Tell Us a Big One: Favorite Family Stories

My life began as a story, about a small baby boy, born on a Tuesday morning in the early morning hours, premature, with no hair and no fingernails. His mother, suffering from milk leg, confined to bed, and scarcely able to care for him, relied on the help of her large family.

That story was told many times by my mother, my grandmother, and the aunts who helped care for me. I've heard it so many times I can close my eyes and see the people assembled there in my grandparent's small house, some in the bedroom where I was born and others scattered throughout the house. I can hear my mother groan from the pains of a difficult labor and the milk leg which would affect her for the remainder of her life.

Later, there would be stories about my mother, her parents, her sisters, her brothers, and other family members that captured my imagination. Through the stories I learned about various members of my family and how they cared for me after I was born.

Stories are powerful. They can get in your mind and stay there. I've carried my family stories around from the very beginning and now, nearly seventy years later, they are still part and parcel of me. They've become, to borrow a term used by John Prine, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, "my faithful companions."

As long as I can remember I've been fascinated by the stories, primarily about my mother's family and people who lived in the small southwest Virginia community where she was born and raised, and where I was born. Now, I'm sharing my stories, and a part of my life, with my children and grandchildren in the hope they will enjoy these stories as much as I do and that they will preserve them as I have tried to do. It's also my wish that they will learn more about their father, grandfather, and other ancestors as they read this book.

The stories that appear here are based to varying extents on those I've carried in my head for a lifetime. Some will no doubt be familiar to other members of my family. However, they may remember them somewhat differently than they appear here. That is as it should be. After all, many of the stories and songs of Appalachia (where I was born) are told and sung different ways by different people. Even though we're members of the same family, the stories affect each of us differently. The point is to preserve them, not to argue about whose version of the story is the correct one.

I thought a lot about whether real names or fictitious names should be used in the stories. In the end, I decided to let the story itself dictate whether real or fictitious names, or a combination of both, should be used. After all, part of the reason for writing this book is to tell newer generations about the remarkable family of which they are a part. In some instances I don't think there's any harm in using a person's real name. In other instances I think it's best to use a fictitious name to avoid embarrassing someone or to make it appear that they're being ridiculed. I would never intentionally poke fun at a family member or neighbor. Nor would I intentionally hurt someone's feelings. My hope is that everyone will enjoy the stories rather than be apprehensive about reading them.

With these things in mind, let me tell you what you'll find in this collection. Some of the stories are true and I'm telling them here much the same way they've been told by family members for several generations. In other instances, I've woven together parts of several stories to make what I hope is one good story. In still other instances, I've followed the great tradition of Appalachian storytelling by stretching, or completely defying the truth. Whatever the case, I hope you will find the stories both entertaining and interesting.

I've grouped the stories roughly by generation, starting with stories involving my great-grandfather and ending with stories which directly involve me. You'll also meet my grandparents, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my uncles, and many cousins. And finally, you'll meet some of the colorful characters who lived in and around Stickleyville, Virginia during the first sixty or so years of the twentieth century.