Kentucky

Mary Berry and What She Expects From Her Father


“It is hard to imagine now that until coming back to live permanently in Henry County in 1964 we had lived in Europe, California and New York City, with stays in Kentucky between those moves. We moved to Lanes Landing, where my parents live now, when I was 7 and my brother, Den, was 3. . .

Daddy was encouraged to seek his fame and fortune elsewhere; in fact, he was told that coming home would ruin his career. I don’t have to imagine, however, the great happiness that was his when he knew that he could come home because I experienced that. When I was away at school, for instance, I don’t think anyone was thinking that I was blowing a shot at a brilliant career by returning home. Coming home was not encouraged by any influential person in my life except my family. And this is where my unending debt begins in my heart and in my memory. . .

I was asked once what it was like to be a Berry child. I answered that it was fine except for the constant humiliation. I believe that I went along with my father’s plans for us very agreeably until I was 12 or 13, the age when I think many children realize that their parents need guidance.

Daddy had come home to live and farm. He bought a rocky hillside farm overlooking the Kentucky River. He and my mother have added some acreage over the years and the place has been their home and their fascination ever since. . .

I went right along with all of this until I was old enough to have a reputation to protect. That coincided with the addition of a composting privy to the rest of an ever-more-embarrassing way of life.

Unfortunately for me, my father didn’t understand at all that he should. . .never mention the composting privy to a journalist. I was in a difficult predicament. I never really thought that my father was wrong about anything. In fact, the reasons for the things we did at home were talked about all of the time, and I understood and even honored those reasons. But, to have details about your composting privy reported in the Louisville Courier-Journal was just too much to be borne. . .

The very public privy opened the floodgates and suddenly I knew how abused I was: no television, no junk food, no trips to amusement parks, and I had to WORK outside in the dirt. And, my father was always protesting something: wars, dams, strip-mining, airports, etc.

Well, to make a long story short, I expect that by the time I left for college there must have been a general sigh of relief. Some of the freshman English classes at the college I attended were reading The Memory of Old Jack, a novel written by my father. I had not read it before I left home. In fact, I had read almost nothing of Daddy’s by then. He read things to us that he was working on and I guess I thought that was plenty. I suppose I experienced positive peer pressure at school because girls in my dorm were reading The Memory of Old Jack. So I read The Memory of Old Jack, myself. That book gave me back my home and it gave me the chance to make amends with my father and then to find out that no amends were necessary. . .

A heartbreaking part of Old Jack’s story is his estrangement from his daughter Clara, who, like me, had wanted something else, something better. I called my father when I finished the book and asked, “Am I Clara?” I remember being reassured by the phone call. I still have the letter he wrote me a few days after we talked. He said that he was moved by my question and told me that of course I was not Clara. The letter is long and beautiful and I treasure it because of its kindness, its good sense, its understanding of a flawed young girl. . .

Trouble has come to me in my life as it does to all and I have made mistakes. The gift that my father gave me so many years ago was the knowledge that I live in his love, and if forgiveness is needed it has already been given. What greater gift could a parent give a child? Daddy has kept alive in my head — even in the worst of times and in the face of awful news — that if we actively choose it over and over everyday, we can indeed live in the world of affection and membership that he honors in his life and his stories.”

 

– Mary Berry-Smith, from Wendell And Me, published in the May/June 2013 issue of Edible Louisville Magazine (emphasis mine).

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I find so many details about this story life-giving, but the real solidifying agent for my respect of Wendell Berry is that his child knows and can articulate why she respects him so greatly as to devote her adult life and the family she started to following in his footsteps. Many great leaders of men have inspired the masses while leaving wreckage at home, but those devoted eternally to their families carry a certain weight that should not be overlooked.

As a parent myself, the greatest impact of this story is the fact that above all else in their relationship, Berry’s daughter has been moved by a realization that she has always existed in her father’s love, affection, and forgiveness. She came to realize that, whether she knew it or not, he cherished her, delighted in her personality, and was always ready to pardoned her missteps.

