During a health fair in the 70s, I stayed with a couple in Elgin, Tenn.: Reba and Bud Smithers. Another health fair worker, Angela, stayed with me at their home. A few experiences with this couple left me with strong impressions. As I recall, when the couple were together, he led much of the conversation; she was soft-spoken. When I was alone with Reba, she opened up more. Life had not been easy for them; one had lost their first spouse to TB; the other in divorce. One child had died in a drowning accident.
This couple was proud of their new home which they had built themselves. They had worked side by side, saving dollar after dollar. He worked with a lumber mill; she in a sewing factory. The rectangular house was one story; it may have had about five rooms. The front room was the large living room with the TV. The kitchen was toward the back of the house. The couple had their bedroom; a teen-aged son had his. Because a teenaged daughter had married and moved away, a room was available for us.
Also, this couple was full of humility. They were open about not having had guests before; they doubted that what they offered us was “good enough”. At one point, Bud apologized to us in case they had said or done something wrong or to offend us – which in my view, was totally unnecessary to say! Near the end of our stay, Bud repeatedly invited us to come back again. Yet Reba gently added, “Perhaps they want to go somewhere else…”
A story that stands out for me was one that Reba shared when Bud was not around. Reba showed me the daughter’s wedding picture with a mixture of emotions. When the daughter married at 17 and left home, she had not yet come back to visit for several months. Fond of his daughter, Bud was deeply hurt that she had moved away. As we left their home for another health fair, Bud shared that we had brought to their home some of the joy that had left with his daughter.
While staying with the Smithers, I had admired a healthy plant of Reba’s – one that had grown up and over things, such as pictures and door frames. Before I left, she asked if I wanted a cutting. Being one who liked houseplants, I said “Sure!” — never thinking of what I would do with it while we travelled.
Because I viewed Reba as the strong, quiet type, I imagined her to be resilient through life’s struggles. Because of their strengths, I viewed Bud and Reba as exemplars of good, working class people; the so called “salt of the earth”.
To reflect on the meanings of this visit with this couple, I share that I had read “Night comes to the Cumberlands” prior to the health fairs. I appreciated the frequent pattern of children leaving their Appalachian homes and not coming back for long periods of time — or not at all. I think I viewed their daughter as “the one who moved away”. For some reason, I deeply felt this couple’s sorrow over her leaving. Perhaps they had projected their other losses onto her. Perhaps they had projected their daughter onto us. Perhaps I projected the collective sorrow of other lonely Appalachian parents onto them.
Reba’s cutting from her plant survived in a Coke bottle for a few weeks. Then I look a long road trip. A young man and I took this spontaneous trip from Tennessee to Pennsylvania for the 4th of July weekend. It was the kind of trip one does readily when one is young and has lots of energy. I handed the cutting over to my dad and asked him to take care of it. He appreciated plants, having grown up with a Victory garden in the foothills of Appalachians in Pennsylvania. With his care, the cutting grew into a healthy plant, named Reba. Reba, or her descendants, has moved with me numerous times and is still with me today. I have since learned that it’s a Pothos plant. Although it has preferences for living conditions, it can be relatively hearty and survive unfavorable conditions.
At the start of the stay-at-home orders with COVID-19, I went to my office to rescue the oldest Reba I had. It was over 12 feet long, having sent runners out in at least two directions. During the pandemic, I made several new cuttings and rooted them in water. Months later, I put these cuttings in soil and repotted other Reba descendants. Although I did not have the best soil for this task, I suspect the five or so plants will make it. Assuming they make it, you are welcome to a cutting from Resilient Reba’s descendants.