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Mary Lee Settle, author of the Beulah Quintet and many other works of fiction, won the National Book Award for her novel Blood Tie, and her most recent novel, Choices, was named one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of the Year. She has received an Award for Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and awards from the Southern Regional Council, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Merrill Foundation. She is also the founder of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
In 1927, when the Florida boom burst, we went home in a Model T Ford with what was left packed in orange crates tied to the running boards. We went to Cedar Grove, Kanawha County, West Virginia, the only place my mother ever called home in her life.
So that was why, on an early summer afternoon when I was eight years old, I was lying in the same hammock where my mother had lain in her Peter Thompson suit with her high-buttoned shoes in 1908, smiling at a camera. The hammock had a design of flowers and leaves, vaguely oriental. Fringe hung down, even though it was pretty ratty by 1927. It had always been suspended catty-cornered at the foot of the back stairs, between the old, thin wooden columns of the back porch, shaded by a huge trumpet vine that made a mat which kept the sun away.
I was half asleep, weighed down with heat that stuck my dress to my stomach. There was only the creak of the hammock, and then silence, and then again the creak of the hammock when I put a foot down to move it. I remember especially the silence that seemed blessed since it was such a rare thing in that house where there were so many people.
There was always talk at Cedar Grove, oceans of it, afternoons of it, evenings of it. But I never in all the time I was growing up saw one of the aunts, uncles, or in-laws touch another, ever, in love or sympathy or anger, except when Addie, my grandmother, smoothed my hair as she passed by, or broke a switch off her favorite tree, swished it to test it, and said, "If you won't listen, you'll have to feel."
From the corner where I lay I could see the place where she had had the breezeway between the dining room and the kitchen filled in with brick. In that magic time Before the War, it had been open, and slaves had brought the food through the open air from the kitchen. My mother said that it was wrong to change things like that in a lovely old historic place. Not house. Place. She had said that ever since I could remember, as if she were seeing the house that once was, or could be, but never as it was at the time.
My grandmother, Addie, hadn't changed the back porch, though. She said that suited her. So it remained what it had been since the house was built in 1844. The well was under the roof at the long side of an ell. It was table height so you could hike yourself up on the stone ledge, lean over when there were no grownups around, look down a long way and see yourself, a little scared face in the black water. Beside the well, the smoke house and the milk house were built into the brick ell behind the main house, both of them dark and cool even in the hottest days of summer. The breezeway between them and the kitchen which had matched the one between the kitchen and the dining room had been left open. Addie said she had a use for that, an easy way to get to the corncrib and the hog pen to slop the huge sow with her evil eyes and her squealing piglets. My nastiest cousin said that if I fell into the pigpen, the old sow would eat me. There would be nothing left. The pen and the corncrib were in a row away on the east side of the backyard with the chicken house which had once been my mother's playhouse.
I didn't hear her walk onto the porch. Like many heavy women, Addie had silent feet. I did not know she was close to me until she spoke. "The Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation," she said to wake me up. She wanted to talk. She said she thought I ought to know that about the Catholics, in case.
I was still half asleep, and I saw the Whore of Babylon on the Great Beast, riding astraddle, as Miss Addie put it, across the hot white summer sky beyond the back porch, and I heard again the creak of the hammock.
If she had found any of the other ten grandchildren, she would have routed them out for a chore, made up on the spur of the moment to get them moving. Then we would hear her voice of thunder, "Shame on you! A great big thing like you asettin down," or, if she caught them smoking, "You put out them coffin-nails! You'll stunt your growth," or, worst of all, "Quit that, you little HESSIAN!"
But I was privileged. Because she had lifted me up and taken me to Serena's breast when I was, she said, just laying there waiting to die at a month old, she still thought when I was eight that my mother wouldn't raise me. She would say, "You rest, honey. You never can tell when the knell will sound."
