January 10th, 2024

A Place in Tennessee
Essay by Julia Nunnally Duncan | June 2023

It was June 1962, and my family was taking our first real vacation to Michigan to visit my mother's younger brother Phillip, his wife Angie, and their young sons Phil and Glenn. Two months earlier my maternal grandmother had died, and my mother needed a trip away to help her heal from her bereavement. She also just wanted to spend time with Phillip, who had moved up North to work in an automotive assembly plant after his stint in the U.S. Navy.

Accompanying my mother, father, older brother Steve, and me were my mother's sister Clarabel and her fifteen-year-old daughter Lola. I had just turned six in April, and Steve was ten.

Our car journey there was not memorable except for an overnight stay in an Ohio motor court. The rooms were dingy and the mattresses worn and lumpy. After that night, we were all anxious to get to our destination.

Once we arrived in Michigan, Phillip and Angie took us to the tourist sites: Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Detroit Zoo. We even took a day trip into Canada. At the Detroit Zoo, my father and I stood at the polar bear exhibit and watched the bears bounding and sliding into each other. “They’re having fun,” he said, and we laughed at the bears’ antics.

Phillip and Angie made us feel at home at their suburban house. I loved spending time with my four-year-old cousin Phil, splashing in his inflatable backyard pool and playing on his swing set. Neighborhood children came to play with us, too.

When it was time for us to leave, Phillip and Angie begged us to stay longer. “See if you can get off from work another week,” they coaxed. So my father called his and my mother’s hosiery mill boss back in Marion, North Carolina, and arranged an extra week off. We were all thrilled.

Our vacation in Michigan was exciting and enjoyable.  However, it was a stop on our way back home that was most memorable to me.

My father was born in East Tennessee in Campbell County—a coal mining area in the Cumberland Mountains on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. He lived here in his early boyhood until his father moved the family to Western North Carolina. His parents were born and raised in Campbell County, and many of his kin had been laid to rest here, so his roots ran deep in this place. Naturally, he wanted us to stop for a while in this part of Tennessee on our journey back to North Carolina.

As my father drove us in our Mercury through the streets of downtown Jellico, we looked at the store buildings and took pictures. And when we stopped at a general store, my father took a picture of an elderly man who had been sitting on the porch whittling and whom he must have known in his boyhood. He took a second picture of this man sitting with my mother, Steve, and me. We also stopped at several houses in Jellico. One in particular, a white frame house, seemed to have special meaning to my father. Here, Steve and I posed for a picture in the front yard.

When we got back in the car, ready to head home, my father gripped the steering wheel and then put his face in his hands and began to cry.

“Don’t cry,” my mother said softly to him, her emotions still rife with her own grief.

I had never seen my father cry before. He was a tough former Merchant Marine, having served in World War II, ferrying supplies to Europe in a Liberty ship and traveling through the Atlantic War Zone.

I sat with Steve and Lola in the backseat, everyone quietly waiting for my father’s sadness to pass. Soon, he wiped his eyes and started the car.

That was my family’s first and last trip to Michigan and our only visit to Campbell County, Tennessee. But it was a pivotal moment for me, seeing my father cry. Even though I was very young, I someway understood that this place in Tennessee stirred something indelible in my father’s heart.

About the author: Julia Nunnally Duncan is a Western North Carolina freelance writer, whose ten books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry explore life in a small Southern town. Her 1960s upbringing in a working class family plays a prominent role in her work. She has essays and poems appearing in current issues of Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, WNC Magazine, The Backwoodsman Magazine, World War One Illustrated, blazeVOX Journal, and Arlington Literary Journal. A new collection of essays All We Have Loved is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in November 2023. Julia lives in Marion, NC, with her husband, Steve, a mountain woodcarver. They enjoy spending time outdoors and with their daughter, Annie.