In Praise of Ozark Culture: The Fecundity of Hill Folk

Back a long time ago when I was a little smart-ass high schooler, I made a big show of accusing one of my aunts of being fecund. She didn’t know what that word meant, of course, because it’s not a term in the Ozark vernacular. Being the little jerk that I was, I’d hoped to provoke an angry response with my accusation, but by then this aunt of mine had enough experience with my obnoxious, faux-intellectual ways to know better than to be outraged. She just asked me what “fecund” meant and then agreed that yes she was, indeed, fecund.

I only knew the word because my high school guidance counselor had pressured me into taking the SAT. Once I’d signed up he shoved some practice tests at me and told me to work them. One of the vocabulary questions I missed on those practice tests taught me that “fecund” means fruitful, fertile, or having many offspring. I fell in love with the word right away. It sounded sort of like a dirty word to me, only with a fancy definition that made it acceptable for polite company. “Fecund” was the sort of word a kid could use around family to provoke a ruckus but still avoid getting his mouth washed out with soap if he had a dictionary handy.

I also loved the word because it described my Ozark family oh-so-well. In keeping with hillbilly stereotypes, we’re a fecund lot. Even though each generation has had slightly smaller families than the generation before, we still have lots more children than most outsiders I know. Part of what defines an Ozarker—both in the popular imagination and in my own experience—is our large, sprawling families.

I have dozens of first cousins, but of course we don’t stop counting people as family until well beyond the point where we can put a name on our relationship. I can’t really tell you what the proper term is for the grandson of my grandfather’s sister, but I can show you where one such fellow lives (it’s a three minute drive from where I type this). I can’t say that he and I are close, but I know where he works, where his wife works, and that his son plays second base in little league. That’s how things work around here.

My own nuclear family growing up was relatively small, with only three siblings. Three to five children were the average then, rather than the five to ten when my parents were kids. Only children were a rare, sad, and kind of suspicious occurrence. I had one cousin on each side who was an only child, but that was due to miscarriages in one instance and widowing in the other. Unless there was a very public problem with infertility, childless couples were viewed with suspicion and even a little dread.

When you’re part of a large extended family you get to experience an awful lot of life vicariously as you’re growing up. I learned about chasing girls before I had any clear idea as to why I might want to chase them from watching a couple of young uncles make fools of themselves. Granted, I’ve had to unlearn several of those lessons since then, but at least I had some notions as to how to start. Those same uncles taught me how to play poker and drink, even if I was deemed too young join them at the table for years.

Large families lead to inevitable experiences of life and death. The world outside of the Ozarks offers more formal education opportunities than we have around here, but the Ozarks provide more chances to learn from experience just because our families are so damn big. A typical child from an old Ozark family will have attended multiple weddings and a dozen or more funerals by the time they’re grown up. Heck, by the time I was ten or twelve I knew my way around the back offices of the funeral home in town (the one my people used, not the other one a couple blocks away for richer folk). During a visitation I would lead my younger cousins into a backroom and tell them spooky stories. I know some of those younger cousins carried on that tradition to cousins who were younger yet. I’m pretty sure that the tradition continues in the very same funeral home, although I’m now too old to get away with sneaking off into the back during a visitation.

I figured that familiarity with death and life was pretty typical when I went out into the wider world, but when I lived and worked in Kansas City for awhile I found out different. I now realize that it’s not any wonder that outsiders learn about such things slow, because with their tiny families they don’t have much occasion to go to family funerals multiple times in a typical year. I remember one young woman in particular from when I was working in a fancy office with a lot of other folks more or less my age. The receptionist was in her early 20’s, and the poor thing was at work when she got the news of her aunt passing sudden and unexpected. While a group of us were comforting her, she said that she’d never been to a funeral before. She was worried that she wouldn’t know what to do at her aunt’s service. I watched as one after another of the young professionals in the circle either admitted to having never been to a funeral before either. One of our coworkers had been to a grandparent’s funeral, so she told our bereaved friend about that.

Then I shocked the group with my extensive knowledge of funerals and other death rites. I told her to take a casserole to her uncle and cousins first thing. I asked about the aunt’s church affiliation and talked a little bit about church funerals. I asked if her parents had ever took her to put flowers on family graves growing up as part of a fruitless attempt to try and figure out which cemetery was going to be her aunt’s final resting place. I explained how visitation at the funeral home would work, with the casket and the immediate family up front and my friend and the rest of the extended family in the center of the room (since she was too old to be telling ghost stories in a back room, I left that part out).

I like to think that I helped her a little bit in a difficult time. I’d grown up a little by then. I wasn’t trying to shock her or provoke a response like I had been with my aunt when I’d learned the word “fecund.” I was just trying to share some lessons from my fecund family.

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