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Politically Incorrect

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Politically Incorrect

An apology to my mother


Another August has come and gone like the lighting that flashes during hot summer nights. The wolf spiders have again attempted to take over residence of my front porch, and Dustin and Gail have brought death and destruction to them on behalf of my sanity. I found myself wondering this year whether they have a communal memory of me that tells each new spider, “Hey, bungee jump off the roof right in front of her head. She totally freaks out; it’s hilarious!” Please don’t write to me about how beneficial spiders are; the ones at my house have earned their deaths.

Festival and Fair have come and gone and taught me yet again that I am much too old to stay up past 9 pm. 

My mother called me at the Festival right around 10 pm on Michael Franti night. I didn’t hear the phone, but a few minutes later saw that I had missed a call from her. I found a tarp in the back of the information booth to hide under in an attempt to hear what she said when I returned her call: at ten o’clock at night, I was afraid she had called to tell me she’d had a heart attack, and she would have lived if I had only answered the phone and gotten help to her. (I’ve said it before: I’m not an optimist.)

No heart attack, though she might have wanted to induce one in me. Mother had just gotten around to reading my column in the then-current issue of the River Journal and was incensed that I had called her a hillbilly. “I’m not a hillbilly!” she (almost) yelled at me. “I’m a Texan!” So there. She’s not a hillbilly, she’s a Texan. Retraction duly printed.

And she’s right. Mom is not a hillbilly, at least not as the dictionary defines the term. A hillbilly, according to Wikipedia, “is a term referring to people who dwell in rural, mountainous areas of the United States, primarily Appalachia.” Given that mother’s family, for the last 170-plus years, lived in parts of Texas that most certainly were not mountainous, and many times were not even remote, hillbilly is a misnomer.

Of course, Wikipedia expands the definition by defining “the ‘classic’ hillbilly stereotype—the poor, ignorant, feuding family with a huge brood of children tending the family moonshine still...” which brings us a little closer to my roots. We were certainly poor, most certainly NOT ignorant, seemed to have a lot of feuds, didn’t really have huge broods of children (my great-grandmother had three, my grandmother one, and my mother five), but my daddy certainly had an acquaintance with moonshine.

My mother’s dislike of being characterized a hillbilly, of course, has nothing to do with definitions and everything to do with the perjorative connotation it’s had for much of her lifetime. Hillbilly, to her, is a slur.

It’s not to me, probably because I didn’t grow up in a culture where the term was flung in my face to cut me down to size but also, I think, because I am very proud of my family and what they accomplished, despite there being some ‘hillbilly’ aspects to their history.

On both sides of my family, my ancestors were pioneers. They were the advance scouts of this nation’s love affair with “Manifest Destiny;” my family’s history is a snapshot of the questing spirit that filled this country’s borders from sea to sea. My ancestors were courageous, confident explorers who were always ready to do whatever they needed in order to make a better life.

Mother’s family arrived in Texas in the early to mid-1800s, and the state is littered with historical markers recognizing the achievements of various members of her family, like Robert Stadler Graves (her fourth great-grand uncle), Robert McGrady (great-great grand uncle), and Henry Clay Newberry (her great-great grandfather).

Mom’s great-grandfather was a Texas politician and her grandfather was the town photographer (and mailman). Her father was the grand master of the local Masonic lodge. The point being, she’s not a hillbilly.

Mom herself was born just a year prior to the Great Depression and she remembers her grandmother, Big Mama, taking paper out of the garbage cans at the post office in order to write letters on the back of it to her son who was serving in World War II. This was less about being poor, however, than about being thrifty, at least according to the family stories.

In a picture taken of my mother in school, she is one of only three children wearing shoes. Mom, let me say it again, was not a hillbilly.

She did, however, marry beneath her; after all, she never said a word about me characterizing my father as a hillbilly!

Dad’s family, of course, were also pioneers, this time in Tennessee. They arrived in the western part of the state right around the time is was opened up for settlement. Many of his family were also “high mucky mucks” in the area, though it seems like my dad’s father, a barrel maker, never quite lived up to the family potential.

My father’s story is a fascinating one, and too complex to tell here, but what I can say is that whatever he accomplished in life, he did on his own. Much like his ancestors before him, my father was confident that a better life could be had and he went wherever he had to to make that happen.

But he started out poor; he started out barefoot. I wouldn’t go so far as to call his family ignorant, but I don’t think any of them held a college degree. Not that you would have guessed that, had you known my dad. He was almost totally self-educated, and most people who knew him assumed he had some kind of high-falutin’ degree. He loved that.

And that’s probably why I call myself a hillbilly; sometimes I think the best parts of my roots can be found in the life that’s buried in that word. But my mom is not a hillbilly—she’s a Texan. And don’t you forget it! (I certainly won’t.)


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Landon Otis

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Family, genealogy, Texas, Mom, hillbilly, Tennessee, pioneers

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