My daughter has taken to calling me every Sunday morning. She is finishing her third year of college in Burlington, Vermont. Paige is an officer in Engineers Without Borders. She’s watched the sun rise over Machu Picchu and travels to Finland for the summer with less luggage than I take to a B&B in Cedarburg. For her to hold a Wisconsin address again is as likely as the Packers trading Aaron Rodgers for Jay Cutler.
Paige reads. Though she’d never be caught with a copy of the Herriot’s Shadow series, she has penetrating insight and a keen perspective that an old guy could benefit from an injection of every now and then. Since I failed to get her hooked on fishing and wood splittin’, I’m always searching for fodder for our Sunday morning talks.
Her most recent suggestion was Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. Vance was born in Jackson, Kentucky, surrounded by abject poverty, addiction, and Mountain Dew. His family migrated up the Hillbilly Highway. US Highway 23 is the route taken by southern folk in search of jobs that do not involve crawling into a dark hole or marketing corn by the quart. His family settled in Middletown, Ohio. While there were opportunities aplenty in the Rust Belt, the culture changed little.
Vance makes no attempt to portray himself as the Golden Boy. He dabbled in drugs, did poorly in school, crossed the law, and fought when he had to. He moved from one broken home to another, as his abusive and addicted mother bounced through countless violent relationships in search of a father figure for JD and his sister. In one poignant scene, she demanded his urine so she might pass a drug test for her job as a nurse. By way of happenstance or happy accident, he ended up in The United States Marine Corps. Four years that would prove to be transformative, and earn him a ticket to The Ohio State University. He would graduate from arguably the most prestigious law school in the country. In his hand he carried a shingle from Yale Law School, on his head he wore the stigma of having grown up Hillbilly like a crown of thorns.
Released in August 2016, Hillbilly Elegy brought attention to his people in the final rounds of a tempestuous election cycle, and landed Vance in the crosshairs of politicos, and on the couch of countless network news programs. At the time of this writing, Hillbilly Elegy had been on the New York Times Best Seller List for twenty-five weeks. Social scientists and politicians raged as to whether the Hillbilly condition was a case of mass under-motivation, failed policy, or a regional epidemic of learned helplessness.
When I finished, Paige asked for my review. I enjoyed the book, but felt it was a bit redundant at times. Speaking with the authority of an author who once sold fifty copies at the Lake Mills Winter Market, I remarked, “I appreciate the authenticity of his voice, but thought his language was a little loose at times…”
Paige has less tolerance for my rhetorical ramblings than Sheila. She cut me off early, “Dad, that’s because we’re not the target audience for this book.”
The challenges of working-class whites are a foreign concept to so many blue-blood elected officials. Inside The Beltway, Hillbilly Elegy was a revelation. Inside The Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic, it was a pretty good read… and two hundred-sixty-one pages of insight into The Hillbilly among us.
Today, many of you know Mittsy as the indefatigable saint in the Subaru who has saved Freddy the Basset from amputating the hand that feeds him, a legendary Lab named Guinness from inflicting undue embarrassment upon one of our favorite friends (due to his hobby of straddling visitors), and countless others.
I met Mittsy Voiles at a Humane Society of Jefferson County Spring Rabies Clinic. For those who have never attended, it is akin to a family reunion of Duck Dynasty, American Pickers, Swamp People, and Keeping up With the Kardashians, with five hundred barking dogs. For four hours, Mittsy arranged the chaos with pointed commands of, “Can you kindly sit, stay, or come this way.” Always preceded by please, and followed by a thank you; yet her tone left little room for interpretation.
Though her expression varied less than the Queen’s Guard, her diction was riveting. As the people ambled past like the security line at a Kid Rock concert, with their dogs lunging on choke-chains and baler twine; I cherry-picked her conversations. I’d pluck a hardened German consonant, followed by a softly drawn y’all (clearly enunciating the apostrophe) as she directed the hunter with the Coonhounds to the on-deck circle. Followed seconds later by “please bring your pom-a-labra-dini-dor this waye”, the hard A seemed to be surrounded on both sides by a Y.
When the din settled, I made an introduction that I can only hope lasts a lifetime. With a drawn brow and a wild eye, I asked “Who the hell are you, and where are you from?” Her posture did not suggest she was put off by my bluntness.
