The End of a Prideful Culture in America

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As baby boomers, we have seen changes in America that have been documented ad-infinitum: our life-style, our economy, our technology. But BoomerCafé co-founder and publisher David Henderson has just taken a personal journey, and come across something that has not gotten nearly as much attention: The End of a Prideful Culture in America.

David Henderson

My mother was much too young when fast-moving breast cancer claimed her life in 1983. In a span of less than two months, the cancer metastasized to her brain. I can only imagine how painful it must have been for her but she kept her grace and thoughtfulness toward others until the end.

When I think of her final weeks, I also think of the hundreds-of-thousands of other women who have suffered that awful disease and wonder why a cure has not been found over these many decades.

Even though we lived in northern Virginia — where for many years my mother was a well-known elementary school principal in Fairfax County — it was her wish to be buried in the family plot on a hill overlooking a small eastern Kentucky town called Louisa.

But on a recent trip there, I came to a sad conclusion: for generations in this country, a prideful way of life was engrained into much of the American culture, regardless of whether someone, even an entire family, was financially poor or not. People were usually defined by the respect they showed to others. Some of that has disappeared.

Once a lovely cottage surrounded by flowers and trees, the once-cozy home in Louisa has fallen into neglect over the last 30 years. An old sofa and trash now sit on the porch. The entire house is now leaning.

Once a lovely cottage surrounded by flowers and trees, the once-cozy home in Louisa has fallen into neglect over the last 30 years. An old sofa and trash now sit on the porch. The entire house is now leaning.

My mother had grown up in a quaint, beautifully maintained small house on Locke Avenue in Louisa, a street lined with trees. Nearly every house was kept with pride by its owners. My grandmother’s home was surrounded by an always immaculately maintained lawn with many, many flowers, ferns, and herbs. I remember the giant zinnias and fresh dill to this day. My grandmother said her secret to gardening was to use coffee grounds as fertilizer. It must have worked.

Few residents of Louisa, Kentucky, in those days had much money. Many were poor but few people knew it because they had grown up knowing the meaning of pride.

A once prosperous department store, now run-down and closed.

A once prosperous department store, now run-down and closed.

My grandmother was the manager of the largest business in town, a department store called The Bargain Store. And, she was a remarkable businesswoman. As a kid, I watched her politely approach a working man who was looking at some new boots. His were worn out. I heard her quietly and respectfully suggest that he just take the boots and give them a try … and to not be concerned with the cost. She didn’t write anything down, there was no IOU. She just gave him the boots.

Afterward, I asked my grandmother about it. All she would say was that the man had a big family and needed the boots for work. She didn’t say another word. I learned from my mother that whenever my grandmother did something like that, she always paid for such items out of her own pocket the moment the needy customer left the store. My grandmother never talked about that, either. But I did learn that the man who got the new boots returned each week with a small amount — whatever he could afford — until he had paid for the boots. A poor man rich with pride. And with honor. And, he wasn’t the only one she quietly helped.

That was how things were in Louisa a half century ago.

Downtown Louisa, Kentucky, is neglected and mostly out-of-business.

Downtown Louisa, Kentucky, is neglected and mostly out-of-business.

Maybe I never allowed myself to know how to grieve but I never quite got over my mother’s untimely death. For at least the last 20 years, I have felt a need to visit her resting place for no other reason that just to be there for a few quiet and private moments.

I was sharing those feelings earlier this year with my daughter, Anna, who was three-years-old when my mother — her grandmother — died, but still remembers her. Anna said she would like to go to Louisa, too, which thrilled me, because when our children grow up, we treasure time with them as never before.

After the 450-mile drive to Louisa, we entered a town I neither recognized nor found appealing.

Louisa is run down, boarded-up, and dilapidated. It is as if there had been an intentional effort to erase or tear down any of the charm of a small town. Many of the tall trees are gone. Many homes are replaced by prefabricated garages for pickup trucks with oversized tires, and machines shops. The downtown is abandoned, including the department store that had been turned into a failed video store. It was as if pride, as a spirit, had given up and fled.

Anna spends a quiet moment at her grandmother's grave.

Daughter Anna spends a quiet moment at her grandmother’s grave.

Anna and I escaped and drove up the hill to the cemetery. Unlike the town, the sprawling cemetery was well-maintained, just as I remembered it from my youth, and the times since then when we have put loved ones to rest there.

