, you know. So, that is one I always believed really happened, and that she believed really happened.
I’ve been really surprised, when traveling outside of the region, at the difference in the culture. People don’t seem as willing to stop, and become involved in another person’s troubles. That’s something that I think still sticks here, though I don’t think our communities are as strong as they once were. If I’m broke down on the side of the road, I may be there thirty minutes, before somebody comes and helps. But when I was in Louisville, I stayed on the road over five hours, with no one asking to help me. That’s a huge difference.
I think we’re a reserved people, in a way. We’re a people that really wants to protect our identity. We have a fierce sense of identity, and I think most of us feel like it’s being exploited, and being misrepresented. Because of that, we have kind of insulated ourselves, and we don’t share as much of our culture, the real culture, as we used to.
As far as music and art forms go, I think it’s becoming a little washed out as far as it being passed down to the young people, and that worries me a bit. I see a lot of positive things happening, but the willingness to claim those huge parts of our culture and renew them seems to be waning. We seem to have more of a desire to meld to mass culture, mass American culture.
We’re a clannish people, very protective of our family, and our hollers, and our land. Land is extremely meaningful to us. It belongs to everybody, but it also belongs to the family, and that’s something I don’t see everywhere.
Here, you’ll have grandparents pass away, and there’s this old home place sitting there. None of the kids move into it, but they won’t sell it either, because it’s the old home place. It won’t get sold because somebody really worked for that. We value hard work, and we value making do, and we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty.
For seven years, we lived in the Louisville area, going to school, and I taught school in Henry County for four years. Other than that, that’s the only time I’ve lived out of Eastern Kentucky.
At first [living in the city] was extremely exciting, because as a teenager there were times when I was so bored. I felt so out of place, all I wanted to do was to get out and see something new. So, it was really exciting in that regard, because I got to do a lot of things, that I had always wanted to do; riding bicycles through the city, and seeing all the different types of people. I’d always wanted to see different cultural things, so that was extremely exciting.
But, it was really hard to express myself there openly, because when I would open my mouth to speak, my identity as a Southeastern Kentuckian was given away by the way I sound.
For some reason, in this country, it’s still perfectly acceptable to make fun of the Appalachian person, and to put us down in front of our face. I don’t think some people are even conscious of how hurtful it is. People would speak my words back to me, the way they thought it sounded. It would be really embarrassing, so I didn’t put myself out there to meet very many people.
But, there was a great sense of community in Louisville, and I found a lot of like-minded people, that I have a harder time finding actually here. So, there were good and bad things, but when we had our children, we realized that it was time to go home. That’s where we knew how to raise a child.
The teaching of respect that I got as a child, is just a good way to be in this world. You don’t call your elders by their first name, unless they give you permission. You always smile, when opening the door for the person behind you. You always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’
Don’t assume things about people. Talk to them, get to know them, before you make any kind of judgment on their value to you. Everybody is God’s creature, [and] there’s value in all people. They’re here for a reason. All of those things, I just think that they’re just a really solid foundation for getting along anywhere you go in the world.
Even now, anytime I go to a flatter landscape I feel vulnerable. I feel like I’m wide open. Anything could wipe me out at any moment. Where do I run to hide? You know how to take to the hills, but where do you hide in the city?
Currently I am pursuing my writing. It’s something that I’ve always done. I grew up in a family that tells stories. I’ve always been read to, from even before my memory, so, as soon as I was able to construct a paragraph, I began writing on my own. I wrote my first, real, full-length story in the fifth grade, and have been writing ever since.
That’s what I went to school for, but I took a lot of detours, mostly to support my husband in his efforts and his talents. Now, I’m taking my turn to pursue mine. I finished the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, and I am blogging at confluencemama.com, about just day-to-day life, my thoughts [and] different topics that I think the people of Central Appalachia would be interested in, that directly affect us.
(About the name of the blog) Well, where we live is a confluence of three creeks,; Big Doubles, Little Doubles, and Buffalo Creek. They all run together. Where we drive up out of the creek to get on our little dirt road that goes up to the cabin, that’s where they all three meet.
My life, I feel like, is a confluence of all kinds of interesting things, and they meet somewhere in the middle, and form me. I saw that as kind of a metaphor for my own self to use that name.
