Kristin Janae Steele
2014 Creative Nonfiction Contest Winner
Creative Nonfiction Contest Judge Jason Howard writes of Kristin Steele's winning essay:
"The narrator of 'How to Say Appalachia' tells us that she 'became acquainted with death early on,' a statement that hovers over the essay like a ghost as she accompanies her father on a visit to the family cemetery. In vulnerable, moving prose, the essayist—who informs us that she no longer lives in Appalachia—anticipates her father's death, recording his memories and musings, while noticing that 'white and gray have almost fully replaced [his] black and wavy hair' during her absence. This is an essay that revels in mystery—in the curious tattoo that adorns her preacher grandfather's arm; in the story of the married man who needed her father to stay with him because he 'was scared of nights alone'; in the way that, despite her wanderings, she can't seem to find a home outside the region because 'West Virginia hasn't left [her].'"
I became acquainted with death early on. I saw someone almost dead, I saw someone beginning to die, I saw someone dying, all by the age of sixteen. These deaths seemed to happen cyclically, to a growing list of people in my life.
He is in the hospital—it’s bad—you should go see him before it’s too late.
I’m so sick of trying—why shouldn’t I—I can just end it today.
They’re calling the family in—that’s you, too—all we can do now is wait.
The traditional Protestant Christian culture in which I was raised believes that death is the most important part of living, that we should spend our lives preparing for the afterlife, and above all that our children should never be shielded from death. Maybe it is because of these ideas, and everything that led up to the first time I watched someone die—my great-grandmother taking in but not letting out a final taste of stale hospital air—that I decided to write down plans for my own funeral. I’d been to so many, and none was anything like what I wanted for myself.
Please, no end-of-time preaching. No call to the altar to be saved. Nothing that induces fear of hellfire while my body lies in an open casket for everyone to see: She looked bad. Not like herself at all.
(Of course I look bad. I’m dead.)
I wanted none of what I’d seen time and again, but I knew I couldn’t say to my father or his father that I did not want to spend my life preparing for heaven the way they believed they did every day. Instead, I would prepare for death, and death only. Not a healthy childhood, not unconditional love, not a perfect home after we leave this one— no, none of that had proven guaranteed. Death was all I could ever say I believed in for sure, even though I could never manage to prepare for its reality.
I still can’t help but consider what kind of funeral I want. In a notebook I have listed all the songs I want sung, all the poems I want read. I have listed the facts about myself I hold most true and I hope someone sees the good in them. Now I am standing in the family cemetery where I have no intention of being buried, though later, when I’m far from home, I will change my mind.
With my right hand I touch my grandfather’s name engraved on his headstone, and Dad walks over to me and asks if I’m okay.
Yes, I am okay.
I think of the day my grandfather died, and the day his wife died, and all the times we’d all been alive together walking through the cemetery. I think of death and the way you know it’s coming before it’s there, like a storm you have no choice but to weather.
It is a rainy day on the hill of our family cemetery. We are here for the annual cemetery meeting, a church service on Memorial Day weekend focused on how we must prepare for heaven. My grandfather is preaching, and I am crying. I am frightened hearing about hell and heaven and dying and resurrection and I never want to think of it again. (I will think of it almost every day.) I cannot distinguish between any of these outcomes. I am terrified of my grandfather’s body being buried on that hill, where his headstone has been waiting, his birth year, followed by a hyphen and an empty space 1909-( ). I don’t want to think of the day when that space is filled and all those people sitting on top of him hearing another preacher belt out his own interpretation of God’s word. I feel guilty for crying. I am six years old.
I’d been told ever since I could remember that my father’s father would die soon. Over and over again, he would have heart attacks and come out of them almost as if nothing had happened to his aging body that was nearing a century old. I smiled at being able to tell people my grandfather was 100. Every time I asked him how old he’d chuckle and say, Not one day older than nineteen.
He began preaching early and never looked back. Never a single tale about him slipping up or disappointing others or committing a mortal sin. Like his story about the coal mine. He always claimed that God spoke to him and that he could hear Him, either literally or as a feeling in the deepest part of his gut.
(I believe him.)
He had been married to my grandmother for nearly seventy-five years when she had a stroke and had held her hand until she died, saying, Mom, I love you, as many times as he could get the words out of his mouth. I imagine the morning of her death: Eating breakfast, spoon drops, that dead look in her eyes. Selfish, I’m grateful I was not there.
My grandfather was very strong, but I’ll always believe my grandmother was stronger, giving birth to fifteen of sixteen children in their house on the farm, including my father, lucky number thirteen. I imagine that each time they found out she was pregnant, they steadfastly considered each child a gift from heaven, a little angel, no matter how poor they were or how they’d have to struggle to buy another pair of winter shoes. I do believe grandmother believed each baby was a gift, but I also think she must have felt scared each time to put her life in danger, not really having chosen to do so. My grandfather was a good man, but he could never fathom the strength and grace of his Louise.
