HerKentucky Welcomes Shannon Ralph

I am so excited that my friend and sorority sister Shannon -- whom we recently threw an unconventional candlelight -- will be joining the HerKentucky team! Shannon, an Owensboro native and Transylvania alumna, lives in Minneapolis with her partner (soon to be wife!) and their three kids. You can read more about Shannon's adventures on her blog, Chronicles of a Clueless Mom. I guarantee she'll make you laugh! -- HCW

My name is Shannon Ralph and I am a Kentuckian by birth and a Minnesotan by happenstance. I have lived in Minnesota for almost seventeen years. No matter how acclimated I have become to the hearty Midwest, I can't help my redneck roots showing on occasion. Like the way my carefully crafted Midwestern temperament can go from stoic to curse-flinging hillbilly white trash in 0.5 seconds flat if you make me mad. Or the way I don't give a rip about baseball or hockey, but cheer for my Kentucky boys every March with a devotion somewhat akin to a rabid wolverine. Or the way I like a good game of poker better than I like most people. Or the way gravy and biscuits (or cornmeal crusted anything) make my heart sing.  Or the way, no matter how many decades I spend in Minnesota, I still shake my head at the idiots driving their trucks out on frozen lakes and mutter under my breath, “Bless their little hearts.”
In Louisville this week.

I guess what I am trying to say is that once Kentucky gets into your soul, there is no shaking it loose. No matter how long you are away from the Bluegrass State, there is no twelve-step program to rid yourself of the all-encompassing desire to drink bourbon and deep-fry vegetables. You can't pray the blue away.

This week, my partner, three children and I are visiting my hometown of Owensboro. I am trying to introduce my pale, pasty little winter-weary children to the joys of Kentucky life. So far, I have heard a litany of  “God, it's hot!” and “My armpits stink!” and “People here eat sheep?!” I am beginning to wonder if it is possible to foster an appreciation for Kentucky in someone not born and raised here. Perhaps—just maybe—one must be infected as an infant for the sickness that is Kentucky to grow and fester inside as it has grown and festered inside of me.

I drive down the streets of Owensboro and smell the air, thick with the aromas of barbecue and sweat, and I feel nostalgic for a simpler life. I feel a calmness—a sluggishness even—that I do not often experience in the hustle and bustle of Minneapolis. Life moves at a slower pace here—due partly to heat-induced partial paralysis, I am pretty sure. Yes, it is definitely hot. And humid. I am desperately fighting the urge to shower four times a day. I am telling myself, “Just succumb to the sweat.  Be at peace with the sweat. Become the sweat.” It's a tough battle to wage after being in Minnesota for so long.

Lucas explores his roots.
If I allow myself to think about it, I get a bit misty-eyed that my children are not Kentuckians. They are not even Southerners, which is an even harder pill to swallow. They are Midwesterners. I am raising my children in a region so far removed from my beloved South that they are practically Canadians.

The weird thing, however, is that I am really okay with it. I have created a family and a home and a life up north that I adore. When I think of “home” now, I picture my little house in Minneapolis filled to the brim with the people I love. Kentucky is where I am from—Kentucky is who I am—but Minnesota is  home.

I guess there is some truth to what they say: You really can't go home again. Though Kentucky may never again be my home, I'll always carry a part of it with me. It is in my soul. It is in the blue blood I bleed. It is in my refusal to give up “hell yeah, y'all” in deference to the mild-mannered “oh yah, you betcha.” It made me who I am.

I am a Kentuckian.

Hell yeah, y'all. 

Capturing the Beauty of Central Kentucky

In a time of great tragedy and sadness, it's important to remind ourselves of the goodness and beauty that exists in this world.

Maybe I'm biased, but out of all the places I've visited, I cannot think of a more gorgeous place than Kentucky in the springtime.  Even the cloudy days are stunning. 

