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  • Karen Salyer McElmurray:A Biographical Sketch
  • George Brosi

Karen McElmurray grew up in a family with deep Eastern Kentucky roots. Her maternal grandparents lived in Dwale in Floyd County until Highway 23 took their home, and then they moved to Lancer, outside of Prestonsburg. Her father's family is from Johnson County, and her Granny Salyer lived in Hagerhill. She remembers sitting on porches at both houses and already dreaming of the world she would later experience. Her story begins with her father's tour of duty in the Korean War. Before leaving Johnson County for the Air Force, Clarence Salyer met Pearlie Baisden at the Black Cat Cafe in Allen, where Pearlie was a waitress. They wrote letters back and forth, and Clarence bought Pearlie a diamond ring from Morocco. They married upon his return to the states. He was next stationed at Forbes Air Force Base, and they traveled cross country, landing Pearlie in a strange new country called Kansas. It was here that Karen was born.

After Clarence was discharged, they moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he obtained a teaching degree from the University of Kentucky and then landed his first job as a math teacher at Lynch High School in Harlan County. Karen began her schooling there, but when her father got a job with the state education department Karen and her mother moved to Allen, while her father looked for a house for them in Frankfort. Once the family was established in Frankfort, depression shifted to obsession, a hard world of cleanliness and order. During this increasingly difficult childhood of new towns and her mother's frequent bouts of depression, Karen spent summer weeks in Hagerhill with Granny Salyer in Eastern Kentucky. There she learned quilt making and remembers most the sound of jars sealing as grandmother and granddaughter canned beets and corn in the Long House at the base of the mountain. It was during these summers that Karen became friends with Vicky Hayes, the girl who lived across the road. She recalls writing songs and poems with Vicky, who played twelve string and taught Karen to love words.

When Karen was fourteen, her mother moved back to Floyd County to her own parents' home. Karen remained in Frankfort with her father. Pregnant at the age of sixteen, she married her boyfriend, Jim, but soon [End Page 13] ran away, living for a time on the streets and in the halfway houses of Columbia, Missouri. Returning to Frankfort, she gave birth to a son who she relinquished for adoption. At the age of eighteen, she divorced her son's father and surrendered herself to loss and the aftermath of grief. She worked at McDonald's, as a hotel maid, and as a secretary, but managed, by the skin of her teeth, to graduate from Franklin County High School.

Slowly, Karen McElmurray began to center herself, first taking night classes at Kentucky State University and then moving in with her Granny Salyer to attend Prestonsburg Community College. Her Johnson County friend, Vicky Hayes, was instrumental in convincing her to enroll at Berea College, where Vicky was a student. At Berea, Karen double majored in English Literature and Philosophy. She was strongly influenced by the Christian Existentialist, Martin Heidegger, who urged his readers to become entirely human reaching "the widest orbit of beings … in the heart's inner space." He calls it "the Open," a place "boundless," and only by risking our entire selves can we "venture" toward it." McElmurray now had a philosophical rational for what she had perhaps somewhat strived to achieve during her teen years.

After graduating from Berea College, McElmurray once again worked a variety of jobs—among them the Berea Child Care Center and the craft fairs at Indian Fort Theatre. When she was accepted for studies at University of Virginia, she began her formal, graduate education, first as a scholar, with interest in studying the work of D. H. Lawrence. She supported her studies by working as a landscaper and greenhouse worker, and she lived in a house by a pond and orchard on a cattle farm near Charlottesville. Shifting the focus of her graduate work, she obtained an mfa...


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