When my grandfather sees the sunlight for the last time, my father pushing his wheelchair into the hospice where we all know he will die, he says, It’s a good day to go home.
I’d inquire: Papaw, which tree do you think is the best?
There aren’t that many options, really, he said. All these just grow right up out of this white sand, but don’t stand too firm or tall or strong. Lopsided, if you ask me.
Doesn’t it look like snow? I asked of the sand, running my fingers through it, hoping he’d say yes.
Santa might get stuck in this sand, honey, and not come to you. You better be good. (He is joking, but I take him quite seriously.)
When my grandfather sees the sunlight for the last time, my father pushing his wheelchair into the hospice where we all know he will die, he says, It’s a good day to go home. To him, heaven was home and he never doubted it. He never wondered if it existed, if it would be worth sacrifices, or if he’d ever make it. He knew where his home was and never doubted what he’d find there.
I sit on the right side of his hospital bed in the hospice while we wait for him to die. This practice—some call it “the death watch”—is what we do out of respect. Like my dad would say, “Who you are on the day you die is much more important than who you are on the day you’re born.” We honor this by watching each other on our way out of this life. We don’t want our people to feel alone.
I hold my grandfather’s hand and he holds mine, a tight grip on the fragile antique amber ring I wear on my thumb. I stare at his body, listening to the gurgling heart failure inflicts. I touch the tattoo on his arm. It reads (in all caps) “YVC,” supposed initials including the “C” of a last name none of the rest of my family has. This was his little secret, the mystery no one would ask about and that he would never reveal. A few months earlier, he had shared the answer with me: I was thrown in jail one night for something I didn’t do. Someone stole a car, they thought it was me, and it wasn’t. I spent a night or two there, and this is what I left with.
What about the “C?” I asked. Our name is “Steele.” Why did it change?
Well, honey, it’s complicated.
As I touch the evidence of this big secret on his arm, I wonder what other secrets he will take with him. I wonder if he ever lied. (Doesn’t everyone?) I wonder if he had always been as nearly perfect as I always believed him to be, his eye focused on just “going home.” I wondered if he’d ever acted out of desperation or despair or delusion. I wondered if living is what really ends up killing us, or if it is the silence, what we never have enough time or space to say.
I fall asleep to the sound of the fluid that will drown my grandfather from the inside out, but I do not hear his last breath. I wake in a panic just before he dies and step outside to breathe and see the sun rise. (A forever regret.) My dad calls it a blessing that I wasn’t there at the end, but I feel guilty that I was not present. I hope he didn’t feel alone. I will never forget that night, before I drifted off to sleep, hearing him call out to my grandmother. Mom, he called, and he repeated it, looking only upward, as if he could see either God or her.
This is not the last time I visit our family cemetery. I’ve not yet set my sights on another home, another city. I’ve not yet really seen the beauty in the moss on the gravestones and the sadness in the mountains that are flat on top. I’ve not yet understood that I live in a place that
“That man used to pay me a quarter to stay with him at night.”
“Why in the world would he do that?” I ask.
“Scared to death he was gonna die. No idea why. Maybe it had something to do with the war, but he never mentioned it.”
“You never asked why?”
“Nope. Just didn’t think to.”
“Well, that just blows my mind.”
My dad and I are in our family cemetery again. I’m visiting home, my last semester of graduate school. I asked him to bring me here, another project, another search for information, just so I can create something from all the unanswerable questions. He looks thinner than the last time I saw him, not as strong. This morning I sat with Mama at the kitchen table, sipping the coffee Dad made for us before she and I woke up; he always gives us warm ups, never lets our cups turn cold. While she and I sipped and chatted, Dad stood over the kitchen sink, cutting up strawberries and honeydew. We are a family of deep conversation. No matter how light-hearted our subjects—Wayne County gossip, my seemingly endless pursuit of education, our quirks—we always end up reminiscing, wondering what might have been, remembering details of days people died. Hours pass and finally Dad says, “Well, if we’re gunna go up there, we better get to movin’. I don’t want it to get dark on us.” I hear what Dad says but I don’t respond immediately. I realize that somehow in the past two years I’ve been gone, that white and gray have almost fully replaced my father’s black and wavy hair. Later, I notice he’s aging again as we’re looking at the headstone of the man he once knew who was scared of nights alone:
“Yeah, he had a wife. I dunno. He was just scared to death. Scared of death. He just liked me being there.”
