I remember a specific morning. Lilly’s face glistened as she told me, “I got baptized in the creek when I was fourteen. God came down in a cloud and said, ‘Lilly, visit the sick and the afflicted. It’s your holy mission.’” Six decades later, Lilly was losing her memory but had not forgotten her charge. Lilly Baker, a tiny and slightly stooped, seventy-six-year-old, had an oval face, dark brown eyes, fair skin, and heavy black and white eyebrows. I stayed with her when I interviewed other women in Appalachia in 1980.
Lilly came from a Eastern Kentucky coal working family of thirteen and only went through the fourth grade, but as a child, she helped her mother care for others. At fifteen, she began working with a mountain nurse, and from then on, she walked throughout the mountains and hollows where people lived. She stayed with and nursed the sick, cared for their families, and comforted their kin, serving as a midwife when necessary.
She married a coal miner and gave birth three times and cradled her “blue baby” with a heart defect in her arms until the baby died. She also cared for her husband throughout his life and death from black lung. Now her memory was going, and her surviving daughters, living in Indianapolis, were glad to have me stay with her for the week I was there.
One morning, when I was not busy, she told me she would take me to one of the afflicted. She carried a small bag of food, and we climbed up the hollow. We smelled the house before we reached it, a terrible stench of human waste and illness. The green, eight foot square house stood on titled brick stilts. Rotten debris was piled under the base, and a thin, limping gray kitten crawled among some trash.
Confused and Wary
The elderly woman Lilly took me to see leaned against the decaying doorway, holding herself against the frame with her hands. She looked like she was starving. Her skin was almost as white as her hair, and large, orange-brown freckles lay across her nose and under her eyes. She smiled at us, but her eyes looked confused and wary. A wide-eyed skinny blond boy of about nine watched us just outside the door. Lilly looked at the boy, “It’s OK. We’ve brought food and have just come visiting.”
The woman in the doorway still seemed confused to have us there, so we stood outside her house talking with the boy. He spoke brokenly about a road being built up their hollow, grabbed the kitten, which tried to crawl under the house, then held the animal awkwardly by one leg and smiled and lifted it up to us. As he did it, the emaciated woman muttered, “You got to watch the kid. He’s a little off. He don’t get things straight. Hard on cats.” She then turned slowly toward him and continued, “It’s good to have him though. He’s my company boy.
Empty Can of Peaches
It seemed as if speaking made her more at ease, and she sank away from the door, holding onto a walker, and eased down into a hard chair in the corner of her shelter. We took it as an invitation and stepped up and inside the door. I looked around and saw the old chair she was sitting on, a single bed with soiled blankets, a small wood heater, and a table with an empty can of peaches. There was no toilet inside the house, and a pan of dirty water sat against the wall. Lilly put her food on the table. “There’s enough for the boy too.” She turned to me.
Suddenly the other woman spoke. “My Lewis was a corn popper. We popped corn for carnivals. He’s gone now, I’m all alone, except for the boy.” Then she sat silently, smiling at us and nodding to our questions as she and the boy ate.
Smell of Honeysuckle
Eventually Lilly said, “We’ll say goodbye now. I’ll bring food again soon.” We left the old woman sitting quietly in the corner of the room, but the boy waved at us from the doorway. As we walked away from the door, the smell of honeysuckle replaced the scent of decay. I contacted a nun in public health and told her about the starving woman and child. She assured me that they would try to get them services. I could not do much because I was leaving town the next day, but I left some money with Lilly for food. It was before the internet, and I did not have a method to keep in close touch with the nurse. If public health did get food and care to the woman and child it would be because Lilly, even when losing her memory, acted out the basic values of her life.
Several government programs have been designed to help the vulnerable, such as Mrs. Lewis and the child. SNAP (food stamps), Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and what was called Aid to Dependent Children and is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families all have problems and are given begrudgingly, but, theoretically, they could have helped Mrs. Lewis and the boy.
I’ve thought of Lilly over the 40 years since our time together. Undoubtedly, the dynamics of her community are different. I certainly hope a woman and boy would not nearly starve so close to town. But inequality in the U.S. is even worse since that time. The top 1% share of market income rose from 9.6% in 1979 to 17.5% by 2016. In the meantime, in 2016 poverty rates in nine Eastern Kentucky counties were among the 30 highest in the nation, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Partly this is based on the sharp downturn in the coal industry, which has wiped out more than 2/3 of the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky in 2011. While it was profitable for Northeastern owners to extract Appalachian resources, it did so. Then times, profits, and policies changed, and the families and communities that had given coal their lives were left in poverty. Partly in consequence, Lilly’s community was been hit hard by the opiod epidemic.
All these decades later, I still hear Lilly’s voice and see her shining, vision-filled eyes. I am older now than she was then. I never was close before to someone who spoke quite like Lilly when she talked about her “holy mission to visit the sick and the afflicted.” But I too have felt I have a calling. Mine was to tell the stories of the women like Lilly and the Mrs. Lewis.
A year ago I had emergency surgery, nearly died, then fought for my life for 28 days. During my time in the ICU, I kept murmuring to my doctors, “You’ve got to save my life. I’m just two weeks from finishing the book I’m writing.” I too had my mission. In a way, it was like Lily was with me. It was months before I was well enough to finish my book, but, like Lily, I was dedicated to my calling, and it gave me stamina and energy. I think that during times as hard as these are now, we need to remember our basic purpose. Until we got overwhelmed, what was it we needed to do? What will give us the strength to go on?
Roles to Play
When I came back to visit a year after my time with Lilly, Mrs. Lewis’ house was gone, and Lilly had left to live with her daughters in Indiana. I still feel guilty about not doing more for Mrs. Lewis, but she and I had different roles to play in our culture’s hierarchy. At that time, one of mine was to go back to my children. I hope Lilly had a good life in Indianapolis, and I fervently hope someone helped Mrs. Lewis and the boy.