I heard the creak of Miss Addie's rocker when she settled herself to talk. I opened my eyes. She was wearing the blue and white checked poke bonnet that made wings down both of her cheeks and partly hid her face, red from working in the summer heat. It had a frill at the back to protect her neck from the sun when she bent over. She made the bonnets for herself, and she wore them when she went into the garden, no matter how much it embarrassed the girls. She didn't refer to her daughters any other way. "My girls," she would say, glancing over her shoulder at them whenever they were gathered at the center of the house, the huge kitchen table, discussing their troubles, "have not got one iota of gumption." Then she would add, "except for your mother." It was the only nice thing, at least I suppose it was nice, that she ever said about my mother. "Not one iota" was a favorite size with her. She could use that diminishment like a club.
She sat there on the back porch foursquare upon her hams, with her legs apart, leaning on a hoe. I recognized that stance later when I saw statues of Athena that seemed to grow out of the ground. I never thought of Miss Addie as fat, but she had a thick body like the trunk of an old tree.
There she is, as alive for me as she was that afternoon, an old woman in summer, looking in memory like the goddess of justice, timeless and chthonic, in the shade of the porch, in her straight-backed rocker nobody else dared sit in, keeping a rocking rhythm on the stone floor. The shadows of afternoon filtered through the trumpet vines and swayed over the stone sides of the well, the flagstones of the floor, fluttered across the wall of bricks behind her that had been made by slaves, and time had changed to soft pink.
The places where she sat became, when she was there, the center of the house, and when she left them, and walked away, always alone, into the garden, or up the hollow to the tenant houses that had once been slave cabins, the ever-present voices of the "girls," her daughters, my mother and aunts, rose in volume as if they had been released and flew as they called to each other from floor to floor and room to room, from the upstairs back veranda rail, from the wide front lawn or the spreading front porch.
Addie's voice, that day, drifted in and out of dreams and summer until I was awake and watching her, which was what she had waited for. Then, out of some thought deep within herself that she made into words, she decided for the first time to tell me her version of the always whispered about but never admitted family scandal.
"Let me tell you something," she began, as she often did, to draw us to her whenever she caught us drifting. She talked mostly to her grandchildren. Her daughters had stopped listening. "I been thinking about this in the garden. My Lord, it's hot out there." The acre of formal garden that had been laid out when the house was built Before the War in patterns of herbs and peonies and roses and tiny English boxwood had long since been turned by her into a vegetable garden. Little wisps of its neglected and ignored past still showed forlornly in the spring. She said nobody but a fool would have too many flowers and too few vegetables, with things the way they were. "Things the way they are" was another one of her choruses.
"Well, this is how it was. I was no more than fifteen years old when I married that devil Chris Morris. By the time I was eighteen years old I already had three daughters. Chris Morris was mean to me." She settled back into her story, still grasping the hoe like a spear. A bandanna rose slowly and she wiped her forehead under the poke bonnet and began, as she did whenever she rested, to talk about Jesus. "You can't tell Him a thing," she complained. "You just have to set there and listen." She was completely familiar with Jesus, and her conversations with him were on as equal terms as she could manage.
Once, being smart aleck, I asked her what Jesus sounded like, and, instead of punishing me for taking the Lord's name in vain, she thought for a long time, and then she said, "Near as I can explain, real quiet, a little bit like your grandfather."
Her language was a mixture of Bible, fairy tale, ghost story, coal operator, and hillbilly. At any time, out of the house of her own recall and contemplation, one of the days or nights of life would come forth for me, from some kind of darkness that she lit with words. So much of it was legend, legend that now she believed and stated as facts.
"One Saturday night I heared Christopher Morris a'comin home from the saloon and I knowed he was drunk. He was always drunk on a Saturday night. He was a'comin up that road hell-bent for election, mutterin to hisself, and I knowed what that meant. I clumb a tree to get away from him. And there I was a'settin in that tree, no more than eighteen years old, and already married three years to that devil, and I looked down through the branches and there was Chris Morris mean drunk and lurchin around down there a'lookin for me."
Her voice changed, quieted. "Right there up that tree I heard the voice of Jesus." She began to sway and use her witness-bearing voice. "Jesus said unto me, Addie, you are nuthin but a damn fool. Ain't you ever heard of divorce?"
That was the way she remembered her Christian holy past, a victim up a tree, with Jesus to give her courage to act, a battered woman among so many battered women.
Nobody had ever said directly what had happened; we gathered around it later, picking up fragments, some malicious, some true, I suppose, but when I found the court records, I found the pathos and violence she had replaced with Jesus.
