More than 30 years ago, a genuine treasure fell into my lap — but what to do with it? We took a trip to visit my birthplace in southeastern Kentucky.
The day we went to my actual birthplace, the house no longer stood; however, my great-grandparent’s home next door did. Uncle Roy (deceased prior) and Aunt Lee Esther had built a new house where the barn once stood between the two homes.
Cautiously, we approached the door, because that is what you do with an out-of-state plate. They have to size you up before you’re near enough to shout out that you are kin.
Once she knew who we were, we were cautiously welcomed. She wouldn’t let us in her home nor Grandma’s decaying home, despite knowing it was where I spent my early years. Perhaps she was just old and cranky, to which I can now relate.
She showed us pictures but didn’t allow me to hold the album. I really wanted to see one of Grandma’s quilts, which she and her children kept all of. I was refused.
Imagine my caution when we took my mother back a couple of years later. Fortunately for us, she was not at home, but the man who helped take care of the place was and remembered us. He allowed us inside Grandma and Grandpa’s old home place.
What a trip down memory lane! It was so tiny, compared to my childhood memories. Walking from room to room, we marveled they had raised 13 children in that tiny dwelling. We were ready to leave when Mom exclaimed, “There’s Mommy’s trunk!”
She had my attention. The man said it was OK to look inside and told us we could have it. Much to my chagrin, there was no way we could fit it in our car, so I did the next best thing, salvaging what I could.
The lid had been left open and mice had lived inside — among the priceless treasures of two lifetimes! Much of the contents were destroyed beyond any hope, but I grabbed a shopping bag and pilfered and salvaged through tears of pure joy mingled with ones of sadness for the condition of the contents.
There was no plan on my part, other than to rescue what I could of my grandmother, whose name I bear but who died before my birth.
Once home, I lovingly went through every inch of these cherished possessions. Mom wasn’t interested in anything, so they were all mine.
Digesting every salvageable letter and postcard, I cherished every scrap of paper, including check stubs and receipts. Much of the paper crumbled in my hands. Through tears of sadness and joy, I read postcards from uncles and great-uncles in Italy, Germany and France during World War II.
A great insight into my namesake’s personality came alive as I perused letters that she and my grandfather shared during their courting years in the early 1920s and again during the war. He worked as a carpenter for the Navy on shipyards in Newport News, Virginia, while she stayed home raising and bearing children. There were childhood letters written by my mother and her siblings.
The treasures also included a pair of her shoes, a pair of eyeglasses, a dress, a hat and several little things her children had bought for her. As much as I treasured these items, I put them carefully away for safekeeping, yet something about them kept eating away on my mind.
We moved them to Alabama with us in 1995. They hadn’t been opened since that initial thorough search, but they nagged at my soul. They were priceless to me, but who could I pass them on to? Younger generations have no appeal for such things. There was no one to appreciate them.
Inspiration finally struck. It was strong, powerful and wouldn’t let me not do it, so I listened to those promptings and got to work.
Once again, I read everything I could piece together. "Voices from the Dust" is the title I gave to the compilation that dominated my waking thoughts. There was an introductory page, a complete genealogy of the family and lots of old black-and-white photos.
Deciphering the letters and putting them in chronological order didn’t intimidate me, despite most lacking dates. The cover is a photo of my grandparents on their wedding day, March 12, 1925. They were spiral-bound, and I had them in the mail to arrive on Valentine’s Day 2009.
As they were received, my phone began to ring. Family members were stunned to learn of their existence, but those letters of love from long ago gave me an understanding that I needed.
What are you doing with your Voices in the Dust?
— A coal miner’s daughter born in Appalachia and schooled in Michigan, she currently lives in rural Athens. Hill describes herself as a cook and cookbook author, jack of all trades and master of none, a Christian wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She shares her home with her husband, Bob, and their spoiled-beyond-belief dog, Molly.