We need to diversify our sources of income here. I don’t think there will be a big back turn to coal. I do think that the way it’s happened, is extremely unfortunate for our community. The war on coal makes my stomach hurt. Three generations back that I am aware of, and probably farther, I come from a family of coal miners.
We were able to make a living, because of the coal mines. My Dad currently still works as a miner, and it’s just hard to have to see him go from job to job at his age, because he’ll lose one if the company closes or they’re downsizing. It’s not practical to go back to school, and he can’t retire.
I see a lot of people in my age group, I’m thirty-six, are having to leave. That, as a parent, makes me nervous for my daughters. But, I’m also really hopeful because I believe that the people who really want to stick it out, and who really want to find solutions and build our communities again, will remain. Or they’ll come back when they’re able to. We’ve had many mass exoduses of people from here, and it seems like eventually they do, mostly, come home, in one way or another.
A lot of people claim that we’ll be able to be like [a] mini-Gatlinburg, and that we’ll be able to make money from farming. But I don’t believe that either of those two things is going to be viable for most people in the area. We don’t have the infrastructure to support tourism. We don’t have major highways coming through most of these places. It takes a grand effort to get here.
If we want to promote tourism, we have to build things that people are going to want to come see. It’s one thing to come see Bad Branch Falls, a small waterfall, but what else are they going to do? Where are they going to eat? Where are they going to sleep? What does that look like? How does that reflect on us as a culture? If they come here, they’re going to want to see our unique culture, not a homogenized version of what we really are.
It’s just like the folks down at Cherokee. You’ve got your folks on the reservation, and you’ve got your folks down in the tourist area that are wearing the headdresses that Cherokees never wore, and selling tomahawks and all these different things. It’s a way to make money. It’s a way to draw attention to yourself.
If you play the part of a hillbilly, you’re going to get gigs making fun of yourself. I don’t fault people for using their talents to make money. If they can get a dollar out of somebody, for playing that role, fine. What I don’t like, is when it’s somebody from outside of the region putting on that air. I don’t think it’s the best thing to do.
I do think, instead of teaching our young people where we come from, and who they are, we’re avoiding it, and trying to erase a lot of the really great things about ourselves from our children. I do believe that we’ll have to get back to that. That is part of the solution.
An Appalachian is a fiercely independent person, who also very much values the people who support them in that independence. They’re willing to give up everything to defend their beliefs, including getting physical. They are very respectful people. They’re a people who can make do with little to nothing, and live a decent life. They’re a very proud people. I believe highly intelligent in ways that a lot of people haven’t had to exist the way we have, are not.
Highly intelligent, in very practical ways, and that’s what gives them the ability to make do with little to nothing. We’re very inventive. It makes us highly artistic, whether we believe we are or not. I think most of us are very artistic.
Am I a hillbilly? Well, I wrote a whole blog post about it, and I guess I would be classified as a hillbilly. I don’t use that word outside of the context, and I will rarely refer to myself as a hillbilly to an outsider.
That word was coined as a derogatory term for Appalachians, just like other derogatory terms for other people. There’s been a movement to reclaim that and you can argue that that’s a good thing. You can also argue that that’s a bad thing. Can that word be reclaimed? When we still have people, like I said before, making a dollar off of that stereotype, and perpetuating those stereotypes that have never been true.
So, I think it’s wrong to regularly refer to myself as a hillbilly, and I don’t adopt that term. I’m a mountain woman. I’ll call myself that. I’m an Appalachian person. Eastern Kentuckian.
(What will the region look like in 10-20 years?) It’s hard for me to daydream about that. Honestly, I can’t tell you where I think it would be in twenty years, because right now I don’t see any clear answers.
Some days, I see some great things happening, and I get really hopeful. But most of the time, I’m not very hopeful, and I hope that what I see here aren’t ghost towns. I hope that the essence of our people remain here, and that we rebuild a community that is genuinely our own, without outsiders coming in and trying to form it for us.
My hope is that my children, if they choose to remain here, will be able to make the life for themselves that they want, no matter what it is they want to do. If they choose to stay here, that they can raise their families here, and they can be happy here and don’t have to see a lot of the things that I’m experiencing day to day, which involves a lot of outside influence coming in, and misrepresenting us.”