All the time I had known her I thought of her as Miss Addie. I would not have dared to do otherwise. But when I began to glimpse the woman she had been, she became, for me, Addie, more familiar and more mysterious than she was in life, Addie young, Addie hurt and proud, Addie beautiful, and finally, again, an old woman, sitting that day on the back porch, looking as she did when she entered my own childhood memory and stayed there and still does, as strongly as if she has just left the room I am in now, having shaken the curtains because somebody had been smoking coffin nails.
She had not been eighteen, she had been twenty-six when she filed for divorce, and she had already met my grandfather. It had been one of the first divorces in West Virginia, but the facts are misty, the legends crossed, and I saw more truth if not more fact in the way Addie told it that day.
The records of the divorce, the births, the marriage to my grandfather had remained ever since in the County Courthouse. When I finally saw them, they were less believable than the story of the voice of Jesus. The courage that she had shown was almost unbearable.
Christopher Morris said he wanted to get rid of her anyway. He didn't like being married and his mamma couldn't stand her. He had already left her three times in the course of their eleven-year marriage. She had made her living and fed her children by being a seamstress. They had lived in one of those board and batten houses, with inch-thick walls, three or four rooms, and a front stoop. Later, when the coal companies built housing for their miners, such dwellings were called "Jenny Lind houses" after the cheap method of building used at the Jenny Lind mine in Colorado. But they had long been built that way in West Virginia. The farmers used board and batten to cover the logs of their cabins as a sign that they were moving up in the world. The next stage toward gentility was broad clapboard, overlapping and painted white.
Addie had been a beautiful woman, the most beautiful, they said, in the valley. There are no pictures of her then, only people's memories, and in memory, beauty grows. She was of her time--the chestnut hair she could sit on, the tiny waist, even after three daughters born in the single bedroom of that poor house on the south bank of the river. If she screamed it was to a local midwife, and when the third daughter came the other two watched from the doorway. "There wasn't nobody to make them scat," she said. "Chris Morris was off drunk somewheres." Her birth stories were not calculated. She would have scorned calculation. They were simply facts of life, often too strong for the blood of her daughters and granddaughters.
She sued for divorce on the grounds of cruelty and desertion. She was represented by the leading law firm in the city of Charleston, twenty miles downriver, where, because of the new coal business, lawyers had gathered like a plague of locusts. My grandfather had hired the law firm that had been there years longer than the "new people," and whom she never would have heard of or been able to pay for.
It was obvious from the court records that they were prepared to do a favor for the old friend who had "kicked the end out of the same cradle" and who they sat with on the porch of the Ruffner Hotel, looking at the river, drinking juleps, and talking politics.
In the legal layer presented of past events, her husband had "deserted" her three times. The last time, in 1889, he did not return. She said she saw him sometimes across the road in the town at the foot of the hollow in a wide place in the valley, where a ferry plied across the Kanawha River.
The Kanawha runs west to the Ohio. Its direction has dictated industry, economies, marriages, and mores ever since the valley was settled in 1775. Its direction has formed the longings and lies of so many of its people--dreams of gentility east of the Alleghenies in Virginia, dreams of fortunes west along the Ohio at Cincinnati. It has flowed past coal companies with their shack towns, narrow bottomland, and knife-cut hollows between steep hills on its south side. It passed large old farms with several small towns grown up around on the north side until, a few miles east of Charleston, beyond the lush beautiful farmland and virgin forests on the hills, the land had once been blackened and denuded of trees when the salt business had been the first of the exploitive industries in the valley. Upriver, the cultural banks were farther apart than the mere fact of a hundred or so feet of deep water.
According to Addie's testimony, the river had held for her a terrible way out. She had tried twice to drown herself in it. The first time, she said, had been in the first two years of the marriage, the second within the year of her statement. She had tried to kill herself by taking a bottle of laudanum when she was eight months pregnant. She had bought it at the Company Store. She said she had tried to go to the station to catch the train to see her mother, and Chris Morris had followed her and forced her home by pulling a knife on her. She said her mother had died without Addie being able to visit her.