This spring, I've spent a great deal of time outside with my camera trying to capture some of this beauty in my own "backyard" in Central Kentucky.  From the tulips at the Kentucky State Capitol, to the iconic horses and their foals grazing in newly green pastures, the natural beauty that surrounds us is simply breathtaking.  Here are just a few of my favorite photographs:

As our country copes with yet another senseless tragedy, I encourage you to take a moment to appreciate the beauty in your own life.  And, there is no better time than the present to step outside and take a look around.

Redbud and Dogwood Winter

Appalachia, Mountains, Eastern Kentucky
When I was growing up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, I rolled my eyes at a lot of conventional mountain wisdom.  Some of that was, of course, the traditional child's prerogative; parents and grandparents simply can't know what they're talking about with their old-fashioned perspectives.  And, to this Muppets-and-Madonna-loving child of the '80s,  old-timey mountain traditions seemed a relic of a long-gone era. 
redbud tree, eastern kentucky, redbud winter, dogwood winter, appalachia

As an adult, I've had to rescind quite a bit of my know-it-all scorn. The twangy mountain music that my granddaddy played on his vintage Martin guitar sounds curiously like the hipster-standard Raconteurs and Avett Brothers tracks that fill my iPod.  My grandmother's Crisco-and-butter cooking turned out to be far healthier than the fake food revolution of my childhood.  And, so many pieces of folk wisdom -- the most embarrassing, "unscientific" observations of the natural world -- have turned out to be true.  I've been forced to eat my words time and again.  The most dramatic example is Redbud Winter and its close, usually later, cousin Dogwood Winter.  
Dogwood winter, Appalachia, Eastern Kentucky 
Now, when I was a kid, I hated hearing about these supposed weather phenomena.  When the first warm spring rolled around, it should be warm and pretty and springy from then on.  Without fail, someone would note "Oh, it'll get cold again.  We haven't even had Redbud or Dogwood winter yet.  Don't put your coats away." That was surely just an old wives' tale.

Except, it wasn't.  Every spring, the pretty, delicate blooms on the flowering trees brings a dramatic cold snap.  This year was no different -- last week brought 85 degree days, then the redbuds and dogwoods started to peek out.  As I started to unpack my spring dresses and shorts, I immediately thought that I'd better leave out a few cold weather items, just in case.  Of course, redbud winter came a few short days later, bringing cold mornings and brisk days.  

I guess the old-timers are right after all.

{all photos were taken in my mom's Floyd County backyard over the past week or so...}

