By Tara Kaprowy
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
It’s Living Treasures time and once again I have had a few beautiful days getting to hear the life stories of four Laurel Countians who have lived long and well. It’s my third year with the oral history project and, consequently, each spring I’ve gotten to speak to incredible people who have taught me as much about life as about Laurel County.
This year, I am once again amazed by the recurring themes that have surfaced in the stories of this year’s nominees — Finley Baker, Bill Brooks, Beulah Cassidy and Billie Ridings — despite the fact they are so vastly different. And once again I realize that by focusing on these themes, you truly have the recipe for how to be a good person, live a good life, and be truly cherished by your family and friends. They’re worth considering.
First off, every Living Treasure I’ve spoken to has worked hard in their life. I mean really hard, 14-hour days hard. Whether that means being a mother to four children, tending the family home, garden and fields, selling eggs for extra money and sewing dresses out of feed sacks, as in the case of Mrs. Cassidy. Whether that means getting a paper route at age 14, saving up for a bicycle for nearly a year, scrapping the funds together to make it through college, and then helping grow a new bakery business into one of the largest in Laurel County, as in the case of Mr. Brooks.
These people started working young, kept at it and, most especially, didn’t complain. Moreover, they got satisfaction out of their work. In fact, every Treasure I’ve spoken to is an early riser. As Finley Baker put it: “I don’t like to lay in the bed. When it goes getting daylight, I get up.”
Second, all of the Treasures are active, both physically and mentally. Mr. Baker, who is 88, even showed me how he uses the treadmill he has in his bedroom. Billie Ridings tries to walk 2.5 miles each day and, if she misses a day, she’ll double or even triple up on another to get those miles in. Especially in this day and age of fast food and supreme obesity, I’d say that discipline is a lesson a lot of us have to learn.
And, perhaps because of their work ethic, they didn’t stop being active even when their children were grown or they retired from their careers. That can mean a staggering amount of volunteer work. It can mean lending their expertise or offering advice. But always these people stay engaged, interested, willing to help, and that’s how they truly have become elders in the community.
Over the past three years, every Treasure I have spoken to has told me, plainly, they love and have lived a happy life with their spouse. These stories of romance have people telling me in detail about their wedding day, their wedding dress, their honeymoon, the way they first met that person.
But these marriages, many of them 50 and 60 years old, somehow they are uncomplicated, just beautiful in their simplicity. These people just seem to fit with their spouse, and I suspect it’s not just time that has made that happen. Many of these people knew their spouse far less than a year, some as little as four months, before they decided, yes, this is the one. And once they made that decision, it’s like there was a simple, solid acceptance from the beginning that the union would always remain.
And how those unions worked so seamlessly, I don’t quite know yet. I’ve asked almost all the Treasures and they just shrug and say, “Well, we just got along.” Part of it seems to do with the fact both parts of the couple were happy independently and not too needy of the other. The fact they had this other person to lean on just sweetened the deal. And I suspect part of it has to do with expectations. In their day and age, a spouse wasn’t someone from whom you relied on solely to create meaning, happiness, fireworks, completion. Probably, we can learn from that too.
Finally, each and every last one of the Treasures grew up on beans and taters. When asked what they ate growing up, that is always, without variation, the answer. And when their children are there during the interview, they laugh and say they grew up on beans and taters too. I love this, for some reason, as I agonize each night what to make for dinner. What another lesson to learn.
And so there you have it: the recipe that actually ends with food. I, for one, hope to follow it.