The wedding is held inside a small Mennonite church shielded by mountains so thick and lush that it feels as though the sun is a mere passing stranger.
Two things come to mind as I gather up my family. One is that hunting season isn’t far off, evidenced by the slight chill in the air and the gunfire off the high ridges. The other is that there is apt to be no farming going on this afternoon, at least not close by, because all the farmers are here.
One whole side of the parking lot is occupied by trucks stained with dirt and mud and manure. An old Ford is parked near the doors, its bed stuffed with apples fresh off the trees and ready to market. Men gather beneath a narrow wedge of porch. They wear jeans not long plucked from the clotheslines where they had been pinned to dry and Sunday shirts, ones with snaps rather than buttons. Talk is low and slow and centered upon the goings on of the mountains rather than the wider world, one being a place of silences and mysteries that enchant, while the other is by their judgment becoming a thing near unrecognizable with each passing day.
Children skitter. Women pass in plain dresses offering waves and hugs and pecks on the cheek.
The bride stands in a patch of grass down below the church.
Her hands hold a bouquet of wildflowers that may well have been plucked and gathered from the banks of the quiet stream beside her, where there runs water so fresh and clean that it could be bottled straight and sold to rich folk. She smiles at the camera pointed at her, and in that grin is the promise of long years ahead.
Inside the church, the groom waits at the first pew. Those who will stand with him lean and talk. All are dressed in their finest Wrangler jeans, many of which possess a light, almost white-colored ring at the back pocket where a can of snuff usually rests. Country music drifts through speakers. Bluegrass. Songs of love and loving and the difference between.
The flower girl comes down the aisle in an old wooden wagon pulled by the ring bearer, each knee-high and grinning. The bride appears. We stand. The ceremony itself is of the simple kind, as all good ones are: a brief sermon, a long prayer, an exchange of rings that ends with a kiss and a series of whoops from the back. And I feel joy here. Much joy.
Afterwards we all move to a nearby barn where the reception is held, a wide and clean space decorated with strings of lights that will adorn future Christmas trees. The air is heavy with the smells of barbequed chicken and fresh biscuits. On the opposite end, the doors are opened to a wide pasture filled with hills and cows. The new couple enters to more cheers (and more whoops from those thinking of the wedding night). Farmers talk. Children play. Women—quite a few—gather in the center of the barn. They hike their dresses and kick away their shoes, high-stepping as “Rocky Top” blares from some hidden place.
And me, friend? I sit in a small corner of this barn, gaping at all this food and music, these smiling faces, and what I think is this: these are my people, kin by blood or marriage or just plain time. Folk of the hills and hollers who live out their lives now in much the same way as was done a hundred years ago, a season and a prayer at time.
In some ways my people are enjoying a brief moment in the spotlight, courtesy of an upcoming election based in no small part upon their perceived anger.
All those talking heads are right on that point. The whole lower class in this country—and in Appalachia particularly—are ticked off indeed. They are tired of being mocked because they are poor, and they are tired of being ignored because they are the wrong color poor.
But aside from this, I find my people are not overly enthused about politics—part of that wider, unrecognizable world. I’ve heard only one mention of the election in all my time among the mountains today, this from an old man who sighed in a heavy way and said, “Don’t make a damn which one gone win, we’ll get a rich Yankee Democrat either way.”
Maybe that’s so.
I’ve no doubt that come November 9, most interest in my people’s problems will fade.
The cameras and lights that have been turned to their hardships will go out. The stories of an epidemic of suicide and drug abuse will go unwritten. A people proud and self-sustaining—the sort of folk you would pray to have close when everything goes to hell—will fade once more into the lonely places that both bless and curse them. That is a sad thing to say, but it is expected. We’ve reached a point now as a country where everything is political, the downtrodden most of all.
And yet I take some small comfort in the fact that life will go on here in the simple way it always has, connected to soil and tress and unspoiled fields tended by those who understand what it is to hurt and love and gain and lose. Even here, here especially, there is joy.