“What It Takes” by Karen McElmurray
Recently, I was part of a panel discussion on strong women called “Kiss My Grits: On the Badass in Appalachian Literature.” It was easy to think of any number of strong women who are badass in the books I love most from the mountains. Gertie Nevel in Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker came to mind first, followed closely by other strong women characters like Carrie Marie Mullins in Mary Ann Taylor Hall’s Come and Go Molly Snow, Serena Pemberton in Ron Rash’s Serena, or most recently, Dawn Jewell in Robert Gipe’s Trampoline. But as days passed and I thought more and more about what I’d say about strong women characters based on the place I’m from, it was the word “badass” that tripped me up again and again and I did the thing I encourage my writing students not to do. I went to look up that word in the dictionary.
I told myself I was being really hip by choosing a funny, badass even, dictionary that would give me a fun spin on our topic—Urbandictionary.com. This what I found. Badass. The epitome of the American Woman. She radiates confidence in everything she does, whether it’s ordering a drink, buying a set of wheels, or dealing with men. She’s slow to anger, brutally efficient when fighting back. The badass. She carves her own path. She wears, drives, drinks, watches, and listens to what she chooses, when she chooses, where she chooses, uninfluenced by fads or advertising campaigns. Badass. A style that is understated but instantly recognizable. Like a chopped Harley or a good pair of sunglasses. Badass. Simple, direct, and functional.
This definition made me flinch, not because I don’t like the idea of confidence and radiating it on my own chosen path in life while sporting leather pants and a nice dew rag, but some of the other language? Brutally efficient. Simple. Direct. Functional even. Sounds too much like Biker Barbie for me. So I went back to the drawing board, Wikipedia this time, and found a shorter definition. Badass. Tough, uncompromising, intimidating. I liked that one a little better. There was something called The Free Dictionary, which described a tough or aggressive person. The meanest badass in town. A badass rock band. A real badass watch. And Merriam Webster, the one I always had my students avoid? Badass. Ready to cause or get into trouble. Mean. Pretending to be a badass gunslinger. Of formidable strength or skill.
Strength was at least something I could get my teeth around, the self I had always wanted most, and above all the definition I could lay hands on when it came to some of the women I grew up around. My great-aunt Della, my mother’s aunt, fixed brakes, changed oil, fried eggs, paid the bills. It was the 1960’s. When I was little we’d drive home to Eastern Kentucky and sit in the booths at Della’s place, a service station and diner called the Black Cat. A photograph I have of the diner is of a shelf full of cartons of Winstons and Salems with my great-grandmother seated at a booth. That great grandmother, Beck, lived in a room off that diner until she passed. Della. Her sun-browned face and her sad, fierce eyes. Della, they said, was odd-turned. Contrary. I’ve written stories about her, her big hands, black-streaked and strong from the hard work they did. I imagine her reaching down into some vat of soaking spark plugs, some geography of wires and hoses. Later, when I learned to gap plugs and change my Dodge Dart’s oil, I thanked my memories of Della. She was strong enough to run a business, skilled enough to manage a garage and a restaurant. Strong enough to lock the doors when my uncle Russell came home drunk. He fell asleep one winter night with his truck’s engine running and they found him dead of carbon monoxide fumes that early morning.
I remember other strong, skilled women in my family. There was Rita Wallen, a cousin and niece of Della’s, from up toward Pikeville. I didn’t spend much time with Rita when I was growing up, but she was someone I heard a lot of stories about. Rita, they said, had book smarts. She did good in high school, even better in college, went on to some school up north and became, so the family said, a Big Lawyer, though she didn’t come back home much over the years afterwards. Another woman of strength and, they said, dubious skills, was Betty, my Uncle Roy’s first wife. Roy and Betty lived in a brick house he built down in the bottom land below my grandparent’s house, and they raised a garden, had a little girl, but Betty hankered after something she didn’t have. They said it was more of this, more of that, a new couch, a sip of whiskey on the sly, but the Betty I remember styled her hair in a frosted shag. She bought shiny white go-go boots and took off for Ohio in the middle of the night, became a dancer in a juke joint and never came back again.
