The end of a prideful culture in America

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 that had been owned for decades by my Grandmother until she moved away 30 years ago. In the intervening years, the house in Louisa has fallen into disrepair and neglect, like many others in the town. 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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14 Comments

  1. Wow. Can I relate! I grew up in a very small community, tiny little town surrounded by small quarrer and half section family farms. A poor area, esp. those years. Since, the small farms have all been swallowed up by two or three larger operations. The town itself has only gotten smaller, most businesses closed, unable to compete with cities only a few km away. Lots of boarded up buildings.

    I recall, as a young girl, going to the grocery store with my mother when Mom hadto ask the ladies at the counter if they could “carry” the bill as she had no money and needed groceries. They always very kindly did and Mom would pay them back a little at a time. That wouldn’t likely happen anywhere now!

    we, too, laid our parents to rest back there because of the history. Dad was born and raised there. Mom, no, plus she had not lived there for 20 years, but we put her to rest beside Dad. I haven’t been back. Your article has given me pause.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. Boomers are made fun of when we talk about the past.
    But today’s generation could learn a lot from the good ‘ol days. .. and a lot of about respect.

  3. Beautifully and achingly written. I, too, have been saddened by what I’ve seen as a decline in respect (for our planet, for each other) and accountability in American culture. But maybe, rather than be sad, these realizations should be our calls to action. I am going to ponder this today.

  4. Beautifully insightful, touching piece, David, and a sad reaffirmation that we are no longer living in the America we grew up in. Bare-knuckled capitalism has superseded our sense of community and caring for one another.

    1. Larry, you hit the nail on the head. Values have lessened and conning people into buying things they don’t need has become the hallmark of a “good American citizen.”

  5. The whole corner of the state I grew up in is mostly overgrown and unkempt, although there are rays of sunshine here and there. Seems mostly confined to the “Rust Belt”, as the bean counters have forced manufacturing to relocate to wherever they can find the cheapest labor.

  6. Thank you David, for putting into words the sadness so many of us feel about our declining culture. I will never forget how much pride my Grandpa Carter took in keeping his lawn perfect in the tiny town of Turner, Kansas. He worked on the railroad his whole life and had little to show, but his sense of PRIDE was as big as the entire world.

  7. My thanks and appreciation to the many people who’ve taken time to write comments.

    A friend said that what’s happened in Louisa, Kentucky, is just example of time passing and a natural degradation of towns that do not or cannot keep up. I’m not sure I agree fully. What’s happened in Louisa appears to me to be self-inflicted damage. The trashing of a once-picturesque little town by simply a lack of caring. Living in mobile homes, for example, is easier and cheaper than normal maintenance on a house. So, tear down the house and live in a disposable pre-fab mobile home. Pave over parks and lawns to provide adequate parking for over-sized mud-encrusted pickup trucks with extra-large tires and gun racks. Ignore repairing sidewalks because people no longer walk. They drive.

    The sad thing is that Louisa is not alone across America.

    David

    1. David, you hit the nail on the head with one key word here: disposable. In many places in our world, nothing is disposable, everything is repaired or repurposed. Not so here anymore.

  8. Interesting and poignant, David. It occurs to me that charity back then was something that sprang from our hands, hearts & homes. Nowadays, a lot of people invest only their money and consider the job done, though often It doesn’t work very well. Ask the Haitians!

  9. David… I am an old Highbottom (a suburb, South of Louisa)…I read your article with lots of interest, since I have written several articles along the same lines and published them in the LevisaLazer.com (an on line news source serving Louisa). Michael Coburn still writes columns about Louisa. My last article was an open letter to the NEW Mayor of Louisa, urging him to do some things to bring residents together. I also published a book, Memories From The Bottom, a collection of articles that I wrote for the LAZER over a 3-year period. I graduated Louisa High School in 1958, joining the U.S. Army, where I spent the next 20 years, Retiring in 1978, then took a job with the Army @ Redstone Arsenal, AL, spending 26 years, retiring for good in 2005. I currently live in Huntsville, AL. Each year I return to Louisa to attend the annual LHS reunion….

    There is no place like Louisa on the face of the earth..looking forward to corresponding with you guys…and who knows might even slip an article in from time. There two sites you may be interested in; “You know you from Louisa When…”,

    U. C. “Liss” Jones
    CPT, MP
    USA, Retired

  10. Wonderful, interesting article…I graduated from Louisa High School and return each year for the annual reunion…Stores did close, trees were cut, sidewalks began to show age; but in the past few years, each time I visit I notice that our little town is improving…and pride is being restored. It is our responsibility to teach our children that honesty, compassion, and pride in your life achievements are important not only to us but to future generations.

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