Another short visit home and my only request was to come to East Lynn with Dad and have him tell me stories. We talk about the days when his parents were alive, and how special Sunday dinners seemed. We talk about how sad it is that the family is so dispersed and distant from one another. He tells me he wishes that his father had spent any money he had, rather than saving it and living poor. I read the phrase on my grandparents’ joint headstone:
I say, “There should be an apostrophe there, Dad.” As I say that, I hear my accent return to its full strength, just as it always does when I’m anywhere in Appalachia, in close proximity to those who sound like me, those who still say “holler.”
He says, “Oh I know. Noticed that before too. Doesn’t seem like anyone even cares around here.”
“Well, maybe it was a mistake or something. We could have it fixed.”
We walk over to other headstones. I stand up flower arrangements that have been blown off by the wind, and Dad tells me stories of how people died, and what he thinks it means.
“He died drunk. So out of it he fell off a bridge.”
“Maybe he killed himself, Dad.”
“Nah, I don’t think so. They always said he was a drunk. Sad. You got no chance of salvation if you go like that.”
I think about the sensation of being drunk. I think about the thin line between when it feels good and how quickly it can turn bad, which mother always warned me about and the reason she’s never had a drop of alcohol in her life. I think about all those country songs we used to listen to riding around in her van. I remember a Clint Black song I used to belt with my sister, “Killin’ Time.”
I don't know nothin' 'bout tomorrowI've been lost in yesterdayI spent all my life just dying forA love that passed awayThere's an end to all my sorrowThis is the only price I'll payI'll be a happy man when I goAnd I can't wait another dayThis killin' time, is killin' meDrinking myself blind, thinkin' I won't seeThat if I cross that line, an' they bury meWell I just might find, I'll be killin' time for eternity
Our family cemetery is a sea of headstones that read both “Steele” and “Casteele.” My great-grandfather’s name was Monterville Casteele. His father’s name was George Washington Casteele. My grandfather’s name is written, “Youngea Ville Casteele” on every census until sometime in 1930s. He’d never tell us why he changed it, and why his brothers did not.
Dad shows me where there’s room for him and my mother.
“You could fill this in right over here with some dirt and there’d be plenty of room for me and Mom and whoever else wants to be here.”
I say, “Dad, please don’t talk about that right now.”
“Well, honey, it’s gonna happen. Can’t be here forever. Don’t wanna be.”
Before we make our way off the hill, Dad and I climb on top of his truck to see if we can get any cell service. We stand, cell phones in the air, and I think how out of place our phones look among this stillness. We’re facing the five hundred acres Dad and his four brothers own, inherited from their father. Even though it’s early spring, crunchy brown leaves still cover the ground that hundreds of trees canopy. Trash speckles the land in places—filthy couches, deteriorating refrigerators, Bud Light cans.
“Texting your mom. She gets so worried about me up here. I love her. I don’t want her to worry. It’s just me and her now, with you kids gone. Seems like everybody keeps leaving and never comes back.”
“Did you always want to stay here?”
“No. I never thought we’d live here our whole life. But things happen, you kids go to school, and we didn’t wanna take you away from it. I think it’s been good for you to grow up here.”
“I do, too.”
“I still think we’ll move one day. I swear, I’m gonna go live to Florida if kills me. I’d like to see you kids come down there somewhere close, too. I hurt so bad in the winters.”
Sitting on top of the cab of his pickup truck, we eat crackers and cheese before we drive down the hill.
Standing outside my dad’s childhood home, I see something inscribed into the plaster between the logs.
“Dad, look at all this. Is that a name?”
“My lands,” he says. “That says ‘Eloise,’ doesn’t it?” Eloise is my dad’s oldest sister, nineteen years his senior.
“Yep. That’s exactly what it looks like.”
“Dad would have killed the girls if he knew they were doing that.”
I take a picture of her cursive signature with my cell phone.
“What in the world is that?” I point to a metal contraption in the front yard. It looks like it hasn’t moved in a century.
“Honey, that’s a hay bailer, the one I used to use. I can’t believe you don’t know what that is. Sometimes I feel like I failed you girls, not teaching you about everything. Come over here.”
. . . today I’m standing here in the sun learning about farming from my father, safe inside these hills, but tomorrow, I’ll be back on a subway, standing in a tunnel, a stranger among strangers.
We walk to the hay bailer and Dad explains the entire process to me. You stick the hay inside here, it packs it there, you turn this, it comes out that— I try to listen, I try to really understand, but I can’t. I’m distracted by the fact that today I’m standing here in the sun learning about farming from my father, safe inside these hills, but tomorrow, I’ll be back on a subway, standing in a tunnel, a stranger among strangers.
“Can we go down into the creek?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s gunna be cold though.”
We walk down the bank and into the shallow stream. I’m careful not to fall. I crouch and catch some water in my hands. It’s cold and crystal clear.
