Today would have been my Grandma Lizzie Cottongim’s 124th birthday. I remember visiting her house on North 16th in Richmond, Indiana for family gatherings when I was a boy. There was always great food and the deep connections close family share. I had a vague sense she was from the hills of eastern Kentucky, but I didn’t really know what that meant.
My own grandmother, Arbutus, was Joe and Lizzie’s oldest daughter. When I’d ask her what it was like to grow up in the hills, she never really wanted to talk about it. There was pain and maybe just a little embarrassment in her face when she would shrug it off and change the subject.
I realize now life must have been really hard. Growing up in a small 2 room plank house in Pinner Holler just outside of Manchester, most days were full of hard work and empty of almost all the conveniences that are a basic part of life today. It was a beautiful land, but it didn’t easily produce food for a growing family.
Grandpa Joe worked at a nearby coal mine to supplement what he could grow on his 100 acres in the holler. The boys did too as they grew.
Grandma Lizzie never threw leftovers away–they were recycled into bread pudding or something tasty for later. She was an extremely good seamstress. She could see a dress in a shop and recreate it at home. She never wasted fabric as evidenced by the many quilts she made. She and the other ladies often had quilting bees where they would gather and quilt around a large frame. She developed many skills and found a way to make things work.
Joe and Lizzie never missed church, and they always dressed up for it. When a neighbor was in need they did their best to help.
Life was hard, but it was good too.
My grandma Arbutus remembers her dad taking her to the swimming hole in the summertime. Like her mother, she grew food in the backyard and canned it for the winter. My grandma’s white grape jelly and her stewed rhubarb dessert were two of my favorite foods growing up.
I understand now why the family was glad when they could get out. I understand why building a new life in Richmond was a huge leap forward. When I recently read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance I realized the culture my family escaped from and the negative patterns in it that they stood against were powerful and not always good.
Grandma Lizzie must have had an amazing strength of character and sense of purpose to help bring her family through tough times with grace. I didn’t get to know her well, but when I look at her descendants, my cousins, I’m thankful for who she was and how she lived.