Letter From Paris: An Appalachian Spring

06/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I am a child of Spring, born when the world was renewing itself. And so each year at this time I find myself again.

Plenty of times in life we don't know who we are. The truest parts of us may hibernate for self-protection, or we disconnect from our psychic lifelines when the noise of life drowns our inner voices. We stare at the mirror and don't recognize the faces there, and our lost-ness allows desolation to settle in.

The question is how do we reconnect? It is taking me a lifetime to learn, and I'm trying to teach my daughters, Blair and Bret, so they may have a step up from me. Why don't we women guide one another the way we could?

Among the steps on my personal route are prayers that I render to the Cosmic Goodness, the Universal laws, the Spirit of Love, or whatever one wants to call God. Reading or listening to inspirational messages every day lifts me up. There is absolutely nothing wrong with happy thoughts! Learning to take care of myself by eating well, exercising, taking time for meditation, and hot cups of tea. I hope for the courage to jettison my psychic trash, so that I may free myself. And, all along the way, I look to my family for the earthly sustenance I need.


This Spring, as this cloud of volcanic ash flows over the skies of France, I think of the West Virginia miners who died last week and their grieving families. Appalachia is also a personal subject for me. My grandmother Anna was born a mountain woman in Kentucky in the early part of the last century, and she and her little brothers dug coal out of the mountains themselves. Considering her life is a part of me discovering myself.



From Picking the Bones, a work in progress:

MY MOTHER WAS THE daughter of a coal miner's daughter who'd grown up in a holler near Hazard in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. Her Kentucky Appalachia was rich in the splendor of nature, a grand theater for an isolating and poor existence where people had to scratch out a living from hard rock. Grandmother Anna's father had been fairly successful and owned a chunk of land, until he drank it away. His temper was violent, and after eight or nine years of abuse, my great-grandmother escaped through a window, leaving her three small children behind. As the eldest, my little-girl grandmother was left to mother her two younger brothers, and they were her touchstones until she died.

Although I never got the impression Anna blamed her mother for leaving, I know she desperately missed her day to day. "Beth, don't ever leave your daughters," she said, her voice choking with emotion, when I was getting my divorce. "Children need their mothers. They don't get over losing them." Besides telling me that she loved me or crying about family members who had died, this was one of few times she came close to actually expressing her feelings in a way that disclosed much about her inner life.

After my great-grandmother left, Anna's father left his children with other members of his family while he worked. They weren't always welcome. During the school year Anna and her brothers walked across the mountain and through the holler to attend a boarding school, where they took jobs in the kitchen and did other chores to pay their way. It took nine or ten hours to get there, and people along the route would call out, "Whose children are you?" When the kids answered them, the callers--black or white--insisted they stay and eat a hot meal. Sometimes the children spent the night and finished their trip the next day.

My grandmother and her brothers dug coal out of the mountain for heat, and at Christmas they received fruit, candy, and nuts. One year Anna received a doll, an event she would relish for all her years afterwards. Another year her father gave her a shiny silver dollar. Extravagant luxuries may never have been known, but simple comforts were not taken for granted when they came.

The loss of her mother when she was around 8 years old was one of the defining moments of my grandmother's life. She must have forgiven her parents, because she spoke of them lovingly--especially her mother--and had good relationships with them as an adult, but how could she trust herself, or life itself, when her mother had abandoned her and left her with a brutal father?

We all have to face our tragedies. We have to move forward. We eat and sleep and continue, but what scars did my dear grandmother carry from this? Grandmother Anna was proud and independent like the mountain people she came from, and words didn't fly from her mouth without a practical reason. She offered no dinner party chit-chat, although she visited with her friends and recounted stories about her neighbors, and as she grew older, her early childhood was brought up repeatedly. What unexpressed story and pain did she tell my child mother in her thoughts, actions, and reactions?

In Appalachian life and culture, people are wary of strangers but do what they can to help their neighbors, who have the same nothing they do. And like her mountain people, my grandmother was resourceful, which is a trait she passed to my mother who passed it on to me. Anna could make a silk purse from a sow's ear, and she quilted and sewed beautifully. She owned a dress form that fit the measurements of her body, and when I was going through her clothes when we moved her to a nursing home, I found coats and hats and dresses that indicated she had great style that I didn't remember from my childhood. She loved jewelry, and at some point when she could afford it she began to accrue a costume collection. I now have several of her pieces, including necklaces of shimmering blue and green crystals. I wear her simple gold wedding band beneath my own.

And what was an Appalachian Spring for my Anna? Did she bait a line and throw it in a creek to catch a fat fish? Did she walk through the holler and summon her brothers to play hide-and-seek in the fresh air? Like her granddaughter, did the breath of Spring give her new life as well?


Anna and her husband Robert

Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. To see more of her work, go to