by Brandy Renee McCann
I know work. And this is essentially work. Essential work, actually. I focus on that fact as I adjust the mask my mom sent me through the mail—one made from a scrap of floral calico and lined with pink gingham flannel. It’s a cheerful thing, considering. I unbuckle myself, take a deep breath which causes the mask to adhere to my nose holes, and then forcefully exhale, hoping that I won’t regret leaving the safety of my home on a pandemic summer morning.
At the work site the manager, Lynn, takes my temperature and has me sign several papers related to COVID—no, I haven’t traveled recently; yes, I understand the risks; no, I haven’t knowingly been exposed to the virus. After the formalities, Lynn introduces me to Sophie, a gangly college student who waits quietly while Lynn explains the workflow. Milk and meals in this bag; juice and snacks in that. Use the donated paper bags first. Break down the cardboard; make a stack; and at the end of your shift, take the pile out back to the recycling bin. Twenty-five years earlier I had been a cashier at a Sav-A-Lot grocery store: the routine is still familiar.
Sophie and I smile at each other as Lynn moves to a corner of the warehouse where she has created a make-shift office on boxes and a sheet of plywood.
“Do you ever go to the drop-off sites?” Sophie asks and adjusts the ponytail hanging from her baseball cap.
I shake my head and hand her a box; then take one for myself and follow her outside to the table in the parking lot where we will be packing bags of food. The sun hangs high over the mountain ridge in the distance, producing rippling waves of heat and radiating the smell of hot tar from the cracked asphalt.
“You should go to a drop-off just for the experience,” Sophie says as we set down our supplies. She looks at me with eyes smiling above her mask. “These kids—like that live in the trailer parks and places like that—they are so happy to get the food.” The smile then fades from her eyes and she adds, “I feel bad for them though, you know, that they don’t have food. It’s sad.”
Her comment, and the underlying assumption, needle me, but I nod and say, “Maybe I’ll go sometime.”
We are volunteers at one of the local food distribution sites that have ramped up service to help meet the needs of families during the pandemic. Sophie is a dependable face at the site, but I am new. I saw a social media post from the manager desperate for help with packaging weekly meal kits to be distributed to low-income families. Although she is much younger than me, I reckon Sophie and I are in similar circumstances—both middle-class, low-risk people who want to be of use during the shutdowns. My family of four has been fortunate during the pandemic: my husband and I both worked from home before the arrival of coronavirus; and unlike so many others, we have childcare. And even though my hours at work have been cut, it isn’t a huge financial hit for our family. I feel the least I could do is spend a few hours every week helping pack non-perishable meals for families who might appreciate the extra food in this chaotic time.
I pack the bags and struggle to understand why Sophie’s comment bothers me. I want to take off my mask, to have a real conversation about class in America. But how can I say, without sounding uptight and defensive, you can share in their joy without pitying them. Getting free stuff makes people happy. It’s that simple.
I knew what it was to be one of those families nearly 40 years ago. I grew up in one of the most impoverished areas in the U.S., the coal fields of West Virginia, and government-subsidized food was familiar to me. My dad and I would drive from our modest, white house on the side of the mountain, and over the concrete bridge where our creek met the Guyandotte River. Just across the bridge the grocery store and the volunteer fire department shared a large parking lot that served as a meeting point for various community groups—school field trips, church bake sales, and the distribution site for the government commodity foods handed out from the back of a long tractor trailer. Big rectangles of cheese, powdered milk, and giant tins of peanut butter.
We didn’t often qualify for free stuff, and it was exciting to get government food. By the 1980s my dad worked hard at a concrete plant for much lower hourly wages and even stingier benefits than the unionized coal mine where he’d started his working life. My step-mom worked as a secretary in the local school system and their earnings—though low compared to U.S. averages—pushed us above the poverty line. Which meant that we got reduced-priced lunches at school, but not free ones. Which meant we qualified for the WIC program when my baby sister was born, but not food stamps. We couldn’t afford the trendiest clothes; but we weren’t hard up enough to get clothing vouchers either. We were smack in the middle with our K-Mart clothes—between the kids who were the children of teachers and the kids whose parents were out of work or disabled; that is, we were between the two groups of kids who wore clothes from the mall. That is how I thought of it then. But I could have had it all wrong. Maybe kids with clothing vouchers, and the kids whose parents were teachers, generally didn’t wear Guess jeans and other brand name clothing. Maybe it was only the ones I noticed. Or maybe it was the kind of talk working class kids heard in those days before harsh “welfare” reform in the late 1990s. A latent frustration that everyone, whether they were cousins or neighbors, well-to-do or fallen on hard times, seemed to have it easier than us.