Her first witness was her housekeeper, who had looked after the children while Addie earned her living after the desertion. In her testimony she said that she had seen Addie jump into the river, had seen Addie's husband beat her. She added that he was a mean drunk and that the children weren't safe with him. Addie's oldest daughter, Minnie, was put on the stand to testify that her father beat her mother. She was eleven years old.
It had been Chris Morris, though, who came back to the house after threatening Addie with the knife and found her insensible on the bed, with the empty bottle of laudanum beside her. He called the family doctor. The doctor testified that he nearly lost her that time.
Jesus and the legal evidence were only the first two layers of the event. The third consisted of rumor, memory, facts let slip, a patchwork of events that had to be put together like a quilt, the kind that Addie and her friends stretched across two big trestles and quilted all through the winter. Some of the gossip came from daughters-in-law who didn't like her, some from my mother when her memories of "home" slipped into reality without her being aware that she had spoken. My mother tended literally to speak her mind, let out in words the secret scenes that she was seeing.
All the memories are real. Of course they are, like dreams are real, like old wounds that insist until they heal and leave a twinge of memory in the scars.
Chris Morris did pull a knife on Addie, not because she wanted to visit her mother, but because he knew she was pregnant with another man's child. She did try to go to the station, where the trains then ran several times a day and made the whole valley into one railroad town, a forty-mile corridor down the south side of the river. But she was not going to meet her mother who had been dead for years, but her lover, my grandfather.
By the time of the trial she was buried in scandal, unable to breathe. The doctor told the truth until he said he knew nothing against her reputation. He must have pitied her, he, nearly eighty, too old for judgment, she still young, still lovely.
She had seen a way out, a way that was taboo. She took it and then, for too long, had the door slammed in her face. Her dreams while she worked at her sewing machine, over the washtub, calling the children, patching, darning, quilting, cooking, became nightmares. The laudanum was real. The bottle was empty.
She was surrounded by catcalls and rumors, that Chris Morris was paid off, that my grandfather had bought her from him for a sack of corn. Chris Morris and his buddies played sandlot baseball on a Saturday afternoon, got drunk at the saloon on Saturday night, and threw five sticks of dynamite from the mine on the front porch of her stepfather's house, where she had gone to wait for the divorce to be final. Addie ran out, stamped on the long fuse, picked up the bound sticks and threw them into the woods. She saved her children's and her stepfather's lives, and her own, which by then wasn't worth a plugged nickel. No wonder that, in those days, when she heard the voice of Jesus, he must have sounded like Mr. Tompkins, my grandfather.
What Addie called her home in heaven was as sensuous as a Moslem's. One morning she caught me sulking on the front porch with my legs hanging over the porch floor. I was kicking rambler roses. To cheer me up she told me, "Oh, honey, last night I had the most wonderful dream. I dreamed that I passed over at last and I went to heaven, and when them great gold gates parted, there in front of me was a big table laden with golden dishes and every dish was full of beautiful food, and there was flowers and silks and satins and purple for the kings and blue for the saints, and there was all my relatives that had gone before all waiting to welcome me at the great table, and all their relatives and friends that had gone before, a great host at the banquet..."
She stopped; she had heard me make a small sound, a humph, and she said, "What's the matter with you?"
I said that didn't sound much like heaven to me, that I lived with too many people already who didn't understand me and I certainly didn't want to get stuck with them forever in heaven when I got there.
"All right," she said. "Go on to hell where you don't know nobody."
All her life she loved Jesus, ghosts, my grandfather, and food. Her dinner table was always laden with food, and she looked at it as if it might disappear.
Much of Virginia beyond the mountains had been Confederate in sentiment during the occupation of Federal troops in western Virginia, which became West Virginia in 1863. The army took the people's mules and their livestock. Secretly the southern sympathizers called the new state the bastard son of political rape.
In 1865 men from both armies were straggling home. Some had given up and lit out for the territories. Some were simply never heard of again--dead or missing. Addie said her real father had been a Confederate spy and had been hanged when he was caught. She was ashamed of that. My grandfather told her that it was braver to be a spy than a soldier, but she never quite believed it.
She had been taken up by a family called either Ross or Elswick. None of her children knew whether her father had been called Ross and her stepfather Elswick, or the other way round. No mention had ever been made of her mother, who had not survived the starving time. All that was known was her mother's last name--Martin.
