Having resided most of my life in liberal San Francisco, I have always viewed myself as a product of my surroundings. My life in this hilly city provides me with a very open and accepting view of the world, or so I believed until my husband discovered he had cousins in another hilly place, a red state region known locally as the Knobs of Kentucky, smack in the heart of Appalachia.
Most of his cousins live in one valley, a rural terrain dissected by creeks and hollers. Every September they hold a family reunion and my husband said he wanted us to go. Bubbling up from some dark place came visions of the movie Deliverance. I saw myself surrounded by inbred people sitting in shacks picking banjos and doing horrible things in the woods. But wanting to be supportive, I told myself it would at least be interesting in an anthropological sort of way. Notebook and camera in hand, I agreed to go.
It is now six years later and we have attended every reunion. Instead of taking notes and snapping photos, I mostly talk and listen. The cousins meet in a food-laden church hall the first day, and a family graveyard the next. They sing, tell stories, eat, laugh and occasionally cry. After the reunion we go to someone's house where we talk some more. My husband and I are now solidly kin and in that part of the world, kin are more precious than even the exquisite cakes and pies served at many homes.
This last September, as I sat on a cousin's porch gazing out at the hills, I chuckled at my previous vision of myself as Margaret Mead. As open minded as I thought I was, I had unconsciously embraced the myth of "the other," the view that certain people, certain places, are nothing like me and mine. As hard as this would have been for me to accept six years ago, spending time with the Appalachian cousins has shown me that the hills of San Francisco are not that far from the Knobs of Kentucky. For this, I am very grateful.
With a Perspective, I'm Carol Arnold.