“My name is Mittsy, I was born in Tennessee, went to school near Boston, spent some time in Wisconsin, and the last several years in Australia.”
She shared that she was in the process of navigating some life changes. Our conversation ended with a handshake, and a standing offer. The Lake Mills Vet Clinic had not offered puppy or obedience classes for several years.
I had a hunch.
When the call came, we met at Water House Foods. I asked if she’d ever taught before. She described the programs she’d started in Australia. Anticipating her move, she’d designed a secession so that her programs could continue. When I asked if she planned to teach again, she pulled out the four-inch black binder, ran her index finger down the table of contents, and then deftly flipped the corresponding dividers. One could easily send their son to the military or university with half the paperwork. There were legal forms, an enrollment sheet, a pre-class interview to establish goals for each family’s puppy, homework and curricula for each week, cancellation policies in the event of weather, famine or nuclear war, and an exit interview.
It is nigh on to ten years since that meeting. Mittsy has woven herself into the fabric of our clinic and community. She’s been a veterinary assistant, receptionist, IT liaison, social media consultant, and raised our behavior IQ a hundred points. We were a stress-less clinic years before Marty Becker took credit for the phrase. Her reward and positive reinforcement based methods of dog handling have not always met with immediate acceptance by the callous and camo sect on the other end of the leash. Choosing to earn, rather than expect, respect, I’ve watched as she spent a half-dozen Zuke’s and ninety seconds to park the most exuberant seven-month-old Labrador pup at her feet. In doing so converting and old-school-put-your-knee-in-his-chest-that’ll-show-‘em pheasant hunter, to a student.
My dad is in an assisted living center, and I’m convinced he looks more forward to visits from Mittsy and her partner Barb, than me. (Editor’s note: this is not true; although Bill Sr. does occasionally attempt to recruit our assistance in liberating his driver’s license and car keys from his son…)
On page 127 of In Herriot’s Shadow, I wrote: “I was born a conservative cradle Catholic. Since, I’ve been impressed upon by people practicing acts of selflessness and kindness that are in no way bound by orientation, ethnicity, or race. I’ve come to define the family as a group of people loving without condition, mutually respectful, and universally supportive.”
I would like to think I had moved past the tackle-store racism and hog-barn biases I had been exposed to as a kid. Mittsy has barricaded the paths of small-mindedness with dignity and tolerance.
Though the parallels aren’t perfect, Vance’s corner of Kentucky could just as easily been Rogersville, Tennessee. Her home may not have been the iconic tin-roof shack, but they grew tobacco, raised and canned every bite of food they put in their mouth, and had no running water. She had the benefit of nuclear family, but there was no shortage of moonshine, methamphetamines, and misdemeanors.
Shocked to attention by Hillbilly Elegy, the political administration scrambles to assemble policy to at least get credit for attempting to up the plight of the working class white. In his conclusion, Vance boils it down to a bullet-point that transcends politics and policy:
The single greatest determinant of one’s trajectory in life is the influence of at least one steadfastly supportive, unconditionally loving role model. Personal perfection is not a requisite.
Vance’s father was elusive; his mother was mentally ill. His Mamaw was as blunt as a butcher. She smoked, drank, and cussed like a construction worker; but she guided, supported and loved him unconditionally.
Mittsy may have scrubbed her speech of the y’alls and fixin’s, but to say she has risen above her bringin’ up would be a slight that she’d edit off this article in an instant. She’s got an Ivy League college education and more stamps on her passport than most of her family has trips to Knoxville; but she attacks every endeavor with the tenacity, frugality, and resourcefulness that survival depends on back home in Honeycutte.
To every friendship, she brings love and loyalty that defines her and becomes a source of strength for those of us within her circle. This, I suspect we can trace straight back to her mom, Janie.
On the back porch holding court, Janie could go through a pack of cigarettes and a gallon of sweet tea between dinner and sundown. Get crossways of her kinfolk, and find yourself staring down the barrel of a whole heap of trouble.
It took several years of lung cancer and half-dozen blood clots to get her, but 2017 will be her family’s first Mother’s Day without her.
For those of us who have lost, we will take a few moments to reflect on the components of our core that are thanks to our mother’s DNA and demonstration.