I rarely write about my family—not the one that I grew up in, nor the one that I have made. It’s not because there’s a lack of material. I have three brothers and three sisters, and I could write something cute and clever about each and every one.
But that would be inappropriate—and risky. All my college-educated siblings are much more successful than I. I’ve always been the ne’er-do-well, the proverbial black sheep. I lack the status to write about my more successful siblings.
Moreover, all my siblings are old enough to feel entitled to a certain modicum of dignity and respect. (And I do respect them — really, I do.)
I could write about my nuclear family. Last year our son Logan was joined in marriage with his beautiful and amazing bride Clara. They had planned the wedding before the pandemic, and COVID was a game changer, for sure. I thought about writing a column titled: “Love and marriage in the time of COVID.” But it was a special, loving time, and I could not adequately describe it in words—
Our daughter Julie began her career as a respiratory therapist (RT) mere months before the pandemic started. She bought and moved into a house of her own in March 2020—the very same month the pandemic was made public. It was a trying time for a young, single working woman — especially an RT in a large suburban hospital — and I’m proud to say our daughter came through with flying colors.
But again I choose not to write about our kids. The love I have for my family is too precious and powerful for words.
Recently, though, it occurred to me that I could write about my wife’s family with relative impunity. The closest of my in-laws lives up in Indiana, and none of them ever reads my columns.
My wife hails from Harlan County, Kentucky — the heart of the Eastern Coalfield in the Appalachian Mountains. Such people have been called “hillbillies.” But I generally avoid that derogatory term. Instead I take my cue from the 2005 movie The Dukes of Hazzard.
An urban tough guy asks the Dukes: “Why don’t you two hillbillies join us up here for a minute?”
Luke Duke replies: “Actually, we prefer Appalachian-Americans.”
I met my Appalachian-American wife at a church dance in Lexington, Kentucky in June 1990. We danced a few dances and hit it off okay. I returned to my Louisville apartment with her phone number. A week or so later I phoned and made plans to visit her in Harlan County.
I had never visited that part of the world, but I found the house where my future wife lived without any difficulty. At least, I thought I found the right house — I pulled in the driveway and got out of my car. An attractive teenage girl glared at me from a chair on the front porch. “Does Carrie Sizemore live here?” I asked politely.
“No, she don’t,” the girl replied brusquely.
“Okay, thanks,” I muttered as I turned to go back to my car. I figured I’d have to find a phone somewhere.
“Wait a minute,” the girl called out abruptly.
I waited by my car while the girl went inside. A minute or so later she emerged with her sister — my future wife, Carrie. That’s how I met my wife’s younger sister, Beth.
Soon I met my future mother-in-law, Barbara. When she learned I was a carpenter, she asked me to repair a busted step leading up to the deck of a trailer she owned. It was a quick and simple fix. I was proud and glad that I could so easily prove myself capable and helpful.
However, my future grandma-in-law, the grand matriarch, aka “Big Grandma,” had more difficult and challenging work waiting for me.
Kudzu is a fast-growing leguminous vine native to China. It was introduced as soil-stabilizing ground cover along railroad track embankments and hillsides. It can (and does) grow two inches a day, overrunning fences, buildings, utility poles, and virtually everything in its path.
Rough mortarless stone walls, about two feet thick and four feet high, ran along one side and the back of Grandma’s property. Kudzu had overrun the walls and invaded Grandma’s yard. For at least a few hours on a hot and sunny afternoon in June 1990, I fought back the kudzu with garden shears and sickle.
Finally I had it subdued, if not beaten. I had it cut back to the tops of the stone walls. Grandma called out, “That’s good enough, Mark. Come inside and get you a cold drink.”
I felt like I had passed a test—like I’d proved myself a worthy suitor. Everyone was friendly at the supper table that evening.
That’s when I first heard about Tuffy, (given name William). The older of my wife’s two younger brothers, Tuffy was away on a church mission at the time. I asked why they called him Tuffy. I learned that, among other things, he had broken his younger brother’s arm not just once, but twice.
Younger brother Nathan had suffered three broken arms — but “Tuffy only broke it twice. The third time Nathan broke it, that wasn’t Tuffy’s fault.”
Tuffy was Barbara’s and Grandma’s hands-down favorite. In Appalachian-American culture, toughness or “tuffy-ness” is respected and revered.
And toughness wasn’t Tuffy’s only endearing charm. Barbara regaled us with a story about Tuffy climbing up on the sofa, positioning his rear end in front of the window-mount air-conditioner, and farting profusely. “It was so stinky, it stank up the whole trailer,” she said proudly, beaming.
‘How charming!’ I thought. ‘I can’t wait to meet this guy!’
For years I told people that I was in a mixed marriage. People were usually perplexed. “What do you mean?—a mixed marriage. I’ve seen your wife—”
“My wife is a hillbilly, and I’m not,” I explained.
Of course, that was before I saw The Dukes of Hazzard, and learned that the term “Appalachian-American” is preferred.
Our kids got a big kick out of the 2010 movie Tucker and Dale vs Evil. IMDb says: “Affable hillbillies Tucker and Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin when they are mistaken for murderers by a group of preppy college students.”
Eventually one of the preppy college guys learns that he is “half hillbilly.” Allison tells him, and he is horrified to learn: “It’s true, Chad. You’re half hillbilly.”
Indeed, our kids are “half hillbilly,” too.
Of course, that doesn’t make them any better or worse than anybody else. You shouldn’t believe what people say about Appalachian-Americans, or any other group of people. When we first moved to Grayson County, I was told that some folks in Edmonson County only have three toes. As far as I know, that’s not true.
If I may end on a serious note, I highly recommend the 1976 documentary, Harlan County, U.S.A. It features one of Grayson County’s finest citizens, Houston Elmore (now deceased), who worked in Harlan County as a labor union organizer during the “Brookside Strike” in 1973. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 49th Academy Awards. It’s available on Netflix.
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.