Beneath the Shadow of the Mountains
Nestled in the foothills of East River Mountain, placed appropriately along narrow winding roads wrapping in and around Virginia’s rocky creek banks, are small but proud communities. They are humble little districts with names like Tazewell, Abbs Valley, Falls Mills, and Pocahontas. The people living on the hillsides and in the hollows of these Appalachian Mountains have probably been there most of their lives.
For hundreds of years, the traditions of backwoods life have remained the same. Although modern technology has found favor with the younger folk, many mountain people continue to live simply, just as their parents and grandparents before them. Generations have lived and died with their roots planted beneath the shadow of the mountains in a region known as Appalachia.
Men in Appalachia are known by appointed names like Leman or Jacob or Elijah. When harvest time is over, they cloak themselves in long johns, flannel shirts, and heavy winter coats and disappear into the woods. This time of hunting bear and deer, and sometimes rabbit or squirrel, seems to be their passion. After a season, Appalachia’s rugged mountain men must go back to working serious jobs like coal mining or railroading. In spite of good wages, those who are brave enough to travel deep into the earth digging out coal deposits look forward to the day they can move on to hauling coal for the railroad company. Huge iron steam engines, spewing out clouds of white smoke, have surrendered to streamline diesel locomotives. The ever-present coal dust settles on houses and cars like freshly fallen snow. Coal mines reluctantly give of themselves, and often their shafts collapse on those within. Many workers temporarily escape death, but most eventually fall victim to the agonizing “black lung” disease.
Not so different from the men, women of Appalachia are also accustomed to hard work. It seems to be their calling in life to raise children and keep the house. The kitchens where Altha or Mary Jane or Lettie or Grace live always smell good from the cooking and canning. To avoid being wasteful, the homemaker puts leftovers on a plate over the warm stove. Cold cornbread will probably be eaten later, crumbled in buttermilk. While out-of-doors is frozen, the Appalachian women sit by the fireplace in the living room to quilt. They look at family photographs hanging on the wall and take delight in them. They may even embroider family names and special dates on their patchwork quilt. Men and women of Appalachia know that family is important. In the fall, children of Appalachia climb the painted mountains amid multicolored autumn leaves and run through the woods. They get stained hands from scooping up black walnuts and gather chestnut-like chinkapins that burst forth from prickly little husks. Winter’s snow encourages the children to ride their Christmas sleds for hours on end. They seem to understand that there is no need for costly toys in Appalachia where the children love and appreciate the outdoors. They feel safe playing within the protective confines of the mountains, isolated from the unfamiliar outside world.
On Sundays, the families of Appalachia put on their best clothes. It may be a hand- me-down suit that belonged to Uncle Mace or that special print dress that Mama made. After church, whether Methodist or Pentecostal or Church of Christ, they all go to relatives houses and eat dinner and talk about nothing. They sit around the kitchen table or on the front porch glider and eat dessert and drink coffee. The children play in the yard and climb the weeping willow tree until evening when it’s time to go back to church. These mountain people are serious about God on Sunday and on every other day of the week. God created their mountains, and they know Him. When someone dies, Appalachian people gather at a wake to pay their respects. The womenfolk cook and take food to comfort and show compassion to the grieving family. The men sit alongside each other with tears in their eyes, and they share stories they fondly remember. The funeral procession from the chapel to the cemetery is long and stately and somewhat presidential. Cars line up behind the hearse, following ceremoniously down winding roads to the cemetery. People gather round, and the men reverently remove their hats. The minister speaks again, and everyone stays at the graveyard until the body is at rest in the family plot.
Webster defines Appalachia as the highland region of the Eastern United States extending from Northern Pennsylvania through Northern Alabama, characterized generally by poverty. Literally, this is true. Appalachia is an area of mountains and hollows scattered with dirty, rut roads leading to worn-out wooden shacks and privies. The people work long hours on hard jobs and have no glimmer of hope for relief. Nevertheless, Appalachia is much more than a region of poverty. Appalachia is an honorable way of life filled with a wealth of good moral values, contentment, and appreciation for life. Appalachia is Godly people who know who they are and what life means. Appalachia knows the blessings of possessing a great heritage.
This short story was adapted from a children’s book. The names, towns, ideas were added to personalize my remembrance of my mother’s family growing up.