J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” has been released as a drama film recently. J.D., who went from a humble upbringing in southwest Ohio to become a Yale Law student, recounts the lived experience and reflections on three generations of his Appalachian family history. Mired in trauma, poverty, and substance abuse, the Vances echo the negative stereotypes and struggles of the so-called “rednecks” in the Appalachian regions. Everything considered, I found the story heartwarming: A former hillbilly returns to his hometown due to a family emergency and reckons with his past, even if it means putting his future in jeopardy. It was insightful to see how he reflects the valuable legacy of his grandparents who raised him.
Especially poignant was J.D.’s contemplations on the price of the American dream and upward mobility. There was a scene wherein J.D. attends a high-pressure dinner with representatives from top law firms. Obviously, the young man needs to make some lasting impressions, but he is flustered by a choice of wine and just bewildered at the silverware arrayed around his plate. Then it happens that one of the would-be employers smugly jokes about J.D.’s family background. “My mother was salutatorian at high school. Smartest person I’ve ever met. Probably the smartest person in this room,” the young man snaps back and tries not to give in. It’s hard for him, the viewer knows; it was the day his mom got back in the hospital due to a drug overdose. What’s interesting is that one person who supports the young Appalachian migrant to overcome such struggles is his classmate and girlfriend Usha, the daughter of Indian immigrants. Usha has the heart to understand J.D. and sympathize with him, having experienced through her parents what strength it takes to build a life as an immigrant.
I watched this movie on Thanksgiving Day. My grandson celebrated his 100-day milestone that day, so I proudly shared his pictures with my brothers. Only after sending the pictures did I realize that my mother passed away exactly on that day two years ago. So I hurriedly texted my brothers again that it’s our mother’s death anniversary. They texted back. “Don’t forget mom’s headstone!” Thank God I remembered in time. I almost embarrassed myself before my brothers while celebrating the baby’s 100-day party. But while watching “Hillbilly Elegy,” I knew Vance’s Mamaw would remind my children of their own grandmothers. Mamaw is the grandmother, primary caregiver, and the pillar of the family, giving love and support to J.D. when he needed it most. She is the kind of guardian who walks out of the hospital with pneumonia, determined to help J.D. break the generational poverty and make something of himself.
Understanding the hurt and pain hidden within makes all the difference in our relationships with one another. And just as important it is to remember one’s roots, where you’ve come from, and how far you’ve come. About a month ago, I visited Galilee, a fishing village in Rhode Island. Across the harbor from Galilee is Jerusalem, another fishing village. I remember the street vendors there had a $1 fried flounder 40 years ago. I was hoping to get another taste of it but all the shops were closed due to the pandemic. I came back to New York and met up with an old acquaintance who has a very successful legal practice. He was a law student back in the days when I was a seminarian. Our conversation traced back to how we used to cook ramen in a rice cooker as a late-night snack. I read in the newspaper that he served as chairperson of the Congressional Campaign Committee for Andy Kim. It turns out, he has been working hard behind the stage for young Korean Americans to enter into politics. I attribute his investment in the future of young visionaries to his own lived experience. I can imagine how many challenges he had to endure and barriers he had to overcome in his early years. I think that experience is what makes him a giant upon whose shoulders others can stand.
Going back to “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D.’s mom Bev struggles with heroin addiction. There’s a scene where Bev’s in rehab and little J.D. hands her a notebook he made with funny jokes and math problems and “some Bible stuff, too.” The boy wanted his mother to read the Bible verses and live. Bev’s unhinged, and as a mother, she had failed to be the boy’s anchor; but what undergirds the Vances is strong family consciousness. The pain is there, but also the incredible maturity and resilience of a child who takes up the role as a caregiver and a life-giver to his incapacitated mother. No matter how dysfunctional, the family continues to live on by love and care for one another.
We have entered the season of Advent, the season of expectant waiting for baby Jesus. God sends Jesus to us – our hope, peace, joy, and love – no matter what the world may throw our way. Jesus is with us. God-with-us is our sufficient reason to stand firm and live, to have hope and love even more.