My Mother, Broken Hearts, and Class Rings

In honor of International Women’s Day, I penned this short story about my mother. My mother is the greatest person that I have ever known and she is directly responsible for the way I feel about women to this day. Thanks to her, I have everlasting respect and admiration for the battles that women must fight in our society, battles that we as men will never understand. My mother’s story is deep and mysterious, even to her children, of which there are seven. She raised all of us in poverty, and thanks to her ingenuity, determination, faith and strength, we never went without. Her quiet dignity is without parallel. I owe everything that I am to this woman and thanks to her, will never be intimidated by a strong woman. I love you Mom. 

I sat in the backyard of our house in the darkness and shadows adjacent to the plot of land that we had tilled up and called a garden. The Groundhogs, one of which I had named and raised, would not leave the vegetables alone, rendering all the work nearly useless. I angrily threw my recently re-acquired class ring away into the dimly light patch of weeds and broken fence, then stumbled, sobbing as only a sixteen year old boy whose heart had just been broken could. I had not been hurt like that before. I had never felt so betrayed, exposed, useless and more than anything else, lonely.

Not even my Grandmother’s passing the summer before hurt quite as much as this. I could wrap my brain around the fact that she could not continue the pain of living and feared the burden she would cause in years to come on her family more than she feared the brief and instant moment of a bullet passing through her heart. I could not understand why the living could betray one another. I thought I was in love. I thought I would die. My dog whined uneasily and the house that we had worked so hard to build and make a home was dark and silent. Nobody quite dared follow me, not knowing what to say. My little sisters, who were my constant companions, were already inside and in bed, not realizing the drama unfolding just outside. My car sat ticking in the cool night air and the breeze was redolent with peaches.

My mother found me. Silent as only she could be in her bare feet, she often seemed ethereal at night. She was filled with a strength that only a mother could have, bearing seven children in the poverty stricken highlands of the coal country. We took her for granted, as only children can. She was sometimes as silent as she was loving, as filled with mystery as the night sky, yet somehow so fragile in the dim light. Nobody really knew her. Not even her children. I would hear her at night, relentlessly cleaning, with her tears occasionally mingling with the bleach she scrubbed away imaginary germs with.

She didn’t say anything. She rarely did. She just gave away pieces of herself until I wondered if there was anything left. She comforted me as only she could, stealing out of the mist and placing one tender hand on my shoulder as I wept for all that was lost – my childhood, the innocent love without fear, the knowledge that I would soon be leaving for college, leaving behind the only thing that I knew. She cried with me that night and gave away another precious bit of herself.

Nearly a decade later I wept into a pay phone as the light went out of the sky in Apalachicola. The sun painted the sky an ethereal palette of color as I dialed her number from memory. Still the oldest of seven, I was again heartbroken and needed my mother. As the phosphorous in the surf twinkled in the early dark and the moon followed the sun into the sky, I once again wept as only the broken and spent can.

She didn’t say anything. She simply cried with me on the phone as I choked on bitter tears and the hurt and loneliness threatened to sweep me away. She gave another piece of herself so that I could live. Just as she had twenty-five years earlier during a screaming hot night in August of 1973 as she brought me into this world through the ferocity and shear will power that only a mother can possess, she beat my demons into the night with her force of will from her place in deep Appalachia.

Fourteen years later, with a young son and wife of my own, I screamed silently into the tile floor beside a toilet with no lid. I didn’t know where I was. The fluorescent lights beat me like an immortal enemy that would not be driven back. I shook violently, my fever skyrocketing as sweat poured off me in stinking, yellow waves. I shook with withdrawal as my nose bled into the drain in the middle of the pale yellow tile. The steel toilet silently took witness as I chewed my shirt to avoid swallowing my tongue. Slipping and sliding through the mist of the lonely place where most do not survive, I managed to scream out for her into the drain as darkness slid across my throat. Somewhere, the devil laughed. In the midst of all that agony and despair and fear, as I traversed a high place, staring at a near certain death, I felt a hand on my shoulder in the cold of the unblinking light. As I spiraled into darkness, I relaxed. No words were needed.

