Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Today, I feel like I am living a slow-motion life, sort of like a scene from the holiday classic, The Homecoming.

If you remember the movie about John Boy and his memories growing up on Walton’s Mountain, you will relate to what I am talking about in today’s blog post.

I think it began when I decided to stay in Mullens over Thanksgiving weekend. The MOC had booked Buddy Allen and The Cheat River Band to play in the gym the evening of Black Friday. I wanted to stick around and lend a hand in case they had a decent-size crowd.

I was making my gratitude list. I decided to hike on Black Friday morning and opted to do a three-miler on the Moonshiners Trail. It was a warm and sunny 64-degree day, which was an added bonus, since Thanksgiving had been an exact carbon copy.

Black Friday was a day I wanted to #OptOutside. So I got up early, and as I made my way up the crooked mountain road, I noticed that a lot of folks had also taken to the golf course.

The deer were grazing just beyond the clubhouse, and very few people were out in the woods this morning. I was the only person on this particular trail, so I knew I needed to pay close attention to the red-orange blazes on the trees. A lot of leaves had fallen, so I wanted to kick my way along the tread to make it easy for the next hiker.

I was thinking about all the things I should be thankful for. I thought about my family, my happiness and my health first, and the fact I really needed to hike the three turkey meals I had eaten over the last few days. The week before Thanksgiving, I ate turkey and cornbread stuffing in Pineville, then I had another turkey meal at the Pentecostal church on Sunday.

In Appalachian communities like Mullens, church gatherings are everything. When you attend a church service or meal, it is a wonderful way to get to know people who live here. I started attending the evening service where folks gather monthly at different churches around town. This Sunday would be the last before winter set in.

Whenever I am in church, I pray, of course, for a lot of different things, but here in Mullens, I feel protected and in a safe space. Every service is alive with song and music. A lot of people shout “Amen!” while the preacher is talking and throw their hands way into the air. It is so different than the Catholic masses I am used to attending, and I found myself smiling and happy to be part of it all.

My head has left the trail for a minute, as my mind begins to wander. I look up and make sure I am following my red blazes before I continue on my way.

Gratitude, gratitude. So much to be thankful for.

I was thankful for my co-worker Charlene, who had invited me to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal at her cousin Judy’s home in Wyco. She lives on a nearby mountain, and Wyco is one of those towns that tell the textbook story of Appalachia. Here, you find yourself staring at a beautiful countryside, only to be jolted into reality by the poverty of the people that live here. Like Cleveland, Wyco will show you a beautiful patchwork of people and community, but you will also see abandoned and burned down structures, trashed homes with porches, and junk littering yards along the highway.

Charlene admits, she hates this about Appalachia. I tell her we have it in Cleveland, too, which I figure might ease some of her concerns about the people, the drugs, and the continual loss of jobs.

We pull up the drive to Judy’s home, and I watch as a neighbor tends to his newly killed deer. Week one of Deer/ Buck shotgun season is almost over in West Virginia, and his fresh prize is still dangling from a hook. We park the car and enter through the front door. An over-abundance of food awaits us.

This feels like home. I look around the walls at the photos as we make our way to the kitchen. So many food choices and the buffet is ready to be served. I see a lot of different kinds of desserts, a plate of fresh cornbread, and a different kind of rich, creamy turkey gravy. Judy tells us she got up at 12:30 this morning to prepare all the fixins.

She is proud to show me her hand-crafted quilts in her back bedroom, where every single stitch was created by hand. I loved listening to the story that accompanies the coal miner’s quilt. It was the first one she ever made, and each square speaks to the years her husband worked in the coal mines.

We head back to the kitchen where a family of seven is now seated. They take their seats at a different table, but they don’t mix or mingle with us. I later learn they live up on Tracy’s Mountain, and Judy has invited them over to share a Thanksgiving meal.

We stand in the kitchen to pray, heads bowed. I close my eyes and listen to Judy’s beautiful affirmation, realizing, I will never have another Thanksgiving like this again.

My mind is back at the trail, kicking the leaves in front of me. It is so hard to explain this visual to my friends and family, I thought. These Appalachian families — how happy and generous they are.

Anyone reading this blog knows, I continue to struggle with this. I try to figure out why the giving is so genuine and real. A few weeks back, I remember listening to my favorite radio program here, where an Appalachian woman was asked to describe the difference between mountain life and folks living in the big cities. I have to paraphrase what she said here, but I realize whatever it was, stuck with me.

holidaysThe millionaire never seems to have enough. He won’t have enough, until he becomes a billionaire, but then he still wants more. In Appalachia, we understand the value of enough.

Enough is all we need here.

I see that all around me, but I still have to wonder why. Is this something that is inherent with each generation? Is it a lesson that’s taught in the schools?

I stop and look at the quiet forest in front of me. There is no one there to answer. I tuck this question back into that part of my brain where a lot of unanswered questions remain.

I have file folders full of lessons on gratitude. Stories of coal mining families who never had toilets, or running water when they were kids. These are all the things a city girl takes for granted, I think. Every single comfort of home I have is simply taken for granted.

My comforts of home look a lot like this. I live in a classroom now, and I do have all the comforts I need.

dance2I finish the hike and enjoy the rest of my afternoon. I drive back to the MOC, just in time for Buddy Allen and his band to pull up and unload their equipment for tonight’s dance.

At 6:00, families and couples begin to stream into the MOC. They have arrived an hour early. I am working the door this evening, and tonight will be a family affair. Everyone is welcome, but no alcohol will be served. I wonder if people will show.

The cover is $5 to get in, or $8.50 per family. I am told that people all the way from Princeton and Bluefield will make the drive. As I collect the money, I see families of six, eight and nine people at a time. Over 100 people stream in and stay till the very end.

As I watch people rush to the dance floor, I leave my spot, then watch from the kitchen as folks stand in line for cornbread, slaw and chili dogs. These are my favorite moments, observing people who love to dance, laugh, hug and pray. They talk about their horses, their jobs, their kin and their favorite recipes. I keep saying I am moved by every waking moment, and I mean that.

gladeOn Saturday, I have a date with a gentleman who lives in Mullens. We take a long drive and spend the day hiking along the New River. I am awed by a place I have never been, and the beautiful waterfalls along Glade Creek. We talk a lot about the trails he hiked as a kid, and my own hikes as a city girl. My mind is full of gratitude, and the questions I have return again and again. I wonder if I will ever have an answer, as I kick the leaves along the new path I have created.