My Kentucky–Downtown Frankfort

I live in our Commonwealth’s capital city, only about four blocks from the Capitol. (That’s the first lesson you learn in my town – the difference between “capital” and “capitol.”)
Y’all. My town is beautiful. Your capital city is beautiful! I love it more than any place in the world. I hope you like it, too. Here are some of my favorite places in the old parts of town – South Frankfort and Downtown Frankfort.
I sat on the wall along the South Frankfort Presbyterian Church’s and ate lunch nearly everyday when I was a Freshman in high school. My alma mater didn’t have a cafeteria back then.
This building housed the first YMCA in town. It’s been vacant for as long as I can remember. I’ve never thought it was a very beautiful building, but a group of preservationists are working to turn it into our town’s first boutique hotel. It sits right on the Kentucky river next to what we affectionately name The Singing Bridge. This bridge, now the site of an open-grate roadbed steel bridge originally had an old-fashioned covered bridge to serve folks coming from Louisville to the Old Capitol Building.
This building was originally a post office. I know it best as the library. It’s currently owned by Kentucky State University and is being remodeled. I’d love to go up into that turret.
There is always a renovation or restoration project in progress in our downtown. I’d not noticed that this one was in the midst of one until I shot this photo and realized that the column is only partially painted. I’m not sure if this is an active renovation or if it got stalled along the way and the plans have been abandoned for exterior work. The building houses businesses and apartments.
This portion of St. Clair street used to be a pedestrian-only mall paved with bricks and lined with trees. About 10 years ago, the city revamped the mall to allow for mixed traffic use. I was devastated at the thought of it, but I have to admit that they did it well. The bars and restaurants have ample room for outdoor seating. Pedestrians have room to walk. People have room to gather and traffic flows in a single-lane, one-way pattern. The jeweler’s clock has been standing sentry over this part of town for many years (the jeweler’s been in business since 1872).
This little guy was tied to a lamp post outside the coffee shop while his owners ordered their coffee. That’s one of the great things about my town – no one will bother this dog unless it’s with scratches behind the ear. If it were a hot day, the shop owner would offer up a bowl of water for him. People care around here.
I love the paint scheme on these buildings on Broadway – the only street in town divided by railroad tracks. If I had a wide-angle lens you’d see that the buildings continue on to the left of this picture. The entire city block is filled with locally-owned businesses including a specialty wine and liquor shop, an antique store, a book store owned by a former Kentucky Poet Laureate, a café, a Kentucky artisan shop and an upscale dining spot.
Directly across from those shops stands the Old State Capitol building. It’s surrounded by a walled park featuring brick-laid walkways and a fountain and is a beautiful spot. While it was once the site of political machinations and even a gubernatorial assassination in 1900, today, the building serves as part of the state’s Historical Society and the grounds are the site of summer concerts and many picnics and playdates.
Our town, like any small town you’ll find in the South is home to a great number of churches. The ones downtown are the oldest and, to me, most beautiful. These two, in particular, remind me of England and cottage gardens (not that I’ve ever been there!). Fittingly, one of them is the Anglican church!
As a town first settled in the 1780s, Frankfort has its fair share of historic homes. These are two of my favorites.
I found this front gate decoration in front of the historic Liberty Hall. Legend has it that the house is haunted and that you can sometimes see The Gray Lady at one of the upstairs windows.
The grounds of the historic homes are open to the public. In elementary school, we would often walk to them in the spring time and spend an afternoon reading or exploring. Can’t you just imagine a garden party in this spot?
Finally, crossing back over to my side of the river, you can see where the painter Paul Sawyier was so inspired by the area.
It won’t be long until the Capitol grounds crew has these guys out and ready for photographing, again. The tulips in bloom signal spring’s arrival and prompt lots of family photo opportunities.
Just a few short weeks after the tulips, it’s Derby time!

Where I'm From.

iPad, Guinness and holler.
This afternoon, I went outside to walk my dogs. As I looked down at my outfit -- an Under Armour base layer, faded jeans, well-worn rain boots and my fiance's cast-off winter jacket -- I realized that I could be geared up for many places. Dressed for muck, and with a bottle of Guinness in my hand, I looked every bit the Scots-Irish girl that my genealogy chart would present. I could be in my mother's family's native County Quinn, or I could be on a horse farm in my beloved Central Kentucky, or I could be dressed for countless outdoorsy places other than my parents' Eastern Kentucky home, where I'm visiting for a few days. In fact, the beer made my hometown less likely, as I'm from the kind of town where any alcohol is suspect, let alone a lady drinking on a weeknight. 

Max explores a creek,.

I've always had a complicated relationship with my Appalachian heritage. Now, I find that most people I know tend to fully embrace or summarily reject their mountain roots. Neither path has ever felt quite right for me, though. There are certainly times when I wonder what it would have been like if I'd spent my formative years on the Upper East Side, or in a subdivision, or dozens of other places. There are other times when I'm overcome by the beauty of the place where I was raised -- times when it seems that I am really seeing a creek or a tree for the very first time. Most of the time, though, I've come to realize that I was born to that particular little plot of earth not by fortune -- be it good or bad -- but sheerly by fate. It's not something I love or hate; it simply just is. 

My grandparents, father and aunt, Easter 1957.

I've recently undertaken the archiving of my father's family's photographs. As eight decades of Watsons have come to life from yellowed, often-crumbling photos, the Appalachian landscape has emerged alongside them. Rocky hills in the background. Farmhouses. Tall, majestic pine trees and their scrub brethren. As central a character to our family history as any ancestor. 