We visited the family plot, including my mother’s grave. And, we said prayers and had private moments to remember, knowing of course that souls have long since left this place. Only the marble markers, the headstones, the flowers, and other symbols of remembrance are left there, along with the quiet. We each placed small stones on the grave markers to signify we had been there and would never forget … and then, Anna and I knew.

We had said our goodbyes, with finality. It was time to return home.


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17 Comments

  1. Nice story! Your grandmother sounds a lot like my Grandpa Carter. He was a railroad man in Kansas City, Kansas for most of his life. He never had much money, but he had such a strong sense of pride! He maintained his small house in Turner, KS like it was his palace, and took special pride in his beautiful yard. Unfortunately, feelings like that seem so rare these days.

  2. David, what a poignant epitaph for your Mom and for Louisa. Neither will be forgotten; both will live on in the stories that are passed from generation to generation and from visits of total strangers who might pause on their way through Louisa and consider what this town and the people in the cemetery must have been like at their prime.

  3. Loved the story about your Grandmother. Sorry for the loss of your mother at such a young age!

    People in small towns still have pride- they simply do not have population. So many have moved to the big city –like Fairfax- to find their fortunes. The small towns are forgotten. It has little to do with local pride.
    I have returned to a small town after our retirement. Our business is important to keep the economy going. I grew up in a different small town—Phoenix. And our family graveyard is still well kept—even though it is now in the middle of a thriving metropolis!

  4. I suppose there’s not much room for that quiet dignity any more, David. For the most part, it’s been drowned out by noisy words and buried beneath the ever-thinning skin of materialism. But, as you know best, we will go back and excavate those priceless pearls bequeathed us; backbone, character, honor, time and effort, and work our way back to something that use to be free – our pride, simple and unadorned.

  5. OMG. Not just passing dear ones. But the passing of a town and their way of life. And amidst the one we experience now. A lot of heart there, David. Could be the backdrop for a larger story. Please let me offer my sympathies.

  6. Thank you, Mark. I know that many people are saddened to see how Louisa – once a picturesque and fairly prosperous small town in Eastern Kentucky – has fallen into seemingly self-inflicted decay so rapidly. It once was, decades ago, that Louisa had been immune to the historic economic depression of coal mining towns farther east in Kentucky … places, like Pikeville and Paintsville. But, now, Louisa has become part of it … infected with the same disease of despair. It now has the look and feel of desperate poor.

    I left this caveat out of my story … but while in Louisa, I watched two men with grotesquely oversized pickup trucks get into an argument over having enough space to park in a street side space marked off for three vehicles. Their priorities were on ego and testosterone, as if the size of their trucks was a sign of the size of their manliness. When mindlessness has slipped to that level … well, I see little hope.

    dh

  7. Thank you, David, for this compelling and heartfelt tale of a once lovely town in a beautiful part of our nation where your mother grew up that has now taken a downward slide toward ruin. Experiencing the decay of the area obviously has affected you deeply, and that comes across eloquently in this piece. But I’m glad that your title is “The End of a Prideful Culture in America”, and not “the end of THE prideful era in America”, which I believe still flourishes.

    I’m certain there are many once beautiful & prosperous towns across this great nation that are mere shadows of what they once were; but there are also many areas that have improved tremendously over the years. In my home state of California, many towns spring to mind: towns like Huntington Beach which, during the same period when your mother was growing up, was a rather disgusting oil-infested area where walking on the beach required a good scrubbing afterward to remove the oil from your body – yet today takes its place among the many beautiful Orange County coastal areas and proudly wears its trademarked “Surf City U.S.A.” moniker; other towns, like Napa to the north & Temecula to the south, were dusty nowhere places when you & I were very young children – probably populated back then by the same sort of “mindless men with grotesquely oversized pickup trucks” that you mention in your commentary – but are now areas highly regarded for their elegant wineries, beautiful rolling grapevine-covered hills … and rather prideful culture.

    It is sad to see a cherished place decline. No doubt. However, the one thing you can absolutely count on is that nothing remains the same forever. Thanks for sharing your experience with us readers.