Sometimes Addie said she was descended from Pocahontas. Pocahontas's only child has been accused of having a million descendants in Virginia. But sometimes Addie just told us that her great-great-grandmother was a squaw. In the early days of the Virginia colony, women were rounded up and sent over from England to be wives. Up to the early eighteenth century the saying in the colony was "Better a clean squaw than a London whore." By the mid-eighteenth century, of course, many of the settlers were younger sons of peers, according to their descendants, but Addie scorned what she called that piece of foolishness. The shape of Addie's face and her eyes hinted at the truth of the squaw.
During the Civil War (the greatest of all historic oxymorons) there were only the old people and the children to work the steep fields of the small farms. They gathered wild greens in the woods when the spring came to cure the cabin fever and the scurvy that came from eating only jerky, the dried meat that had been put up for winter, after the dried beans and yarbs and corn and the vegetables in the root cellar had long since run out. They lived as people on the frontier had always lived, long after the frontier had passed them by.
Gradually the young men straggled back and the fields were plowed again. A mule was a luxury few could afford. Addie remembered how the women steered while the men were hitched to the ancient plows their grandparents had brought over the mountains. She followed with corn seed, and stinking fish, three seeds for the hole--one for the critters, one to rot, and one to grow. She laid a piece of rotten fish in the hole for fertilizer. She still planted corn that way when she was an old woman, but she said the three seeds were the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
When Addie was nine years old, her world changed more profoundly than we can fathom. The coming of the railroads and the opening of the coal mines in the Kanawha Valley were as violent a change to the farmers of Addie's childhood as the great industrial revolutions were to earlier Americans. We are seeing something like it in our own lives, and are now once again in a frightening economic upheaval, this time requiring intelligence, a new language, more delicate skills, instead of the once-proud working man's muscular strength.
John Henry has been replaced by a fourteen-year-old computer genius in a garage. The newly honored intelligence that was once derided when muscle was needed at the coal face is leaving bitterness, as the men Addie grew up with became embittered when their mules were "commandeered" by war and their farm skills were no longer needed. Some retired deeper into the hollows, like animals after a flood has passed, then, as now, leaving dangerous residues that turned into hatred of what had passed them by.
In 1873 the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad was completed on the south side of the river, and later the Kanawha and Michigan railroad on the north. Coal barges plied the river below Cedar Grove in the months when the river was navigable, following the way of the salt barges, on their way to Cincinnati in the salt boom of the early 1800s.
The new boom was coal. Cash money poured into the valley with the opening of the great coal seams. A farmer who had had sense enough not to sell his mineral rights could (and did) become a millionaire overnight. Coal had names as overblown as the hopes that came with it--black diamonds, black gold, King Coal. Later F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was at Princeton with coal baron heirs, was to call a coal fortune "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz." Most of the money went to stockholders who didn't know or care about how people were living in West Virginia. The saying on "the street" was "dividends don't make demands."
In the next five years of Addie's growing up, the soil darkened with coal dust. Spurs of the railroad snaked up the hollows. Rich men came in their private railroad cars. The train engines belched long lines of smoke. If you traveled on the train you could smell coal dust, clean linen, furniture polish, good whiskey, and fat cigars. It was the smell of new money. My father told me that the first time he ever saw a grapefruit was through the window of a diner on the C&O.
The hillbillies watched the trains go by and made up songs. "Here she comes, look at her roll, there she goes eatin' that coal." Billy Richardson of Hinton became immortal when a song told about how he was beheaded by a projecting signal on the water tower but brought the train to a halt in the station anyway. John Henry challenged a mechanical pile driver in the digging of No. 9 tunnel under Gauley Mountain on the C&O. Casey Jones died at the throttle when he lost his average on a three-mile grade. At the railroad town of Thurmond on the New River, new kinds of men gathered, glamorous men--coal operators, railroad men, speculators. A poker game in the Dunglen Hotel went on for thirty-four years.
Life, for a while, was good. Local men had work that paid cash or the scrip that meant they could buy, but only at the Company Store. There were things at the Company Store that they would have had to go all the way to Charleston for in the past, if they had the cash, which they usually didn't. It stocked gingham and shoes and clothes, and overalls that the women didn't have to make.
