I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, so many of my childhood memories consist of trips to museums, the arboretum, and neighborhood parks, but some of my favorite memories are in my backyard. In the winter, my siblings and I would build a snow ramp off our back patio for sledding. In the spring, I would gather flower petals from the ground, chop them up, mix them with dirt and handfuls of grass, and pretend I was cooking dinner. In the summer, I colored with sidewalk chalk and climbed the maple tree.
I spent this week in three counties in Eastern Kentucky. Many of the people I met talked about their favorite childhood memories, and for most of them, their fond memories of home are one of the reasons why they have chosen to stay.
Jennalou, a woman from Perry County, has lived in Kentucky her whole life. Like many people in Kentucky, she grew up in a holler. When she was a kid, she spent her days biking, hiking, and roaming through the mountains. She and her cousins would leave the house in the morning and stay outside until it was evening, until they could fill their hands with lightning bugs. She smiled as she described what a June bug looks like and how comfortable it felt to spend the day in the trees.
Roscoe, an elderly man in Breathitt County, Kentucky, wishes he could return to the holler where he grew up. Like Jennalou, he spent his days exploring the mountains, but one of his favorite things was returning home for dinner in the evening. He grew up with a wood-burning stove, which he said made everything taste better. He loved when his mother made soup beans, cornbread, and sauerkraut, but even when she didn’t make his favorite meal, he knew there would always be food on the table. He admitted his childhood was hard, his family endured many challenges, but he always had something to eat and somewhere to sleep. Despite the hardships, his childhood memories are happy.
Ginny, a woman in Breathitt County, still lives in the holler where she grew up. We sat in her living room, surrounded by pieces of wood art that her daughter either found or made, and she claimed this holler is her whole life. Growing up, she spent her days swimming in the creek that separates her holler from the main road and building houses out of grapevines in the mountains. She pointed towards the hill in front of her home and said if she were able, she could climb through the trees and find the spot she built three grapevine homes when she was a kid. Almost her entire family has stayed in the holler. She said that love is about respect, sharing, and kindness, and she lives in the holler with her family because she feels loved, she knows she is loved.
Everyday, when I sit down with a homeowner, I often start by asking questions that prompt answers. I ask them how long that have lived in the home, how it felt when ASP signed the home repair projects, and what they are most excited about for the coming year, but as we talk about the history of their home and what brought them here, they often switch from providing answers to telling stories. The stories about childhood memories make this place feel even more like home – I can picture the elderly woman on the couch next to me as a ten-year-old, running through the trees in shorts and a t-shirt, swinging between branches on a grapevine, and maneuvering through brush to get home for dinner when the sun starts to set. I can imagine what it might have been like to grow up in Eastern Kentucky, and with that, Appalachia feels even more like home.