  8. David, I like to think it’s not really the end but rather an uneasy slumber the Prideful Culture is enjoying. Pushing 63 and growing up on far south side of Chicago was no all that different in many ways. While I am sure people had enough money, the sense of pride was present in everything they did. Whether it was keeping the lawn and gardening, polishing the car, helping a neighbor, or just going to one of the many different churches, I remember feeling what a great place to live. Everyone had just enough and that was just fine.

    I think Patrice got it right saying, “it’s been drowned out by noisy words and buried beneath the ever-thinning skin of materialism.”

    1. Eric,
      I want to agree with you and Patrice over not only the noisy words but the shrillness … not only the materialism but also the entitlement and greed that has infected the American culture. Maybe we all saw it happening, we just didn’t know what to do.
      Thanks to you and others for taking the time to write your thoughts. Always welcome.
      David

  9. Wonderful article. Having been raised in small places with names like Blue Jay, Beaver, Rising Sun and Derby, I am tuned in. I have returned to each and experienced similar feelings. It seems, at times, that progress not only follows decay, but often includes it in the process. I recently helped my son move from Tampa to Denver and we drove the southern route, through places that stunned me, with destitution and crumbling. We are in topsy-turvy times. Let’s hope we can regain some of that old-timey pride so we do not end up as the turvy!

  10. Really moving to make this journey with you, David. Patrice’s words, too, collaborate with yours to point to what’s revealing itself in these scenes you bring us through. And what’s not. The treasure, trampled on and tossed aside for an arena in which physical displays and big trucks crowd everything out. Both destined to rot, and rust. The insistent self before one’s face, in blindered times. The good news about the eternal power of beauty and human nobility is that they can be invited back in, in any moment. But their absence, and that trampling on them, is painful, sorrowful, indeed.

    1. Dear Phyllis,

      Thank you. Even now, I feel as if words cannot explain the lack of pride.

      My daughter and I watched two very over-weight and overly self-entitled guys argue because they could not get their two enormous pickup trucks parked in four parking spaces in front of the post office. We saw considerable poverty in and around Louisa but people always seem to find a way to get a big truck.

      Quaint old homes have been torn down and trees cut, to be replaced by an odd assortment of trailers in the town. Each trailer has a large metal shed for some reason.

      Any sign of pride for a community has been erased, leaving a sort of rural, blighted small town ghetto.

      David

  11. I must take exception tio your article. I have traveled extensively throughout the northeast, midwest and south during the last 25 years and I have found very few places like your Kentucky town.

    Yes, many communities have been hurting especially during the recent recession, but I have seen the majority of locations strive to maintain clean and neat appearances.

    I have traveled through Kentucky many times. I find the people friendly and they have a lot of pride.

    There are communities that just fade away due to being anachronisms when they are “one horse towns” that relied on a single industry to keep them afloat. I cannot buy into the concept that just because you Kentucky childhood home does not maiontain its appearance as you remember it from childhood. Places change.

    I had a similar experience in MInnesota when we buried my mother’s remains a couple of years ago. The town hadn’t really changed much. It is in a prosperous farming area, but no one remembered the family name. My grandfather ran a general store, which after he retired was turned into a drug store and remains so after 65 years. Only a small plaque on the side of the building mentions a brief history of the general store. At least the local historical society had a little more information.

    Places always look and feel differently when seen through an adult’s eyes. Maybe your little town is not as bad as you think it is. Everything starts fresh, matures and then dies from old age. That includes towns and businesses. Maybe you should go back there and help bring the town up to your standards instead of criticizing it.

    1. Dear Norm,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You are correct that some places change over time. Transformational change is only natural. Louisa has deteriorated and fallen into a state of economic distress that is not transformational, in my opinion, but more akin to death of a town. Perhaps it’s not unlike the situation facing big city Detroit. In Louisa, a community I have tracked over the years, the decline has been more as a result of bad choices than circumstance. People make choices when they clear cut trees in a town and tear down study houses and buildings for no better reason than to make room for their double-wide trailer homes, large sheds to store their pickups, and large paved pads for parking.

      I lived in Louisville during a time right after Urban Renewal had bulldozed to barren earth any trace of character and charm in that city. Even though Louisville is a modern city today, it’s not known for any historic character. That was destroyed … by choice.

      Some communities in the Midwest have gotten change under control in a way to preserve a town’s charm. Louisa is not one of them. Blame it on lack of education or low incomes or simply not knowing any better, but Louisa is a dead small town.

      David

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