Like a June Bug Tied to a String

My maternal grandfather was a coal miner. He couldn’t read or write, but he built this house, where he and my granny raised 10 kids. It still stands today. My granny tacked quilts, using those to keep everyone warm, and quilted to make money to pay bills. She was short and always wore high heels – even when going up and down a ladder to wallpaper to make money. (Family photos)

I spent some summers with my granny in Hazard, Kentucky. Those summers gave me some of my favorite childhood memories. Swimming where I had to watch out for cottonmouths. Sitting on the floor and snapping beans while Granny rocked and watched her soap operas. Granny setting up a quilting frame on the porch and aunts coming over to help tack a quilt. Eating fried bologna sandwiches. Visiting an aunt in a holler and using her outhouse. Trying a string around a June bug, letting it go, and holding onto the string while the bug flew in circles. It’s kinda like flying a kite. Why? Just to have something to do. There was no money to buy toys or reliable vehicles to go anywhere.

I’ve never watched a movie that better explains what life is like for so many people in the Midwest who have Appalachian roots than Hillbilly Elegy. Their grandparents and parents – desperate for better lives – leaving everything and everyone they knew, and seeking a better life working at steel mills and factories in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Hard jobs. Hazardous jobs. But they did it. They were proud of their paychecks. Their work. Their companies. They’re good people. They remember where they come from. When they have long weekends or vacations, where do they often go? Back home.

The last time I went to Hazard to take my mom to a funeral, I couldn’t believe how much the area continues to stay the same and yet change. There are fewer coal mines, which means fewer jobs. Less options. More desperation. More hopelessness. Making it a mecca for drug dealers.

First came Oxycontin, people often getting the drug from Medicaid to treat cancer, black lung, and to cope with injuries and pain, and then selling it. Or stealing it from sick loved ones and selling it. Now it’s meth. And heroin.

So many lives have been shaped or warped by two generational struggles: poverty and dysfunction. But you’d be hard-pressed to find people with tighter bonds. Stronger faith. More survival instinct.

Ironically, so many people escaping the generational struggles in Appalachia and seeking better lives by flocking north lost their jobs when mills closed, and factories relocated to countries where labor’s cheaper – leaving them right back where they started from.

Every time you try to get out, to change, to have a better life, you get sucked by into it all. Often, it’s in the name of family. Families fighting. Leaving. Coming together. Struggling. Helping. Hating. Loving. It’s messy.

You end up going in circles – just like a June bug, someone holding onto a string you’re tethered to while you’re trying to fly away … free.

© Author Lisa Fipps. Do not copy or print any part of this without written permission from the author.