There were barrels of dill pickles, huge wheels of store-bought cheese, white bread, drugs and whiskey, and mangles for the washtub. At Christmastime there were oranges from Florida and Skookam apples all the way from the West Coast. There was sheet music from New York. They could order pianos, upright and player and even baby grand. There were cans of fruit and vegetables the women didn't have to put up, the essence of luxury. When my grandfather asked a miner who had ten children how he was managing to feed them, he answered, "Well, Mr. Tompkins, we don't eat no canned peaches."
They came down out of the hills, from the farms, off the immigrant boats from Europe. An Italian consulate opened at Montgomery, a few miles upriver from Addie's home. There was no English spoken at some of the new mines. It was a new "volunteer" fashion for ladies from Charleston to go upriver to teach the Italian women to speak English, to cook (when they had been cooking Italian food all their lives), and to be "American."
Then, as it has ever since, in a kind of systaltic, diastaltic progression, the bottom dropped out of the coal business. For the first of many times, people who had come to work in the mines were thrown out of the shacks the companies had built. The United Mine Workers began to grow on the rocky soil, now poisoned by acid from the slag.
Addie had married at fifteen into the Morris family, who were victims of a change that had been going on since 1812, when the salt wells were dug north of the river at Burning Springs, a few miles east of Charleston. Christopher Morris, her husband, like the most of the men, had gone into the new mines. He was a drunkard, but then so many of them were. He did beat her, but in that world of coal mining, day long, night long, where petrified tree trunks called kettles could loosen and kill, where the white bones of ancient fish in the coal caught the light from the miners' head lamps, and the crystal skeletons of plants were known as flowers of darkness, where accidents waited for millennia when the earth was disturbed, the men were all edged with fear, like people in a perpetual war who go about their business as best they can.
There were too many shootings on Saturday nights. From the new language of machinery and the railroad they took the phrase "letting off steam." In winter, when he had work, Chris Morris left home before dawn with his carbide lamp lit on his miner's hard hat to show him the way; he made the daily trip by mule-drawn tram into the mine, sometimes as far as two or three miles. When he returned, long after dark, with his lamp lit to show him the way home, Addie heated water on the kitchen range and tried to scrub off the black gold while he sat in the washtub.
You could tell a coal miner by his eyes, and it was still so when I was a child there. They were darkened around the rims with coal dust that never came off--Nefertiti eyes. Yes, he beat her. Yes, he drank. Men then lived hard, died early, carried guns, gambled, and, being so on the tether of some decision made someplace else by men who didn't know their names, they swaggered even more. Those with brains fought their way downriver, to college, but carried the scars of the coal business, and still do. The feudalism. The exploiting of earth and men. Owner and worker, each far from the other, were threatened by the same diseases of danger and indifference, recognized each other as brothers who don't claim kin.
We are all marked, who have lived and been blooded by the coal fields. We never get away because it is deep in us, whether our fathers have worked the coal face, or bought our clothes and our college educations with money that was as black as the rims of coal miners' eyes. We have all been formed long before human ancestry or our culture or kindness or hatred or lack of money has affected us. These are all personal. And they can twist and stunt, or lie fallow in us, or help us grow strong.
But the coal mines, the darkness, like the mark of Cain, are as deep within us as the eons that formed us both, slowly and inexorably, millions of years ago, where patient time has crushed and dried ancient seas, swamps, forests, animals into something mysterious that seduced the world we lived in, made us rich, made us poor, broke the health of some of us, made some of us refugees. Like people who have been deserted by a lover, we may hate it, but we never forget it.
We who have the stigma recognize each other. Sometimes the recognition goes unrealized for years. At least ten years after I grew close to a fine singer, Bobby Short, I found out that his father had been mashed in a mine in Kentucky. Ann Beattie, who is a writer of Mozartean prose, told me after I had known her for twenty years that her mother was brought up in a coal town. An Englishman I nearly married and whom I knew only as an RAF pilot turned out to be the heir to a coal fortune. What is it that is between us, deeper than country, race, or sex? Is it a residue of genetic fear, the fear of the exploited depths?
