Many birds migrate along flyways every year, heading north or south. It is amazing to watch them gather their numbers together, then set out in formation – some in a V, and others in a swarm.
Yet there is some internal alarm that alerts them when it is time to return to their home. Adult sea turtles migrate to beaches to breed; the baby turtles then leave, migrating into the sea.
People can be creatures of migration also. Here in Southeastern Kentucky, many families migrated to northern cities when there was a pause in coal production. My Uncle Carl grew up in a coal mining camp in Kodak, Kentucky – a rock’s roll from Vicco. His Dad and his brother, Ralph, chose to work as miners.
But Uncle Carl chose to migrate north to Cleveland, Ohio, to become a city man. He converted right nice. For years he worked for The May Company department store located downtown on Public Square.
When, in 1980, my journey landed me in Cleveland, I visited my uncle. He was living on the east side, not too far from downtown Cleveland, in the second story of a two-family house in a seedy-looking neighborhood. I remember walking up the steps leading to his back door and knocking briskly. After waiting a few minutes, I heard the “click, click, click” sound of at least 10 locks being released from the top of the door to the floor.
Now, why would anyone need that many locks on their door? Back home, I often sat in my living room with the door wide open admiring the trees and hills all day long. No need to worry about unwelcome intruders.
Uncle Carl welcomed me into his humble abode. It was immaculately kept. He was always a neat man, and his apartment reflected who he was. It’s why he chose to work in the pristine atmosphere on one of the top floors of the men’s department at The May Company instead of underground in the dark, sooty mine in Kodak. His choice.
And then he began to lecture me about how to stay safe in the city.
“Never accept rides from strangers.”
“Always leave a light burning in the house when out at night.”
“Never sit in the back of the bus.”
“Hold on to your pocketbook, especially during Christmastime.”
“Be careful when standing on corners waiting for the bus; there are all kinds of weird people who frequent corners.”
I caught the bus downtown to begin my exploration of city life, beginning with Public Square – the center attraction of downtown Cleveland. This is where people gathered to wait on buses and for trains to come and go in the Terminal Tower. The Soldier’s and Sailors’ Monument also graced a quadrant of Public Square and was a popular place to feed the pigeons.
I was admiring the architecture of the tall buildings when I was suddenly caught in the rush of hundreds of people pouring out of the buildings at the end of the workday. I felt paralyzed with fear as if I was standing in front of a herd of buffalo heading straight at me. I searched my bodily limbs and purse; everything was intact.
Oftentimes, poetry is birthed from such traumatic experiences. I am the mother of many children, including this poem:
I AM HERE
I am here
Crowded cracked walks
Filled with stone people at 5 pm
Spilling into concrete streets
That are too hot to walk
Barefoot on in the summer.
My favorite place to hang out in Cleveland was the Ninth Street Pier. I felt a connection to the lake – the sounds of the water smacking the rocks, the cries of the seagulls, the wind that wrapped around me like a salty shawl. Traumatic events are not the only triggers that sent me into labor; the mystery and awe of God’s creation also causes me travail until poetry is birthed.
LAKE ERIE IMPRESSIONS
You called, I came
I half expected to see God
Walking across your back to greet me
Seagulls float on your back like merchant vessels
Sailing to Venice.
I should be eating lobster while sitting here in
Captain Franks’ House of Seafood
I imagine surly bearded sailors
With wooden legs and hooks for hands
Sauntering in smelling of the sea
Telling tales of pirate raids
And treasures buried or found
But I forget, you are only a lake
And I am drinking coffee, not eating lobster.
So powerful and immense you lie in your bed
Inviting virgin vessels to cross and explore your waters
That lap at the feet of rocks like thirsty dogs
At a dessert oasis spring
You were rough with Labradoc
You tossed her on your wet back
And whipped her with hurricane winds
She floundered, broken and beaten
And you laughed in your bed
You promised me seagulls if I came to visit
They seemed to stay away
Huddled within the cracks
Of distant craggy rocks
Instead you gave me
Wet drizzle and gray skies
That made your horizon
There is something about the concepts of place and home. There’s that internal compass that points to and draws you back to your roots, back to the place you started.
The first year I was in Cleveland, I attended a “reunion” meeting of the Eastern Kentucky Social Club. They were men and women who once lived in Harlan County, Kentucky, but had migrated – taking different flyways to northern cities. Once a year, a different city would become the place where families and friends would gather to reminisce.
As a matter of fact, Cleveland was the birthplace of the East Kentucky Social Club in 1969 when two transplants from the mountains began to miss their family and friends from the coal town of Lynch, Kentucky. They organized, and soon there were chapters joined together by webs stretching from the east coast to the west coast, in the north and in the south.
Most never returned home to Southeast Kentucky. They instead found home in their shared history, in their coming together and connection to the mountains.
Uncle Carl eventually retired from The May Company and returned to the mountains. He had always expressed his wish to be cremated and have his ashes sprinkled over Kodak when he died.
However, the coal camp where he spent his childhood years no longer resembled home. The coal company had backed water up in the head of the holler to wash coal, burying the cemetery where his child lay in a watery grave. Instead, Hazard became my uncle’s home.
If the saying, “home is where the heart is” is true, the mountains of Southeast Kentucky will always be home to me.
The poems “I Am Here” and “Lake Erie Impressions” first appeared in Emily Jones Hudson’s book “Soul Miner: A Collection of Poetry and Prose.”