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Caught in the web of Poverty

Almost nothing in Lennette’s childhood prepared her for a paycheck kind of job.

When she was born two days after the Fourth of July in 1966, her father named her, loosely, for Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. It did not confer on her a Disney life.

For years, Lennette’s family lived in a 100-year-old log cabin on 17 acres owned by her father’s family. It had no running water and no indoor plumbing. Lennette and her older brother and sister carried water to the house from springs. They split wood to burn in the stove that heated the cabin. Their father, Wendell Nicholson, taught them to farm there.

The family received welfare payments because Nicholson was an alcoholic who couldn’t hold jobs for long. He beat all his children and sexually abused the girls. Lennette’s mother, Betty, knew about the sexual abuse but could not protect the children.

The incest ended only after Lennette and her brother ran away and told a relative, who called the police. Nicholson pleaded guilty and served two years in prison. The two older children went to foster care, but Lennette, who was 12, remained with her mother. Betty forced the girl to visit her father in prison and allowed Wendell to return after he’d served his time.

Things were never good after that. Lennette’s brother was in and out of reform schools and, ultimately, was imprisoned for burglary. Her sister left to live with a woman who ran a personal-care home. And Lennette kept skipping school and running away.

That’s how she met Clair.

One fall day, a few months after Lennette turned 16, she told her mother a fib about where she was going. She said she planned to spend the night with friends in a trailer just past the last coal patch house in Melcroft.

A patch is a group of houses slapped together by coal companies so their workers could live near portals or strip sites. About 80 patches remain in Fayette County. This one sits between the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Fallingwater, and Seven Springs, a ski resort that attracts cars that are worth more than the coal patch homes.

Instead of going to the trailer that night, Lennette went to a house in the middle of the patch to baby-sit for several days. She figured she’d earn some money and have a good excuse for cutting school.

The family who employed her didn’t mention that they’d taken in a 20-year-old neighborhood man, Clair Kistner. He showed up at the house in the middle of the night, drunk and fresh from a fistfight.

"I was scared to death of him. It took me three days to talk to him. Everybody said I should have known then," Lennette says. But she didn’t.

Eventually, she talked to him, then dated him.

They had much in common, and maybe that’s what drew them to each other. Neither liked, valued or finished school, although Clair made it through the 10th grade in special-education classes. Both had grown up in poverty without decent father figures. Clair’s father left before he was born. Like Lennette’s mother, Clair’s depended on welfare to support the family. When Clair was 16, his mother dumped him and two siblings on an uncle in Melcroft because her new boyfriend didn’t want them.

Four years later, Clair and the uncle argued about Clair’s drinking, and Clair ended up at the neighbor’s house. He thought Lennette was cute and pursued her.

They decided to marry a few months later. They dressed up to go to the courthouse to exchange vows before a judge, but they were turned away because they didn’t have the required blood tests for a marriage license. A few days later, after they’d taken the tests, they rode to the county seat in the back of a pickup truck, both in blue jeans. It was Feb. 25, 1983.

Marrying emancipated Lennette, so she could sign herself out of school, something her mother had refused to do.

The decision to quit school has come to haunt her. Today, she has trouble understanding legal or technical documents, like the letters from the welfare office ordering her to show up for meetings on the new rules requiring work. And she still has trouble taking tests, such as her driver’s license exam. She tried nine times to get a permit and never passed the written test, which means she lives in the middle of nowhere — 24 miles from a supermarket, 30 miles from the doctor who treats her lupus — and can’t drive.

When Lennette quit school, it turned out that she had traded her pencils and books for something equally daunting — bottles and dirty diapers. She was several weeks pregnant when she wed. She found out when she and Clair took the marriage license blood tests.

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