I am visiting my family in West Virginia. The best part about the trip is that my kids get to play with their cousins. I recently finished J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (review forthcoming) and have been thinking a lot about what it means to be an insider in Appalachia.

The term “insider” is fraught with controversy within the field of Appalachian Studies where some of the most prominent scholars studying Appalachian culture proclaim that there is no such place as Appalachia, that there is no intrinsic culture here. Even some relatively conservative scholars have agreed that Appalachia is simply like many other areas in rural, White America.

These scholars may be correct to some degree. Indeed, it is difficult to pinpoint culture. But for me, home is a place unlike no other, a confluence of factors that add up to create a special place. One of those factors is undoubtedly cousins.

When I grew up we didn’t have play dates. We had cousins. [Not that I don’t like play dates. I love play dates. They keep me sane.] I was surrounded by a deep and wide kin network and my best friends were my cousins. Even my step-siblings are cousins (I’ll let you work that one out for yourself). I often wonder if I am doing a disservice to my children to raise them so far away.

In some ways they are an outsider to their own kinfolk. Playing with their cousins is something they do only four times a year at most. I can only hope that these visits will be enough to create lifelong bonds, a connection to this place I call home.

Also, playing with cousins is nice because, for the most part, there is a shared set of expectations for behavior. I can let me kids wrestle and romp with the children of my siblings without having to worry about whether or not the other parents are judging me or my kids. We can call down each other’s children without the worry of offending a friend.

Maybe I am romanticizing it. Maybe it would be different if I lived here. But I miss the experience of rearing my children in West Virginia. I miss giving my children an opportunity to be wild and wonderful and free, the way you can be only in a dense kin network.


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