Things like obedience are valuable. Social skills and a drive to learn are developmentally key. But after about 18 years, obedience becomes completely obsolete in the parenting relationship. Social skills and learning generally fall out of our influence range. So when my daughter it 25 or 30, what is my deepest desire for our relationship? The answer is intimacy.

More than I want my daughters to make great decisions and live to the fullest, I want them to know that any failures or tragedies that befall them can be safely confided in me, without any negative repercussions. The deepest, underpinning goal is that the relationship may always be authentic, open, and capable of enduring all things.

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From the text of The Memory Of Old Jack.

“In all their minds his voice lies beneath a silence. And in the hush of it they are aware of something that passed from them and now returns: his stubborn biding with them to the end, his keeping of faith with them who would live after him, and what perhaps none of them has yet thought to call his gentleness, his long gentleness toward them and toward this place where they are at work, they know that his memory holds them in common knowledge and common loss, the like of him will not soon live again in this world, and they will not forget him.”

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Author Quotes: Guy Davenport On Tolkien’s Bluegrass Shire


“The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien’s. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.

‘Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good names like that.’

And out of the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbit’s pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality. . .Kentucky, seems, contributed its share.”

– Guy Davenport, essay excerpt from The Geography Of The Imagination

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While enlightening, this revealing little excerpt may not be as interesting to non-Kentuckians. I am myself of Bluegrass stock and, having lived away for a few years now, I am continuing to see my appreciation of the simple green nooks of the Ohio River Valley snowball with every continuing season. This little tidbit makes me almost as excited about Kentucky as having Wendell Berry among our numbers.

It has been argued that Davenport stretches this Kentucky idea and perhaps Tolkien did not often reconsider his stories from Barnett in the writing of The Hobbit. It does seem unlikely that Barnett would know nothing of Tolkien’s success and yet trump up these recollections, so I would assume that either he knew more of Tolkien’s works than he let on or Davenport stretched the truth in his retelling their conversation. If neither of these is true, it does seem hard to see no connection whatsoever between Barnett’s recollections and Tolkien’s writing.

The truth of the matter is that I am a quarter Irish and a quarter I-Don’t-Know, both from Cincinnati, Ohio. The other half in me is Appalachian. With family names like Ball, Hensley, and Phillips; its safe to guess that most of those ancestors started out on rolling English hills before the uprooted to rolling Kentucky hills. The reason Tolkien would have been fascinated by Kentucky would be that it reminded him of the rural English countryside of his youth. It was the land rooted-ness, the folk-ishness underlying these similar peoples, that obviously and undeniably fascinated him.

The hill people with their limited outside knowledge and unique local customs were at the heart of Tolkien’s most popular myths. For years, he created a fantastic world of higher orders of beings warring for pure good and evil. Then, almost accidentally, he stuck in an entire race Hobbits; the Kentucky-rural, English bumpkins who didn’t know there were other lands with which to be concerned.

Realizing this, I can’t help but feel proud, then insulted, then honored. Proud to be associated with a culture that Tolkien found fascinating. Insulted to see how backwards and ignorant he (accurately?) paints such cultures. Ultimately, its an honor to realize that The Lord Of The Rings really points out that simple people can continually surprise you with their bravery and willingness to fight for good.

If you understand Tolkien, you begin to realize that he cherished the idea of localized, slow-growth cultures. He was fearful of the impending washout of all cultures to one, because he valued the traditions and heritage of all peoples, and the truth, beauty, and courage that can be built upon and passed down by every Father.

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I will leave you with this interesting bit from Davenport’s essay. He met Hugo Dyson, the loudest of the Inklings and class clown of the group who stuck his foot in his mouth with everyone he met. He would often refuse to participate in meetings if his dear friend Tolkien’s fantasy manuscripts were to be read aloud.

“‘Dear Ronald,’ Dyson said, ‘Writing all those silly books with three introductions and ten appendixes. His was not a true imagination, you know: He made it all up.’ I have tried for fifteen years to figure out what Dyson meant by that remark.”