It was my mother.

Heritage

My Grandfather watched me from his wheelchair, his withered arm pulled beneath his blanket so that no one could see. Even then, ten years after the stroke that devastated his body, he held himself together with pride. Barely five feet tall in life, he was further shrunken into a shadow of his former self, laid low by the ravages and the pitiless passing of time.

I was his favorite grandson. I say that now with humility. I don’t know why he loved me so. Perhaps it was my bookishness as a child, my unwillingness to fight back, or defend myself from the bullies that ruled the nightmare that was school for me. I was small for my age, prone to inner ear infections and every passing flu or viral bacteria that spread like wildfire through our tiny isolated mountain mining towns. Only recently opened up to the outside world by the construction a major highway, we were, for the first time, susceptible to the disease and infectious spread of sickness that the rest of the world had to deal with. It wasn’t without consequence.

He held his blanket tight about him, and I could sense that he was about to cry. We were both emotional, another bond that we shared. Only a few days before, while watching a movie with my two baby sisters, I had cried over an animated lion cub’s father’s death. Embarrassing. I avoided eye contact and gave him as much respect as I could. I still saw the person in the chair, covered by blankets, with only one good eye. His tears came quickly as I laced my boots, his sobbing born not of despair or self-pity, but of pride for me, for the man he was watching me become.

My grandmother bustled about, her ample behind swishing along under her faded nightgown and housecoat. The smell of crisping pork fat and lard biscuits was heavy in the small kitchen, along with the sound of eggs sizzling in about an inch of rendered bacon fat in a cast iron skillet. Her coffee was legendary, baked more than brewed, as she pressed freshly ground beans into the percolator, layer upon layer, mixed with eggshells, until the resulting brew was nearly thick. Liberally sweetened with blackstrap molasses, it was enough in and of itself to fire the nervous system of a barely twentysomething man into orbit. As immune as even I was to the effects, more than one full cup of the stuff would give me nervous jitters for hours. Combined with the breakfast for which she was also famous for, and a chaw of Red Man tobacco, it was small wonder that I could work for sixteen hours straight, loading cinder blocks, splitting wood, slinging hay bales, beating ditches for water mains through the shallow topsoil into the shale and sandstone bedrock.

As my grandfather struggled to reign in his emotions, I finished my eggs, biscuits, pork renderings and coffee. My grandmother stared out at the early spring sun. “You got no business working underground like this.” It was an old conversation, one that we had started some twelve years earlier, when an ill-timed clot had lodged in my grandfather’s brain just long enough to cause irreversible paralysis. My grandmother thought me too intelligent, too gifted to enter the darkness of the mines as my family had, willingly, for generations.

I picked up my miner’s hat, self-consciously adjusting the band so that it sat on my head at a more rakish angle. Like all my family, I wore the low-vein hat, a testament to the shallow seams of coal that they crawled through in the drift, or punch-mouth mines that daylighted on the sides of the mountains, steaming their noxious fumes into the clean winter air. It was the first day that I would be descending into the shaft mines, great underground labyrinths, conceived of by greedy men pursuing personal wealth in the form of metallurgical grade coal, shiny and hard, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a carbon-rich prize capable of burning at temperatures high enough to smelt metal. As the reserves in Northern Pennsylvania slowly played out, mine operators followed the seams south, cutting deeper and deeper into the earth, until they found what they needed in Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia.

My family had been some of the first to step foot into those shaft mines, swinging from iron buckets, laden with tools, dynamiting out platforms into solid rock from which millions of cubic feet of coal would later pour, out of the earth and from the blood of my relatives into the coffers of the rich. They profited from the blood and lives spilled in those mines, growing ever more rich as the land they pillaged became devastatingly poor.

Then, following in the footsteps of my father, who no longer swung over those caverns of space to earn a living for his family, and my cousin, who works in those mines still, I kissed my grandfather, who had gained control of his tears, grinned at my grandmother, and swung out the door into the dim light of an early morning. It was barely a five-mile drive, one that I could have done in my sleep, over the mountain to the mine entrance. The site itself was literally where the farmhouse my mother had grown up in had stood.  The mountain was where my Dad had once raced as a boy to gather the cow home for milking at the end of the day.

