My Life as a Kentucky Buckeye

Raised in Northern Kentucky with a majority of my adult life spent in Ohio, which side do I tie my identity to?

Illustration by James Yamasaki

When my dad was in the Army in the 1950s, no one could ever guess where he was from. When he told them Kentucky, his fellow soldiers never believed him. I suspect he liked the subterfuge of being from Northern Kentucky—the payoff of surprise that someone with such Midwestern anonymity hailed from a state that was mostly a caricature and an accent.

I get it, because I have a similar relationship with my Northern Kentucky roots. I sometimes like to slyly drop into conversations that I’m actually a Kentucky girl, as if I had a childhood traipsing on the bluegrass, not riding my bicycle out the Dixie Highway to buy records and candy bars at the local shopping center. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Ft. Wright, the same city where my dad grew up. With my 45th birthday this year, I’ve now officially lived in Ohio longer than Kentucky. I should be collecting buckeyes, not conjuring up ideas about the bluegrass. But the poetic timbre of that word, bluegrass, makes me want to recite Wendell Berry poems.

This idea of where I’m from is not at all simple, mostly because I have made it complicated. When I’m traveling (which is frequent) and someone asks me where I’m from, it’s my cue to start the geography and personal history lesson. “I live in Cincinnati. But I’m from Kentucky originally. Northern Kentucky that is, which is just across the river, so it’s different from the rest of Kentucky—more like Cincinnati, except even more conservative.”

It’s so much oddly specific information they didn’t ask for—no doubt, they were anticipating I would just say, “Milwaukee. You?”—yet it’s an answer I nearly always give. My other answers to small talk questions are simple: What do you do? I’m a writer. Do you have kids? Yes, a boy in sixth grade and a girl in fourth. I often hope the person asking doesn’t add follow-up questions, because the details feel tedious. But Kentucky? I want them to ask about that. To be surprised that I crossed a river, or that the bluegrass is part of me, or that Ohio and Kentucky are like puzzle pieces they paid no mind to before.

I’ve thought a lot about why I offer so much explanation, and I’ve decided it’s because the older I get, the more I appreciate messy edges. I’m interested less in those spaces where things are the deepest, densest versions of themselves, and more in the spaces comprised of some of this and some of that. Because the margins are often the most curious part. The borders. The drips and crumbs and seam allowances. Where things come together without aligning perfectly and you tug and borrow and blend. I am this and I am that and it needn’t make sense. I am more than Midwestern anonymity, but I am not a Kentucky cliché. I am deeply proud to be from Northern Kentucky, but I cannot stomach its politics. I adore Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” but I would prefer to be five minutes away from a Starbucks at all times. I will never forget the joy of the Kentucky State Fair, but also this: after a long Louisville day smelling manure and oohing and aahing over handmade dresses and cakes, I could just make out the skyline of downtown Cincinnati from our tiny porch outside the kitchen door.

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