Some families stay within miles of each other as children become adults, marry, and start their own families. Mine has never been that way, and at the same time that I wish those departing smooth sailing, I lament that the distance they are traveling makes seeing them frequently an impossibility.
This week my only granddaughter, who earned her Master’s degree from Wright State University in May, is off to Citrus County, Florida, to teach eighth-grade English and be head coach of the seventh-grade girls basketball team. I know she is well prepared for this first teaching job, and as I told her, “Better to be head coach of a seventh-grade team than assistant to any other team.” She smiled and nodded in affirmation.
Last week, my husband and I traveled to the county of my birth in southeastern Kentucky to meet with my oldest sister and three of my first cousins and their spouses and grandchildren. I learned that the same connections we experience as children are readily reawakened years later as my cousins came from Warner Robbins, Georgia, and San Antonio, Texas, to share memories and update everyone on current family trajectories.
We all stayed at the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, which at one time housed the high school where our parents, Lurlene Adams, William Adams and Opal Adams attended. We spoke of the rooms where we stayed, each numbered for a graduating class, and the wood floors where we knew our parents had walked. Both Lurlene and Opal were basketball players, and as we surveyed the gym, I could envision my mother running down that floor. A few times mother told us about getting new uniforms with bottoms that were much shorter than what they had worn in the past and how the boys in the stands went wild with cheers and whistles the first time they appeared for a game in the new uniforms. Lurlene was a star player and served as captain her senior year.
I pointed out a framed photograph in the downstairs hallway of the inn, a photograph depicting young children in a circle playing a game. Lurlene and Opal were in that photograph, their youth preserved forever — even though they both passed some time ago.
While visiting, I took time out to drive to Kingdom Come State Park, all the way to the top where the park ranger’s office is. I marveled at the improvements to this park to make it user friendly even as the majesty of the mountains and the overlooks cause any visitor to gasp. As a child I was privileged to have Opal as a mother. She took us up a hollow and across a ridge to visit Ravens Rock long before there was a roadway in that area. She spun tales of going there as a high school student with paint so that adventuresome boys in the group could stand on each other’s shoulders to paint their names on the highest possible places. The names remain, but the half-mile walk over rugged terrain — straight up the mountain was only possible this time for Texas grandsons, Dalton Dennehy, a student at Texas A & M University, and Ryan Dennehy, 13.
I kept an appointment with Dr. Lynn Moore at the local college, Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College. This is the college where I had my first presidency, and I was pleased to note the beauty of the grounds and the expansion of the college which was named by the Aspen Institute in 2013, as one of the top 10 community colleges in the nation. Moore shared plans for the future of the college in this coal mining region which with EPA regulations and other factors will probably never be able to have another boom in coal.
I had taken the tour of the underground coal mine, 31, in Lynch before, but my relatives had not and eagerly worked that into their schedules. My sister Frances and I, however, were eager to sample pastries at the Lamp House Coffee across from the entrance to the coal mine and museum. While there, I talked with young people from Ohio who were there as guests of St. Stephens Catholic Church to do some painting for needy families in the town of Cumberland.
At Hardee’s I met a student whose hand I shook when he received his associate’s degree the last year I was president of Southeast before I went on to be president of Lee College in Texas. I was amazed that he remembered me, and we talked and talked. I recalled having toured the coal mines at Benham (conventional mining) , Lynch (long-wall mining), and a mine in a small community in the county where the coal was so low that I had to duck-walk to tour.
These memories made it imperative that I go to the site of the Scotia mine disaster where on March 9, 1976, an explosion took the lives of 15 miners. A second explosion two days later claimed the lives of the 11 members of the mine rescue team which went in, not to recover bodies, from the perspective of Barbara Church who owns the Ovenfork Mercantile, but to save those who might have managed to retreat to places where there was good air.
Church is a graduate of the University of Virginia/Wise with an art degree. She prepares lunches for the area miners and has a store that seems to go on and on with relics for sell of Kentucky’s past. With a big smile, she announced that she had just received word on Saturday that the Kentucky Arts Council had awarded her a grant and that she had used an article I wrote about her for the Kentucky Explorer as part of her application.
I’ve always wanted one of church’s paintings, so I priced one that is a part of her “Black Slip” collection, bought it, wrapped it carefully in a blanket, and am now falling more and more in love with it as I view it each day.
In conclusion, I must tell you one more little story. My cousin Laurel, a teacher in Georgia and the daughter of William Adams and Ruth Creech, was happy to be in the old family house on the Cumberland River where we gathered each day to talk. Much of the area is returning to the wilderness, and deer and black bears can be seen on occasion as they attempt to reclaim what was once their terrain. A problem, however, is the raccoons. They have an appetite for small kittens. The day we arrived, one big fellow was caught in the trap my sister had set, and she and her granddaughter had to transport him “up Cloverlick by the mines” to release him. When Laurel heard the story of these raccoon predators, she was determined to rescue three kittens from that fate (The SPCA will be inheriting some of her resources when she dies). The kitten were still having a diet of mother’s milk, but they were also eating cat food. So when Laurel headed to Georgia, she became known to me as the Cat Girl with one kitten at her neck, one cradled in her arm, and one on her lap.
There are mini vacations, some meaningful, others not so much. Our past is always a part of who we are today. I know mine is.
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