“I wish you girls could see all this like I remember it. It’s so clear in my mind. I can see it just like I’m standing right there again.”
“I wish I could too, Daddy.”
“I’m gunna clean this place up if it kills me. These thieves up here just trash our property and take what’s not theirs. There ain’t much worse than a thief. People up here don’t care about nothing. They used to. But I guess no one really cares about who they are or what they need, so they figure, why should I care about anyone else, you know?”
“I know,” I say.
“A lot of bad people in the world,” he says. “I’ve not always done what’s right, but I try every day. As long you do what’s right, the Lord’ll take care of you, I promise.”
I think about that phrase, what’s right. I’ve heard my father say it hundreds of times. The sound of it resonates in my head and I hear the flow of water, thawed ice, finally running after a long winter. I let my hand freeze stiff as I drown my fingers. It hurts, but I keep my hand there for as long as I can stand it. I wish the water were warm from the summer sun so I could lie in it, let it wash around and over me. I may never be baptized like my father and my mother and my sister and my cousins and almost everyone else I love, but today, I somehow feel born again.
I’m sitting at the dining room table with the wealthy New York writer I assist. She’s just returned from a trip south, like me, and she’s in the mood to talk. She confesses she’s enjoyed being around new people, people different from who you find in New York City. She says she’s never really thought about other ways to live, possibilities outside Manhattan.
“I thought about you a lot while I was gone. I’m not sure living in here is the best thing for a writer, the best thing for you.”
“I’m not either,” I say. “It’s difficult for me here. It’s just so different from Appalachia. And financially, I don’t know how much longer I can make it. I miss the hills.”
“Wait, how do you say that word?”
“I thought it was App-a-lay-cha. Is it App-a-la-cha, no ‘ay’?”
“Well the people who actually live there say it like App-a-la-cha, but everyone else uses a long A.”
“Do you know which one is correct?”
“I dunno. App-a-la-cha is right for me.”
I’m still unsure where I want to settle, or if I will ever choose to settle. Some days I love New York as much as the first time I visited Manhattan, awestruck by all the possibility. Other days, I hate New York, view it as my enemy. There are a million other places I might live—by the beach, in the desert out west, Paris—and maybe I’d find home in all of them. But after leaving West Virginia and immersing myself in a new way of life, I’m more sure than ever that West Virginia hasn’t left me. I lived it from the inside-out, but now that I know it from the outside-in, I understand myself and my home more than ever: We hate to be misunderstood.
Maybe West Virginia is in a state of silent panic, a reaction to the dissolution of the details that create its identity. West Virginia is a place other people pity. West Virginia personified is the kid in school who pretends she enjoys being bullied because it's easier to go along with painful jokes than to stand up against them. West Virginia is a beautiful house other people visit. They take its valuables, and leave it behind emptier with each passing year. What I want to know—what I've always wanted to know—is what will remain of us? What is it that's ours to keep? Bankrupt people, poisoned water, flattened hills—no matter what people say, there isn’t nobility in sacrifice.
Dozens of people have asked me one question: How did you get out?
It’s not jail. You can leave anytime you want to get out. You just have to have the nerve to do it, knowing the hardest part is unlocking the home within, even when you’re hundreds of miles away. The mountains and the music and the fact that people say it’s comin’ a big rain instead of it’s raining are all realities that live within my body, buried deep underneath my skin, and I plan to keep them there.
I wish that every child in Appalachia could know what faces her because of its reality: there will be a day when you want to erase it all, run from the world you were born into, destroy all the incriminating evidence of who you are. You will fake it, and lots of people will make you think you have to. The rest of the world will strike through holler and replace it with hollow because that is what is proper, what they want to hear you say. And there will be a day that you give in and say hollow because that’s the pronunciation written in the dictionary. But one day you’ll begin to ask: What is so wrong about saying holler, anyway? Why is it I who is expected to change? Why must I begin to forget the language I learned as a child, change the arrangement of my words, and alter the sounds my ideas make when they leave my mouth? And when you get angry enough, you’ll realize others’ expectations are about much more than how you speak. That day you’ll stop running from yourself, as they say. You’ll revisit all your supposed Appalachian crimes, decide they aren’t that bad, and you’ll set yourself free. You have choices: you can stay, you can go to Paris, and you can always come back home. Ignore the corrective voice in your head—there’s no shame in a-pə-ˈla-chə.
Kristin Janae Steele holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from The New School in New York City. She recently moved back to West Virginia, her native state, and teaches at Marshall University in Huntington, not far from her hometown in Wayne County. Kristin’s work has appeared in Milk Sugar Literature, the National Books Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, and several news publications, including The Herald-Dispatch. She is currently working on a collection of essays centered in Appalachia.