I could go on all day remembering other women I grew up around who fit the definition of badass as someone strong and also ready to cause trouble or get into it or maybe just survive it. I could tell you about a great grandmother who smoked a pipe and survived two husbands, one killed by, so the stories go, a Floyd county gunslinger. I could tell you about a grandmother who hoed an acre big garden, an aunt who worked triple shifts at the Double Kwik to take care of her family, a cousin who drove an hour a day there and back to go to community college to become a social worker. All those stories of perseverance and strength and, okay, badassery. But the more I thought about definitions, the more I kept coming back to something quieter, another word in our panel description. Unseen. Invisible, even. The kind of strength you see if you look at the eyes, at the palms of the hands. The kind of strength you see in the ripped and mended places in the spirit. That kind of badass.
There is a phrase that comes to me again and again about certain women I have known, been friends with, kin to, akin to, is something like this. She is, I will think to myself, someone who someone has done something to. That’s a terrible thing to know in your gut when you meet or spend time with someone. There’s the cousin I’ll call Kristine, the one who had her first baby when she was sixteen, and everyone knew Kristine’s child belonged to her own daddy, who ended up in prison for statutory rape. You know she had to do something to bring that on her own self, my own grandmother said, and I bit my tongue to hold back from saying something, saying, look at her, just look. Look how she had that baby, and then walked on from there, went back to school, became a hairdresser, had other babies. I wish I could tell you more about her life, but I only know that when I see her, her eyes are steady, her voice one of the calmest I have known. There’s my cousin Jenny, dead now, but her story too is one I walk around with. Jenny, weighing in at three hundred pounds, then down to one fifty, back up again so big that time she had to ride a motor cart when she went to Walmart to buy her packs of powdered sugar donuts, the ones she loved so much. Her mother, my aunt, schizophrenic, living in a home for the disabled, the differently abled as they say it now. Her daughter, Michaela, wild as a hare, bipolared out, dead at twenty, a suicide. But Jenny picked up, packed up, moved to Cincinnati. Is that running away? Is that strength? To leave behind a state, a county line, a town, a house, to move somewhere where the streets were clean and clear, unhistoried, there to find love, watch it settle in her own two hands, even if her body gave out, that last time, when the weight came back and her face blossomed, that time with happiness.
A couple years ago, when I was teaching in a low residency program in Western Kentucky, a colleague and I were talking about memoir. I had just quoted, in a talk, a favorite author of mine, Dorothy Allison, who said this: “I believe the secret of writing is that it never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best writing comes from the place where our terror hides. Until I was writing about exactly the things I was most afraid of and unsure about, I wasn’t writing worth a damn.” My colleague, a novelist, as we chatted that evening over wine, said that she, too, likes memoir, but she called such works “narratives of victimhood.” Maybe this is a matter of semantics, but as you know from my experiences with definitions, I took this definition on too. Victimhood. Narratives. Of. Stories of victims. Victim. A person who has been attacked, injured, robbed, or killed by someone else. A person who is cheated or fooled by someone or something. One that is harmed by an unpleasant event. Well, all of that is true. Kristine. Jenny. Michaela. All of them harmed, injured, robbed even. Still, I do not like the words in my mouth. Narratives of victimhood. I prefer, I find, to come back to our original word for this panel. Badass.
Sunday mornings I often read the latest issue of Brain Pickings Weekly. A few weeks back I read a piece by a woman named Caroline Paul, from her book called The Gutsy Girl: A Modern Manifesto for Bravery, Perseverance, and Breaking the Tyranny of Perfection. Caroline Paul takes on the idea that one must be perfect and error-proof in every way in order to live a daring and courageous life. She talks about her many missteps in her own life, and she assures her readers over and over that owning up to mistakes isn’t an attrition of one’s courage but an essential building. I quote, “After all, the fear of humiliation is perhaps what undergirds all fear, and in our culture of stubborn self-righteousness there are few things we resist more staunchly, to the detriment of our own growth, than looking foolish for being wrong. The courageous, Paul reminds us, trip and fall, often in public, but get right back up and leap again.”
The courageous, to me, don’t just trip and fall. They have gotten back up and walked on. They are not victims, but keen and strong survivors. They are vulnerable. We see their experiences, an almost map on their skin, a sometimes weary fire in their eyes, a keening undercurrent in a voice in an empty room, a voice in a car down a road heading out, a voice on a page. In the end, that to me is the definition of badass. Courage, hidden, invisible maybe, but sharp as a blade, a fine-honed bone feather, a will not just to survive, but to live. Those are the women I long to read about, write about and, most importantly the kind of woman I want to become.
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Karen McElmurray Artist Statement:
Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Her novels are The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick by Oxford American, and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Her essay, “Strange Tongues,” was the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award from The Bellingham Review. With poet Adrian Blevins, she has co-edited a collection of essays from Ohio University Press, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia.