My grandma was in her 90s, and we moved her from her apartment in Los Angeles to Crofton Manor Inn–– an assisted living facility at 5th and Cherry. I would stop by to see her on my way home from work most days to check in on her. The routine would be me talking about my day as my grandma would loop her questions on repeat. Some days were better than others.
Crofton Manor had a large dining area, and I usually arrived to bring my grandma downstairs in time for dinner. The room always smelled like coffee and meatloaf. At the table, my grandma would sit with a handful of other residents, and I remember one woman in particular, who seemed to time her meals the same. I could hear the woman talking non-stop during most of the meal, which was in contrast to my grandma, who was either quiet or looping those same questions.
The woman and I would smile and say hello. A few times, she sat close enough that I could overhear her conversations with her family or with another resident. I started to listen, or eavesdrop, as she spoke and learned about who she was. After a few visits, I would engage her in conversation myself and try to draw her out a bit.
She started many of her sentences the same way as she told her tales.
“Up on Tucker’s Ridge, we spent half our lives day-dreaming and staring out at them spruce trees. Just down the way was a small crossing place where you’d see all your neighbors coming and going.”
She had a slight accent, but hard to pinpoint where it was from.
“Up on Tucker’s Ridge, it was our place. Magical. We could look out and see the world. Those woods went beyond the horizon. Up on Tucker’s Ridge, it was that old church on Sundays, and then out making some trouble until we were called in for supper. We’d walk up to a friend’s holler and see what they were up to. We took our dogs into the forest to find that old abandoned barn that to us looked like a castle. We’d go looking for squirrels and opossums, and the Boogeyman. Up on Tucker’s Ridge, we swam in the quarry not far away. Mr. Baker had an old steamer trunk full of old this and that and would get our imaginations going. We could play for hours with a ball of twine and potatoes dressed up to be dancers or performers of some sort. My sister Emily was a real artist and made watercolors. She’d sell them for a dollar around town or traded them for vegetables grown on the Peck farm at nearby.”
These quips flamed my fascination of Appalachia (if that was in fact where she was from). Listening to her got me thinking of all that history, folklore, hillbilly lifestyle, folk music and the mysterious stereotypes I had heard about growing up. I wondered if she was a Hatfield or McCoy. What a fascinating part of the country it is, having immigrant Scotch-Irish move out into the forest and remain isolated for centuries. Pursuit of religious freedom evolved into an isolated people, renegades if you will, that adamantly fought to preserve their way of life. I would love to walk the Appalachian trail to search for Daniel Boone or others like him.
“Up on Tucker’s Ridge, the train ran through the far edge our town and I just wondered where it set off to. I heard that whistle and wanted to hop on. But then again, I just couldn’t leave all my family like that. My dad spent a lot of time out in the woodshed. He said he was busy making grandpa’s medicine. One day, up on Tucker’s Ridge, some men came for my father. We were worried to pieces. We didn’t find him for three days. Found him down at the river’s edge. We brought him home and nobody asked any questions. Up on Tucker’s Ridge, we knew Indians. The families of Indians that were all over the woods. We would play and trade and spent hours running around together. We had secret hideouts to play in. Up on Tucker’s Ridge, most of the men went deep down underground to work. Had to get that coal. They came back up dirty and had that way-off look in their eyes. My dad always had that look about him.”
I could look into her face and see the child still in there. I pictured her with sausage curls and frilly dresses. I attribute my desire to drive through West Virginia or Eastern Kentucky to see and learn more about that area from this woman. Maybe I’m romanticizing it all, but it’s a wonderful mystery to me. I wonder how backwoods people live and wonder if they have any of the same fascination with the West Coast like I have for their area.
I don’t think they would take too kindly to someone from Southern California snooping around and smiling at them as if they were on display of sorts. But I am sincere in my interest. I saw a 60 Minutes feature on the Hemphill Community Center doing business as Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery. It has injected some life and economic development into the community. The feature made me want to fly out to Jackhorn, Kentucky, and volunteer some time.
When I sat and listened to the woman paint her pictures of Tucker’s Ridge, I wondered what brought her out to California—and when? And how did she eventually end up at 5th and Cherry? Did she have a career? Did her sister ever leave those magical woods on Tucker’s Ridge? What changed that had her move away from her special place? I can only speculate. She is another example of the thousands of people we run across in our lifetime that have interesting stories to share. I am hoping to one day explore that part of the country and be let in on at least a secret or two from the hill folks.
It’s been more that 15 years since my grandma lived at Crofton Manor, and I suspect the woman is no longer there. But I’m certain she’s back up on Tucker’s Ridge with her sister causing a little trouble before supper.