Within thirty minutes of arriving in Harlan County, I saw my sister’s work crew pull into the center. As she saw me and ran across the parking lot, she looked small and bright against the sprawling, evening-dark mountains, and it felt right to be together in this place. Over the next couple of days, I watched her complete repairs in a bathroom, sit on the living room floor and listen to stories from her homeowner, and admire Appalachia with wide eyes. While I have met many people in Appalachia who become like family, being here with Natalie reminded me of how family can make anywhere feel like home.

Throughout my summers of volunteering and working for ASP, the importance of family has been apparent in every county. When I volunteered in Pikeville, the grandmother, Alice, had taken in her grandson Ian to ensure he grew up in a stable home and understood what it felt like to be loved. Alice and Ian were my first exposure to what family often looks like in Appalachia. While I have seen many different family structures since I met them, the underlying strand of love is present in them all.

At the start of week five, I met Amanda in Cocke County, Tennessee. Her husband called her from work after we had been talking on her couch for a few minutes. She declined his call, apologized, and explained that he provided many things for their family. He works from sunrise to sunset every day, cooks most meals, and has ensured the kids grow up in a stable home. At first, Amanda gave him credit for many of the good parts of their family, but as she kept talking, she began repeating that she loved being a mom and that she was good at being a mom. As she told me stories about different ways her kids have paid kindness forward to strangers, she claimed there is nothing better than being able to love like a mother can love.

In Harlan County, Kentucky, I met a woman named Hazel. Hazel’s husband Dwayne has dialysis and is, for the most part, confined to the couch. Hazel has devoted her life to taking care of him because, as she said, that’s what marriage is all about – living with and loving on the other person until death forces seperation. I asked her about her life dream after we had spent a few hours together, and she gave me two answers. First, she said that she wants Dwayne to get better, to be free of his dialysis. Second, she said that she would really like to see him working in his garden. Before he got sick, he planted flower bushes that surround the front porch, lots of hydrangea and vines of roses, and a vegetable garden in the backyard. Hazel started taking care of these plants when Dwayne lost the ability to, but she claims she does not handle them as well as he did. She cares for and loves the flowers as a way of showing how much she loves him. Her life dream is for him to be able to live out his dream, and if that isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.

On the other side of Harlan County, Kentucky I drove up a winding, mountain road to meet a family who lives in the three homes at the top. The first home belongs to Robert and Deb, the second home belongs to Henrietta, and the third home belongs to Helen and Richard. As they sat on their new front porch, Richard and Deb said they moved up the mountain to find a slow, quiet pace of life and to be able to listen to the birds, but then Deb added that they moved up the mountain because this is where their family lives. Robert and Deb have custody of two of their grandchildren, who now live with them in their mobile home, but they also spend a lot of time taking care of Robert’s mother, Henrietta. They take her to the store and doctor’s appointments and spend time together in the kitchen. Henrietta taught Deb how to make the family biscuits, and even though Deb’s first batch came out hard as rocks, she has perfected the recipe.
At the top of the mountain, Helen reinforced the importance of family. As soon as I walked into her home, she offered me a slice of honeycomb, a spoonful of fresh honey, and a mint. I laughed, took one of each, and said that I already felt at home in her space. She smiled and said that all she wants is for her home to feel like home to everyone who enters. When I asked her what she loved most about living tucked away at the top of the mountain, she quickly answered that she loved being so close to her family. Everyone that lives as far up as they do is family, and she explained how their road is like their own little world.

Much like home, I think the best part of family is the way that family feels. Family may feel like kneading biscuit dough and hoping they will taste like your mothers, learning the best way to water hydrangeas, or ceaselessly offering love because you know that love should be constantly offered. In my family, I have experienced the ways that family feels like love, and in the families I have met this week, I have seen how love is about meeting people where they are and making places feel like home.

Jamie Tews is the Advancement Storytelling Intern this summer writing a weekly blog series titled “This Must Be The Place.” Prior to this summer, she was on staff in Breathitt County, Kentucky in 2016, Leslie County, Kentucky in 2017, and roamed around Appalachia as a staff liaison in 2018. She just graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Writing, and she has plans to pursue an MFA at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in the fall.