I grew up here.
 Maybe that very familiarity has led to the complexities in my relationship with my homeland. Perhaps that is why I feel perfectly entitled to cringe a little when James Still's lost manuscript is reviewed in the Oxford American (I've always secretly considered Still's work to be the worst form of hillbilly-gothic). Maybe it is akin to a familial relationship. And, like most complex family relationships, maybe that is why I can be completely flummoxed by "the way we do things around here", then nearly moved to tears by the beauty of the rocky stream at the back of my parents' land only minutes later. The trite old saying goes that you don't pick your family. And, in a very real way, for good or for ill, I suppose that don't pick your homeland either.

Kentucky Places: The Lake

Not Kentucky Lake. Not Barkley Lake. Not even Land Between the Lakes.

Every summer my family goes to just "The Lake."

Going to The Lake for my mother meant spending her childhood at my great-grandparents' lake house. She and my father married on their sloping lawn in a simple ceremony during the heat of summer. My childhood memories weren't experienced from the shore but on the water itself. Every Fourth of July was celebrated on my great-uncle's house boat The Paper Doll. The waves would rock us back and forth until I could feel them laying in bed that same evening back on solid ground.

The house boat is long gone. Now, my family's headquarters is back on the shore. My grandmother and great-aunt and uncle have built another lake house. Again, just "the lake house" where we spend every major holiday until the house is shuttered up for the winter. We have a pontoon boat and spend the summer jumping off the rock quarry or docked on one of the small sandy beaches. We spend the evenings on the deck eating (and eating and eating), talking, or playing games.

My own children will now have memories of The Lake. (After being told we were going to Meema's lake house, he now just calls it "Meema's Lake.") I took a group of friends to the lake house for one weekend this summer. Between us, we had six kids ranging in ages from 4 months to 6 years. They spent all day swimming, riding on the boat, hunting frogs. One described it as the best day of his life. Another asked his mother if God would let him live there in heaven.

The Lake has that effect on people.

State Lines (or, I'm a Regional Stereotyper)

I love getting my fellow Her Kentucky contributor Sarah Holland all riled up, y'all.  I may not always agree with her, but Good Lord, she always makes me think.

Sarah's recent blog entries, in response to my musings on Appalachia and in defense of the oft-ignored WKY, were no exception. As I read Sarah's insight that "I'm not from that part of Kentucky" is an easy mindset for so many Central and Western Kentuckians, I cringed a little.  I've seen that attitude a million times, and I've often assumed that people were thinking it,  but I've never really read it put forth so nakedly.  It stung for a second*, even though that view was put forth in a passionate essay about solidarity and love of the Bluegrass State.  And then, it hit me.  I'm just as guilty of this kind of segmented thought.

Northern Kentucky is basically Cincinnati.  I really only stop there to use the restroom or hit up the Florence Y'all on my way to a ball game or a concert.  I know some good folks from that area, but they're pretty much Cincinnatians anyway.   Now, do we have time to go to Tiffany's between dinner and the show?

People from Southern/South Central Kentucky drink Ski and listen to the Kentucky Headhunters, right?  And I think they have a lot of Catholic yard art...

Live in the East End of Louisville if you want to avoid the U of L fans. 

Western Kentuckians make that weird mutton barbecue.  And they sure do get out the vote for Ed Whitfield.

At some point in my life I have participated in all of those conversations.  They were good-spirited and joking.  They weren't intended to be critical or hurtful.  They were just off-handed observations.  And yet, they kind of were stereotypes.  Not in the methhead, hillbilly vein.  But a broad and overreaching means of describing people nonetheless.  Some of it was shorthand, based on the folks I've known from those areas.  Some of it was based on my very limited personal experience with these areas.  And some of it was meant solely in jest.  But it's also a reminder that I need to keep a little perspective when all Appalachian Kentuckians are lumped together.  Sometimes, it is an act of overt derision.  Sometimes, it's out of limited information.  And sometimes, it's nothing more than an unthinking joke. 

How about y'all? What are your experiences with Kentucky stereotypes?  Anybody want to meet up in NKY and have an afternoon at Tiffany's?

*Sarah sent me the most gracious string of emails regarding this project, and could not have been more thoughtful and lovely about the entire endeavor. No Interwebz drama here, y'all.