Regardless, it was a joyous occasion that despite our middling status we were able to get commodity food. A literal handout. A handout we’d miss in later decades. In my career as a researcher, I often interview older adults in the Appalachian region. If the subject of commodity food comes up, there is universal nostalgia for government cheese, which I later learned was real cheddar cheese purchased by the government from struggling American farmers. Everyone loved the cheese. No one mentions the powdered milk.
The milk boxes Sophie and I put into bags comes in self-stable, individual servings. I am weirded out by the fact that they don’t need refrigeration. I wonder if the kids drink them. Or if they are used only as cereal milk, or to make pancake batter. I look at Sophie, bent over her work with a serious expression. She is a nice girl. She means well. Maybe I mischaracterized her. In truth, I know nothing about her life, except that she drove an older, once expensive-looking vehicle into the parking lot, the kind of car I imagine upper-middle-class parents hand down to their college-aged children. The kind of vehicle I drive and imagine giving to my son when he comes of age.
Decoration Day, 1987
Before Papaw Custer died, the main event was going up on Piney Mountain to the Kirk cemetery, where many of his people were buried. Us kids wrestled and danced around in excitement waiting to be piled into the back of a pickup truck; we didn't often play in the hills the way kids did in my dad's generation, making homemade bombs that rattled the windows up and down the holler. We were the first real TV generation, and these outings with the adults felt extraordinary. We couldn't wait to stand up in the bed of the truck as my dad took us up the creek, swerving around sharp curves and causing us to lose our balance, falling and giggling all over each other.
On our way there we stopped at smaller graveyards where family was scattered hither and yon, a brother here, an aunt there. "Why are they buried here?" we asked. "I don't know. They just liked this spot I reckon." We looked around, trying to imagine that spot as our own resting place.
At the base of Piney Mountain stood the homeplace. We waved to the cousins we didn't really know, but who had inherited the house. They hollered out about how they would be up later. After these niceties, us kids took off running up the rutted road that zigged and zagged to the graveyard at the top of the hill. About halfway up, we began to dawdle so that we could pick daisies and fleabane to put on the graves of the little babies who'd died before their first birthday. Directly Papaw Custer, who marched along at a steady pace, passed us and beat us to the cemetery gate.
At the top of the mountain was a neat, but scrubby graveyard on the southeastern-facing slope. Some headstones were contemporary granite ones; some were old, pointy monuments to distant kin no one remembered; some were rather plain but carved with military symbols—those were the ones my papaw decorated with little American flags. My favorite headstones were the homemade ones, the ones where the names of my ancestors were lovingly spelled out with colorful marbles.
The women in the family came last to the cemetery and carried great big plastic bags full of bright "silk" flowers they bought at the dollar store. They let us kids choose some to decorate the graves. I had two special ancestors to whom I liked to give flowers: first, my papaw's younger brother, Frenchie. I was fascinated by the story of his death; he'd died when he was twenty-two-years-old when he fell off the back of a truck while crossing the bridge in Harts. I knew all of Papaw's living brothers, most of them quiet men who did not visit their ancestors on Decoration Day. I wondered what kind of man Frenchie might have become. I imagined him as someone like my dad, light-hearted and a bit of a prankster. Someone who took risks, and stood up in the back of a truck at just the wrong moment.
The other person I visited was my great-great-grandmother, Susan Kirk, who was flanked by husbands on either side. I liked the idea of having multiple lives—and the story of a woman who not only survived several childbirths, but outlived two husbands. In a way, I was reading my own future. Only I wouldn’t be surviving the childbed and influenza; my great challenge would be the illusive pursuit of happiness, the unimaginable concern of a future generation.
While the adults did a little cleaning, us kids ran around the cemetery; then everyone laid their bodies around the edge of the graveyard and told stories. Around midday dinnertime, Papaw said, "When I was growing up we would have had a dinner-on-the-ground picnic up here." Mamaw sighed and said, "Well, let's head on back to the house and have our wiennies and burgers." And we would run back down the mountain to pile into the back of the truck. This time, on the way back, we sat on our bottoms and laughed as the wind whipped our hair around each other’s faces.
Brandy Renee McCann writes both creatively and scientifically about life in Appalachia. Her creative work has been published in AvantAppal[achia], Change Seven, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and The Dead Mule; and her scholarly work on aging in Appalachia can be found in a variety of social scientific journals. Brandy is a research associate at the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech.