In just a few days, I’ll be leaving home and heading home. It might sound confusing. Charleston, South Carolina is the place I have lived for more than seven years now — longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my adult life. I love it here. I have a job and a church family and a house and a dog and neighbors and friends, and I love them all. This is home. And this weekend, I’ll drive back to the place I called home for the first half of my life – Harlan, Kentucky.
Harlan is a special place. There are numerous Bluegrass songs about my hometown (like You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive), a National Geographic Channel reality show, an Oscar-winning documentary, and the recent FX series Justified (which definitely offered a more drama-filled version of the town than real life). But for me none of that matters as much as the history I have there. This weekend I’m taking my boyfriend there for the first time. I can show him the hospital where I was born, the creek where my best friend and I caught crawdads (and avoided copperheads), the steep gravel driveway where I wrecked my bike countless times, the century-old barn where I once saw puppies being born, the hill my brother and I sledded down every time it snowed, the high school parking lot where I learned to drive, the church where I was baptized.
The main reason for the trip is that I’ll be doing a book signing at the local library. It’s more than a little magical that in the same building where I first learned to love books I get to return as an author doing a reading from my own book. I couldn’t tell you the last time I was in that building, but I still remember the big windows and the tall metal shelves, the smooth wood of the card catalog drawers (which are undoubtedly long gone) and that heavenly smell of old books. I remember that place with all of my senses, the way I remember so many other places in Harlan.
My mother told me not long ago that when my brother and I were little, she had a job offer in a large city in another state. I had never known anything about it, and when she told me I began to wonder how my life would have been different if she had taken the job. When I was a girl in Harlan, I dreamed of getting away, going to other places far away from the mountains that made me feel trapped. I have done that, and I’m thankful for those experiences. Like any small town, Harlan had its disadvantages. Maybe I would have loved living somewhere else. Maybe my family and I would have opportunities we never had in Harlan. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that those same mountains that made me feel trapped are beautiful, and I miss them sometimes now. There were advantages to such a childhood as well, even if it wasn’t always what I wanted. It’s not without good reason that there are books and songs and TV shows about Harlan and her people. I can appreciate the unique formative experiences of living there in ways I couldn’t even a few years ago. If you read the author bio at the back of my book, or on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll see that the first sentence reads, “Stacy N. Sergent was born and raised in the mountains of Harlan, Kentucky.” What I know is that I’m glad to be who I am now. And I wouldn’t be who I am now without that first sentence. I wouldn’t be the same Stacy N. Sergent if I didn’t come from Harlan.