I recently completed J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. As I read, I was struck by how sorrowful his story was and how different from my own family’s hillbilly story. I interviewed Granny Lawhorne, the young girl with the bow in this photo, in November 1995 when she was 83 years old. As she recounted the difficult plight of being an Amherst County Virginia hillbilly; her tale was sprinkled with deep belly laughs and joy. There was no elegy edge to her story at all.
Well, I’ll just tell you, my mama’s name was Emma Henson Burch and she married my daddy Frank Benjamin Burch on August 20, 1892.
Daddy was 20 years old and Mama was 15 at the time of their wedding. They were married at the Oronoco Church of the Brethren on Route 60 at the top of the mountain near Buena Vista, Virginia. They got married right after a revival meeting and then left the church in a horse and buggy and went 20 miles or so to Pleasant View where Emma’s sister Molly lived. That was the way honeymoons happened in them days. Mama went to housekeeping with a straw tick and a frying pan. She had to gather field straw to fill the tick for their bed and she cooked all their meals in that frying pan over the fireplace. One of her relatives had given her a few small potatoes so they would have something to cook.
That was all they started married life with. They didn’t have a stick of furniture but they managed to raise 10 children and Daddy never held a public job. You know I think people would die today if they had to live like we did then. The worse problem we had was how to get clothes. We grew and put up our own food but there was no money for clothes. Mama made shirts and underwear for my brothers and underwear and dresses for my sisters out of cloth the she saved from 25 pound flour sacks.
What I remember about my life as a child was working! As soon as I was big enough to stand up on the stool at the sink, Mama put me to washing dishes. The older you got the more jobs she put you doing. We did have some good times though. We had get togethers called “Bean Shellins,” “Corn Shuckins,” and “Molasses Pulls.” At the corn shuckins, they would hide jars of moonshine in piles of unshucked corn. The men shucked corn like crazy trying to uncover those hidden jars! Moonshine was one of the ways that folks in the mountains could get their hands on money. The Colemans and the Noels and others all had family members who served prison time cuz they were caught by revenuers selling whiskey.
I also remember it being a good time to go to church. We walked 5 miles each way to get to Oronoco even when I was a young child. If they were holding nighttime revival meetings we would hear the 11 o’clock whistle blow down in Buena Vista and still have about three quarters of a mile left to walk.
As I read J.D. Vance’s book it occurred to me that while his Mamaw saw church as “breeding grounds for perverts and money changers,” Granny found solace for her soul and strength to follow the upside down values of Jesus’ kingdom at church. Her 93 year life was characterized by hard work, deep love for others, exuberant joy and resting in the grace of God.