I myself had helped build the road over the mountain as a shortcut to the mine from the new four lane highway when I was a teenager. My family had owned the land around for generations. My uncle had helped sink the shaft into the earth, my father had designed, built and placed the methane removal equipment, now infamously known as fracking, so that mining operations could begin. The school that I was attending, Virginia Tech, had supplied the mining engineers who had designed the mining operations, so perhaps it was fate itself that led me out the door that day and into my future.

As most expected, I did not remain long in the depths of the earth. A few years later, with a Master’s Degree, I returned, briefly, if only to remind myself once more who I was. My Grandfather had passed on, along with my Grandmother. The family farm was sold, the land given up, along with the mineral rights and all that had been ours. A new shaft had been sunk, the old one relegated to age and disrepair. It was a brief stay, the mine now more deadly than ever as technology and system engineering replaced common sense and human judgement. The entire place had become a death trap.

The house I had left that morning so many years before had been sold, partially demolished and turned into an office for a mobile home park. The green gardens had been paved over, the old railroad tie bridge replaced and the smokehouse where hams had once cured was gone, pushed over into a heap of untidy rubbish.

It seems sometimes that my heritage passed with that place, that who I am, where I am from is some distant and fleeting memory, carried on only in the hazy remnants of my own recollection. I fear that my blue collar heritage is doomed to die with me, that all the muscle memory of a lifetime of working with my hands, of wresting life and pride from the earth is all for naught. I feel alone in these moments, the last of my kind, a relic of sorts, misunderstood and mocked slightly.

Then I see my son, his blonde hair mussed and curly, dirt on his mother’s gift of features, cunningly swinging a hammer, instinctively beating apart the rust on a chain so that it may lay straight against the concrete floor of our garage. I watch him carefully, amazed that he knows how to do this, just so.

I don’t feel quite so alone.

Pain and Peaches

My uncle watched me as I tried to ignore him. My boots were miles away, perched as they were at the end of my legs. All I needed to do was tie them and our strangely quiet conversation would be over. My mother watches quietly from her solitude over the kitchen sink, amidst the bubbles and effervescent warm water that would make clean what was once dirty. Three is a kerplunk of a pan, which held eggs and melted cheese, along with toast and grits, my favorite breakfast with black coffee, only a moment before as it plunged into the water. It was early in the morning. Very early. The night sky still rode across, as Orion ran upon Aries in the southern solstice to the west. A mist had fathered at the gurgling creek, laughing quietly as it prepared itself for a day of dappling about in the mix of sun and shade, cool and comfortable in the day’s heat to come.

A fox barked softly, once, nearby. My Mom’s favorite hens, small and black, still warm with feathers fluffed against the soft cold of the night, gentle with their brooding, pecked about my feet.

I was bruised and beaten to a pulp. One eye was black and swelled nearly shut. Grotesque bruises ran round my rib cage, radiating out from my lower back, where my fall had been broken the day before. My hand was twice its normal size, wrapped in gauze from the tending of my mother. One lip was split and I could still see a ring of fog about my inner eye if I focused too much. I didn’t.

I tied my boots anyway, despite their distance from my head, which loomed unnaturally large and heavy. My mother and her brother watched me still.

He dug in his pocket for his chewing tobacco. His first chew of the day appeared immensely satisfying, even to me. First, there was the careful placement of chew into his right hand, measuring exactly the right amount, a movement perfected by years of practice. Then the characteristic three dip – shake over the pouch, flinging free any wayward bits of black, uncured plant matter back to join it’s fellows. Then the mass would be inserted into his mouth, where it would be chewed, mauled, and positioned into the perfect plug, dripping its heady concoction into the distended capillaries screaming for their addiction.

