“Life is short. Smile while you still have teeth.” ~ Unknown
I started my day reading about Lynch, Kentucky. Like Jenkins (above), Lynch was built to accommodate coal miners and their families. And, like Jenkins, it’s struggling to stay alive. The road into Jenkins is still lined with company houses. There are a lot of coal towns in Kentucky that only have a few company houses still standing. Some have been wiped off the map, like Leatherwood where dad lived when he was a young boy. It’s very, very sad to see these once vibrant cities reduced to shadows of their former glory, but I’m equally proud of the men and women who made history in these places. The towns would have been nothing without them. I’m grateful to be from this Eastern Kentucky stock.
The last stop dad and I made was the Holliday Cemetery at Ary, Kentucky. It’s so secluded by trees, and sits so far on top of the hill, that we missed it… twice. The surrounding mountaintops have been stripped of their coal, the natural landscape now drastically altered. But the cemetery’s hill remains untouched. There, in that hightop graveyard, dad’s paternal grandmother is buried. She died when he was only five days old, though she lived long enough to hold him once. The graveyard also holds cousin Eunice’s mother, Sylvania Terry Grigsby, her husband, and some of their children. Nearer the cemetery’s little church are buried two brothers that died in the Civil War. One fought for the Union, the other for the Confederacy. How perilously close our nation still walks that fine line. As we spew venom across social media (mostly), the news, or even in the local cafes and bars, those dead brothers lying side by side provide some perspective. I loved my day with dad, and paying our respects together to the ancestors high on that mountain was a fitting way to end our adventure. It’s critical to remember where you come from, and who your people are.
Remember in yesterday’s post I said you pass through a little spot called Tribbey on your way to Hardburly? In addition to the Church of God (where Johnny preaches), Tribbey has a building that used to be a store. It sits in the road (below). Dad said trucks and cars used to hit the building all the time, especially large delivery trucks. You can see in the bottom photo just how narrow the road is up the hollow. Image when trains were still running through there! The residents didn’t pull up the tracks. They just built around them, over them, or on top of them. You can still follow them up the hollow between the creek and the road. Just watch out for that store.
Sometimes my favorite photos are the ones I don’t shoot with much intent. I have to say that Covington is one of the more interesting towns I’ve been to. I think I’d like to photograph more of it.
When we drove down highway 172 toward Paintsville, we didn’t stop. We just looked on in silence. But when we came back, we had two places we wanted to stop. The first was the Ramey Branch church that I posted yesterday, and the second was Pennington Trailer Park where mom’s friend, Willa Mae, had lived. I was extremely reluctant to stop anywhere to be honest. When the tornado hit West Liberty I had no hesitation in going through town, camera in hand, snapping to my heart’s content. But that was my home place. It was my story to tell. Flat Gap is not my story, and I didn’t want to be another gawker with a camera capturing so much misfortune and death. Obviously, I favor documentary style photography, but not necessarily in a situation like this. I didn’t want anyone to feel as if I was taking advantage of them. My mother, on the other hand, felt desperate to find Willa Mae’s son. She really wanted to give him her condolences in person, and perhaps share with him stories of their youth. So, we stopped.
As soon as we got out of the truck this young man came to mom from one of only two trailers that remained untouched. I was sure he was going to berate us for being there; interlopers, or God forbid, looters. Instead, he asked if we needed some bottled water. He proceeded to tell mom all about Willa Mae; what a fine neighbor she’d been, her final moments, and showed us exactly where she was found. He talked at length about the folks in the trailer park, people he knew as friends and family, and he gave us detailed descriptions about where things used to sit before the water carried them away. It was he who pointed out the handcuffs still attached to the headboard. “I keep telling all the news people about it, but they ignore me,” he said. “I think it’s funny. Well, the situation ain’t funny – ain’t nothin’ funny about what happened – but this is funny. The Sheriff found a big bag of dildos on down the creek, too.” If you can’t laugh at something like this you might need some professional help. Laughter can carry you through just about anything.
Talking to the young man, whose name I didn’t catch, helped me feel better about being there. Annie Bassoni had gone along with mom and I. At the church, she’d talked to the deacon’s wife, explaining that I had a blog. Annie knew I was uncomfortable, and told me later that the deacon’s wife was thrilled by our presence, and by my camera especially. “Oh, tell everyone,” she said. “We want people to know what’s happened here.” That helped. The kindness we experienced from these people in the throes of complete devastation is a testament to mountain culture; to human endurance, fortitude, and resilience in the worst of circumstances. What a gift these people, and this day, were to me. We never found Willa Mae’s son, but I’m pretty sure he knows she was loved by a whole lot of people.
From the front porch of my Aunt Linda and Uncle Phillip’s house in Woodsbend, Kentucky they watched the tornado of 2012 rip through the valley from one side to the other before jumping the hill and destroying West Liberty, missing mom and dad’s house by a half mile or less. The beauty of the valley wasn’t destroyed, nature is nothing if not resilient, and I’m certain Phillip and Linda have seen many a gorgeous sunset from this place. A little slice of heaven right here in Kentucky.
This week, the University of Kentucky is celebrating its 150th year through a series of events. Today’s event was held in Special Collections. We had enough food to feed most of campus. We settled for feeding UK’s president, several deans and directors, and plenty of appreciative staff. Everyone walked away with some university swag, a full belly, and plenty of smiles. That’s what I call a winning day!
On my Friday scouting trip to Versailles, I went to a little M.E. church near Sandy’s house. Its an old place that virtually sits in the road. It’s in need of some repair as well, but the light was gently filtering through its tattered windows, and I thought it was so sweet, so warm. I wanted to go in. I hope someday I get to.
Some of my favorite people celebrate birthdays today. Lisa Banyai is one of them. As I’ve mentioned before, it was a number of conversations with her some ten years ago that inspired my current photo series Sacred Spaces. This morning she sent a text asking if I was headed to Keeneland to wager on today’s Belmont Stakes. She wanted a ticket for California Chrome. I couldn’t think of a better Birthday present for her. She also reminded me the first church we talked about shooting was the old church in Cadentown. Cadentown was an African American community formed after the Civil War near Lexington. So, after securing the wager tickets, off I went to continue Lisa’s birthday extravaganza. The last time I passed by this little church it was abandoned and overgrown. I’m assuming it was an A.M.E. church, but I could be wrong about that. At any rate, it’s now a residence, so I wasn’t able to explore as freely as I would like. Nevertheless, I popped off a few shots, feeling a bit like an evil spy or a creep while doing so. Lucky for me, the occupants didn’t unleash their agitated dog. I’m sorry California Chrome didn’t win, but I’m so grateful for Lisa’s friendship over the last 20+ years. Friend and horse are both winners in my book.