Before I met Julie, I assumed that Kentucky was a southern state representing all of the personal and political stereotypes we coastal folks like to impose on a huge swath of this country. Essentially, I imagined that Kentuckians all swilled moonshine and feuded with each other. I figured that there weren’t any real cities there but just an endless procession of tobacco fields, ramshackle dwellings, and muskrats.
But I was so wrong. The Commonwealth of Kentucky, as it is delightfully called, is an uncommonly beautiful state, with luxuriant hills, blazing forests, abundant water, and long, rolling country roads. It has prosperous cities and well-known universities. It is the most affordable U.S. state in which to live. And its residents are blessed with experiencing all four seasons – none of them in the extreme. The average annual snowfall is about a foot, so most of the time it’s just a “wintry mix,” whatever that is. Julie complains about the humid summers, but her whining falls on deaf ears because I happen to think that humidity is really sexy. The air rests heavy on your skin and is thick with desire. Remember Marlon Brando wearing that damp t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire? I rest my case.
Louisville, where Julie was born, sits in the northern part of the state, near the Indiana border. It’s a blue town in a deeply red state, and Julie always claims that “it’s the Midwest while the rest of the state is the South.” This morning I looked up the latitude coordinates for Louisville, and sure enough, it is actually located north of San Francisco. It’s what I’d call a medium-sized city, with both modern and historic architecture, stunning parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who, by the way, also designed Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Central Park in New York), lots of museums and performing arts spaces, a burgeoning indie scene, a fairly sizeable gay neighborhood of beautiful Victorian homes, and of course a population of rabid college sports fans. Most importantly, chefs from all over the country are serving some of the most creative food in America at a host of new restaurants that have sprung up in the city over the past decade or two.
Every year, Julie and I drive out to Louisville with our dog Buster at either Thanksgiving or Christmas, and we get to spend a happy week or two with her family. We stay with Julie’s father Bill in a lovely part of the overall Louisville metro area called St. Matthews. Bill taught high school physics for a little while at the beginning of his career but then got into computers (in the punch card era) and never looked back. A lifelong runner, he’s finished many a marathon and half-marathon in his life, often taking top prizes in his age group. To this day he still helps out at races around town, and although his creaky knees prevent him from participating, he walks more than 10,000 steps a day and still looks and acts like a young man. Now that he’s retired, he spends most of his time helping people with age or disability challenges. The rest of the time he spends watching college basketball games or telling loads of corny jokes, 75 percent of which are funny.
The holiday celebrating is typically done at the home of Julie’s sister Lori. Like her dad, Lori works with computers (databases, to be precise) for a large health insurance company. (Julie says she is the smartest of the siblings.) Lori inherited her mom’s penchant for decorating, and at Christmastime her house has the most gorgeous lighting, scents, and holiday adornments you could imagine. (I frequently walk into the bathroom, ostensibly to wash my hands but really just to get a whiff of the vanilla or cinnamon or whatever spices seem to miraculously infuse each room.) She makes the creamiest mashed potatoes on earth. She is really funny, and sometimes I make her laugh so hard that she has to scrunch up her face to keep from peeing.
Lori’s husband Dale is a strong, good-looking man who can fix or build anything on the planet. He’s been an iron worker and a general handyman and now he’s building houses as a general contractor. He’s a perfectionist, and I have every expectation that his houses could withstand the tornadoes that I always fear will be rumbling through Louisville at any minute. Dale enjoys a good bourbon, and one time the two of us foolishly decided to do a “bourbon taste test” that involved slamming down shots of five different bourbons in quick succession. I don’t remember much after that. What I love most about Dale, though, is that for all his masculine toughness, he has an uncommonly sensitive disposition. On one Thanksgiving visit, we all wrote down on little slips of paper what we were thankful for, and then we took turns pulling the slips out of a hat and reading them aloud. I remember that he stood in the middle of the living room, read his little daughter’s note that she was most thankful for her mommy and daddy, and started to cry.
Which brings me to my two Kentucky nieces. The “little daughter,” Alicia, was born shortly after I met Julie and is now in her second year of nursing school. I know that wherever her career takes her, it will involve caring for others. She’s always been very, very kind, with a soft spot for anyone different or less fortunate. A little boy in her neighborhood who had suffered a series of strokes in utero was born with the gender identity of a woman and wore dresses ever since he was old enough to do so. Alicia took him under her wing and made him feel loved and normal from the day she first started babysitting him. She’s artistic and creative, too; in high school she studied theatrical design and production and became an expert in costuming. She also has an uncanny sharp wit.
Alicia’s older sister, Tara, lives and works in Nashville (what a cool town!) and has the most boundless energy of anyone I’ve ever met. She walks into a room and lights it up. She’s a musician, and life to her is a big dance. She’s happy when others are happy. She gets outrageously excited over the smallest of pleasures. She loves San Francisco, and once when she was visiting and we were driving around Twin Peaks, I kidded her about the way she would throw her arm out the window in glee, snapping photos with her cell phone in the most breezy fashion, never looking at what she was photographing, and then I would look later at the pictures and every single one of them was beautiful and perfect and artsy. That is Tara in a nutshell – a creative, refreshing, and breezy romp through life.
When Alicia and Tara were both out in San Francisco one year, I recorded their voices and I now get to listen to them every day when I turn my computer on and off. When Windows boots up, Tara’s exuberant voice greets me with, “Hellooo, loverrrrrrrrrrrrr!” And when the computer powers down, I hear Alicia signing off with “Ciao, bella, Paola, Paola.” (I taught her a couple of Italian words and it turns out that she has one of the best accents I’ve ever heard on a non-Italian.)
Even Buster loves our Louisville family. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he is completely smitten with Tara’s alluring little red-headed vixen of a poodle.
Our holiday times in Louisville are always rollicking good fun. We were last there for Christmas in 2015, right after I had broken my foot, so I was hobbling around on crutches the night that Julie’s aunt Judy treated us to a terrific dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Ohio River, right on the outskirts of Louisville. It was a dark and stormy night, and I had been watching the ongoing weather reports and growing increasingly worried about a host of potential horrors, including how I would be able to crutch around through a driving rainstorm. In addition, I was hearing reports of a tornado watch in the county, and I imagined that, if we managed to make it home alive, we would find the house and Buster gone.
Julie’s relatives all listened to my concerns and looked at me as if I hailed from another planet. Major storms are apparently just an inconsequential part of life out there. They simply threw my sniveling self into the car and off we caromed. At the restaurant, I was seated by the window, staring out at the high winds, drenching rain, hail, and lightning. A couple of minutes later, I actually got rained on through a roof leak that became suddenly apparent. Then the power went out. But these Kentuckians paid it all no mind. The restaurant’s backup generator kept everything on except the computer, which for some reason meant that no food orders could be taken. I have no idea why they couldn’t simply write down the orders and enter them later. Furthermore, in true southern fashion, they were mysteriously able to take our drink orders, so we had plowed through quite a bit of alcohol by the time the computers came back up and we could order our food. A couple of hours later, the storm had blown past. The roads home were covered with downed tree branches, flooded areas, and emergency workers, but the neighborhood – and Buster – were unscathed. Crisis ignored.
The one missing part of our Kentucky visits is Julie’s mother, Lynne. Lynne passed away a few years ago from the worst disease known to humankind. But her spirit is always there. She had the strongest accent in the family, which made her wild southern tales even funnier. My favorite story of hers was that she attended a rug-hooking convention with her friend Bonnie once, and the sign outside the hotel said, “Welcome, hookers!” In the lobby she ran into a group of businessmen and proceeded to announce to them, “Well, gentlemen, the good news is that the hookers are here. The bad news is that you’re lookin’ at ’em!”
I found out fairly quickly that I could make Lynne laugh very easily, and like her daughter Lori, she would giggle until she cried and peed. She had a lovely singing voice and was a talented musician who played a variety of instruments in a mountain music ensemble. (When I first heard the term “mountain music,” I thought again of moonshine and feuds. After I reluctantly attended one of Lynne’s rehearsals, though, I was absolutely blown away by the enchanting music created by the sweet interwoven notes of dulcimers, fiddles, pennywhistles, banjos, mandolins, and other acoustic instruments.) She collected miniatures and built me a miniature country store that I keep in our guest room to this day. She took me on dozens of day trips when I visited so that I could learn all about the history and folk culture of Kentucky. But most of all, she was a loving mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law. You could tell Lynne anything, and she would listen until you were done. Then came her quiet wisdom.
As I once told her after she took ill, Lynne was my courageous hero. A little piece of Kentucky magic left with her. I miss her so much.
During the holiday season in particular, it is not lost on me that I am among the lucky people who are blessed with a loving second family. Bill, Lynne, Judy, Lori, Dale, Tara, and Alicia (with a special shout-out to Lynne’s friend Bonnie) took me right into the family from the moment we all met each other, and it’s a generosity of spirit that I will never forget. I hope they know how much they mean to me.
One of the greatest benefits to me, too, of being a part of two families is that I have gotten to know and understand people from a region I would likely have never explored. We may believe that there are intractable divisions in this country, but learning about each other on a personal level is invaluable. My heart and my world were both expanded when I first met Julie’s family back in 1995. I am richer for knowing them.
This holiday season, let’s tell our loved ones how much they mean to us, open our hearts to the differences of others, and listen to everyone until they are done.
I would like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, all the people who have taken the time to read my blog this year. It really has changed my life in many ways. I especially love your comments, because otherwise I would have no idea whether anyone was reading the darned thing.
Some of my posts have been good, others have been only so-so, and nearly all of them have been too long. I will try to work on that in the coming year.
I did write one masterpiece, in my opinion, and that was my first post, about my beloved parents (for my more recent subscribers, it’s here: https://mondaymorningrail.com/2016/05/30/the-courtship-of-paulas-father/). Mom and Dad always encouraged me to write because they thought I was good at it, but I never believed them. I do truly believe, however, that they both had a hand in that first post.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.