I had fallen the day before. We had a brief rain just after our morning break, while the railroad operators were switching out cars into our siding for cleaning. We were contracted to clean out the one-hundred ton cars of detritus before they were tracked into coal preparation plants for loading. The caveat was we could keep what was in them. The downside was we didn’t know, unless we looked, what was contained in the cavernous, echoing, clanging metal beasts.

The easiest way to look was to walk the cars, dropping from a vantage place just above them as they trundled to their stop against the deadman. Once upon the roughly four-inch wide side, it was a simple matter to navigate ones way from car to car, marking ones full of coal, keepers, and ones full of trash, the cleaners. No simple task, unless you were a circus performer, or a nineteen-year-old boy with a superman mentality.

Except this superman couldn’t fly. Not up. I had avoided the worst of the fall by pushing my way off and away from the metal ladder, which would do nothing but lacerate and maul. I landed, rolling, by some miracle, on the sloping lower sides of the car and gathered my wits just enough to slide through the doors on the bottom into the lower hopper feet, rather than head, first. I bounced hard off the rail for the locomotive and spun down into the plastic-lined chute, where I was rudely deposited onto the moving conveyor belt. I had just enough time to flatten out on the hot rubber before I was swept under the lowest overhang of sheet metal and out into the sun, ringing my head on the side for all my quickness.

My mother had frowned when I came home, stiffly unmounting my highly customized cycle, my vehicle of choice in those days. She had doctored me as best she could, which was more than the local hospital would have done, with their patchwork of drunken, castoff and foreign doctors, all of whom had ended in this place in Appalachia in disgrace or from lack of options, not by choice. She had nothing to say. She was the daughter of a coal miner, the mother of a coal miner – a champion raiser of children and constant warrior in the face of keeping seven children happy and fed. She had patched us up, held our heads, prayed over us in the dead of night when the coughing would not stop and the pox ran amuck and roughshod over our family. Her face, lit by tears and holding the golden reflection of our wood stoves light from her Bible, is permanently engraved on my conscious to this day.

My uncle shifted uncomfortably as I finished lacing my boots. I held my breath at the bottom of my stretch, by abdomen resting comfortably on my thighs as I drank in the morning’s redolence.

“Can you work or not?” My uncle’s impatience, heightened by both the irritation of an injured relative and the knowledge that, if hurt, an injury report would need to be filled out in accordance to the law and insurance requirements. This would result in a possible investigation into safe work practices and environment, something that could kill a small enterprise in the communistic zeal about which underworked and overstaffed agencies latched onto any small slight of the law, real or imagined.

I nodded. My mom sighed and went about her work. She bustled about for a moment, then appeared on silent bare feet with my lunch pail, where a bologna sandwich, made better oh so much by her sourdough bread, homemade sweet pickles, sliced onions and giant wedges of tomato, stored in a separate Ziploc to keep the bread dry. There would be two of these, I knew. Along with a peach or two, just ripened yesterday and hastily picked in competition with the chickens, children, groundhogs, foxes, raccoons and all other lovers of good things.

There would be a small container of soup beans from the night before, with a portion of fatback and the remnants of biscuits and cheese from this morning. It was worth going to work for.

I straightened my younger self against the pain and walked stiffly off the porch to the truck. My uncle made a quick detour and grabbed two peaches. My mother handed him half a loaf of sourdough. There was not another word.

The sweet spring air poured through the cab as we munched our peaches, wrapped in paper towels soaked by the escaping juices. We were soon drenched in sweetness as we gobbled greedily, our appetites huge against the work to come. The stiffness passed from my young muscles and bones as the hereditary healing gene, a blessing and a curse, bumped into play against the injuries, which time and again helped me avoid hospitals and emergency rooms. It would also wreak havoc on me later in life as it allowed me to drink myself nearly to death before succumbing to the side effects of thousands of gallons of alcohol.

That morning, the peach alone, with the smell of the warm earth and work to follow, was enough for me. I grinned at my uncle. “Did you think me hurt bad?” He grunted, and grinned in reply, hunched over his steering wheel, trying to wipe peach bits from his beard.

We rode on through the gathering morning.