Roberta Lilly, Retired School Teacher; Beckley, West Virginia:
“I was born and raised in West Virginia and I’m proud of it. [Growing up in Beckley was] different, I guess. We were always able to entertain ourselves, and kids today can’t do that. We played with paper dolls and made mud pies and did all those fun things. [My friends were] kids in the neighborhood. [We had a small family] just me and my brother.
I went to an all-girls school in Ohio in high school and studied Foods and Institutional Services because I thought I’d someday work in a restaurant, or have my own place. Then, I changed my mind [because] since I was in the second grade; I wanted to be a schoolteacher. So, I went to college and pursued a degree. My dad was working for Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass in Toledo. We were there about five years.
The economy [brought us back]. Whenever you leave West Virginia you always want to come home. It’s just home.
I went to Beckley College and got an undergraduate degree and Concord and got my Bachelor’s degree and WVU for Master’s. I taught third grade for seventeen years, and then I taught everything from second through the fifth grade; I subbed for ten years after I retired and I taught all the way through eighth grade.
[As teachers] We’ve had stories about the way that kids were kept. I know one little boy came in and told me one day he’d burned himself, and it was because mom wasn’t home all night and he had to take care of his little baby brother before he came to school, so he was trying to cook him some breakfast.
Some of the diseases and things we were exposed to as a child; all of us were vaccinated before we went to school like everybody else I guess, but we didn’t have any conflict with it like they have today. Life just moved on and people just done what they could do and kept on going.
My aunt had tuberculosis and they put her in a sanitarium until she was better and I really believe that our older people probably had cancer, but they didn’t call it that, they didn’t know what it was. I think that affected a lot of people. Black lung, coal miners in the mines and not being protected had black lung.
[Appalachians] are different because we care about family. You get into cities and places like this and they don’t care about family. It’s just their own selves and what they can do. Here, we’re family-oriented; families stick together and help each other.
[Outsiders] Most of them think that we’re stupid and that we have no upbringing. They think we talk funny and we’re the people that don’t know how to dress right. They really need to look; we’ve had a much better life than a lot of them. We are more oriented to what’s around us, and we appreciate everything that we get.
It’s not like you get something and it's just common to get everything that you want. When you live in the mountains, you appreciate all those little things that you get.
My uncles were coal miners, but my dad, he was a teacher so he didn’t work in the mines but just a little bit. After we came back to West Virginia, he went to college and was a teacher in high school. He had a love to really see kids improve their minds and stuff because he was a very intelligent person. My mom was a stay at home mom, and she worked in a little five and ten cents store.
The only thing I remember about my uncles working in the mines was that whenever they came home at night they came home with the dirty black faces and had worked all day and they were tired. They always brought that lunch bucket home and there was always something left in it. Probably that extra cake that mom put in in the morning.
We had big family gatherings on the holidays. Christmas and Thanksgiving [the] family would come in, and we’d have these big meals and cook lots of food and had lots of fun.
If it was Thanksgiving, we always had turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, hot rolls and salads. [My favorite meal or comfort food is] beans and cornbread. I don’t think people who live in the city know what cornbread is.
We take our own corn and dry it, then we grind it ourselves and we sift it out and make cornbread and it’s really good. Lots of butter in the skillet and it has to be cooked in an iron skillet so it gets real crunchy on the outsides. Lots of butter on it and there’s nothing better. It’s not sweet, no sugar goes in cornbread. That’s for cake. [Beans] are savory and you put that fatback in them and you let them cook for a long time. It’s just the smell all day long. I like to cook just about everything.
We don’t eat a lot of meat at our house, we’re more [eat] what we raise, a lot of it. Right now it’s a big pot of green beans, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and corn on the cob. [We grow] beans, corn, onions, potatoes, beets, cucumbers and squash.
I didn’t realize how much potatoes cost until I had to go buy some ‘cause we’ve always had enough to do us all winter. You pick beans until you think you can’t pick any more, and then you sit on the porch and everybody just sits around and strings beans and talks and has fun. We can them in jars with water and just a little salt, put them in a big ‘ole thing and let them cook.
[Hobbies] I like to crochet, make quilts and I knit. I have my granddaughter that we’re raising and have a lot of time for her. Quilting is where you can take something in your mind, a design, and tell a story with it. Then you put those pieces together and all the colors go together and it just means something special.
My aunt was ninety-five when she passed away. She’d never sewn on a sewing machine. All of her quilts were done by hand, and she gave me one before she died. It's just really special and I think that’s why I wanted to get into this hobby, too.
[The quilt] looks like diamonds and each diamond is hooked together in a long line and then there are diamonds fit in between and there [are] just lots of different colors and bright and pretty and then it’s been quilted in the same thing. I’ve done a quilt, I did one for my granddaughter for her birthday one year and I took old blue jeans of mine and cut the dolls out, the baby dolls, and then used old fabric from shirts and made the dresses and the hats and that kind of thing to put on them and then sewed them on the squares.
[My biggest triumph] I think the biggest thing for me right now is to see that [my granddaughter] is raised and that she has a good education and can take care of herself.
[One of the saddest times] Probably when my mom died. My dad got killed and it’s sad when you lose your dad, but when you lose your mom, it’s gone. My dad was shot. A friend of the family just came to the house and called him out and shot him. He was in his fifties, late fifties.
When coal was booming everybody had lots of money and they did a lot of things and now it’s like if somebody doesn’t do something we’re not going to have an economy. It’s going to be gone.
I don’t know if there’s anything that we can do, because our government doesn’t listen to us. They think they know more than we do. I’m wondering what’s going to happen when some of these plants and things need power and they don’t have the coal for that power. What are they going to do?
I can tell you a story and most people don’t think this is true. We were living in a house, and I kept telling my husband, I said, ‘There is a lady that’s walks through my hallway and into my kitchen.’ And he said, ‘That’s not true.’ I said, ‘I see her. Every now and then I see her.’ So one day I came home from work and my husband says, ‘I saw your lady today and she was walking through.’ I says, ‘You know, somebody in my family is going to die.’
Right after that, my mom died.”