Even if we have lived far from it, maybe we inherit a residue, too, daily and unnoticed, the awareness of darkness, listening and not listening for accidents, for boom and bust, for failure, for wild success, all from the earth-stabbing we are born into. Mining, the boring for oil, gas, minerals, unlike farming or the making of things, is the taking of something that only more eons can give back. It informs politics, too. The ones who do the dangerous work produce paper profit for people without names or responsibility or care.
Almost directly across the river from where Addie was born was the house my great-grandfather had built with money from salt. It was one of the three largest farms in the valley, a place that must have seemed a mirage to her in the starving time. On early mornings as a child in linsey-woolsey, she would have seen the horses and the cattle, and a few black people who had stayed and were getting wages of a sort and enough to eat, all like shadows, moving too far away for her ever to reach.
Then, when Addie was twenty-three or -four, there was a moment so short, so far-reaching, that it still haunts my dreams and my habits as it did my mother's. It fashioned our bones. My mother was brittle with imitations of some faraway gentility, always thin, always upright, always watchful, and yet, within, she carried the voice of Addie, mocking her as she mocked herself. The moment was the meeting of my grandparents.
There has always been a mystery to how Addie and my grandfather met and what they could have had in common. Maybe they shared the immediacy of memory of a better, richer earth before the black change came in their lifetime. Was the meeting on the ferry that plied between her town and his?
Or was it on a country road? I like to think so. Make it a hot morning and sandy bottom at the mouth of one of the hollows. The althea is in bloom, and scraggly roses crawl over a stump in the sandy front yard--a hot morning that smells of grass and sand and the wet wash that flaps on the line.
I see Addie standing by the fence, as if she is resting for a minute from too much work. The sweat, the glow, as Mr. Tompkins would have called it, stands out on her lovely forehead. She is small and lithe and beautiful. One of her daughters clings to her skirt. The two older girls are playing in the yard, but quietly, watching her from time to time as if they don't know which way the cat will jump. Behind her is the small whitewashed house with a stoop. Two rocking chairs stand still beside a corrugated tin washtub with a hand wringer clamped to it. On the other corner of the stoop, where it can catch the sun, is an incongruously elegant wire stand that holds a huge blooming lily.
She had whitewashed the house herself. She never in her life, she told me when she was an old woman, could get a man to do a damned thing. I think that just at the moment he passed by, she leaned forward on the fence and sighed and he could see the sun glistening on the hair at the nape of her neck.
He was driving downriver. Maybe. Addie made her legends come true by lodging them with us. There were our own legends and hers, elusive and ponderous, and there behind them all, deep within the heavy old woman, was Addie when she was young, slim, beautiful, on a sand road by the river in the summertime, the valley lush around her, as it is still, so lush that it hides its scars and its sins every summer until the leaves fall on the slag heaps and the forgotten shacks and the car graveyards and the piles of old tires.
She told me that the first time she saw him, he wore a flaring red tie, a poet's tie, she called it when she told the story, and he drove the fastest four-in-hand, the lord of the valley, she said, when he got his hands on those reins. She said he cut a dash. He had been the valley's eligible bachelor as long as anybody could remember and still was what they called a great catch.
The tools Miss Addie had to change the only life she could have chosen as the wife of a coal miner, were, first, her imperious eyes. She had, too, hidden maybe even from herself, a will, a passion as strong and as inevitable as the river's current.
But on that morning her life was confined by the huddled coal town, the Company Store, her stepparents' house, the little church, Church of God Holy Roller, the washtub that sat on a bench on the stoop. The sun behind her made a halo around her head of glossy hair. That was what I think he saw at that moment, at that place or at another place, a glance and then a look, and the lives of so many would spin out from it, including her children's, my cousins,' my brother's, and my own.
After they met, did she dream at the washtub, in the privy, in the tumbled bed where she had to do her marital duty, calling the children, wandering down to the riverbank and watching the river flow toward where he might be? A whole new life opened up, a dream come true and turning terrible. All she knew was passion. It was all that her life had taught her, that and work, passion and work, and for herself, all her life afterwards, an imagination the people around her never had, except for my mother, the only child out of all of them who inherited it, and was teased, it being the time when women were derided for such things. It terrified her. She threw the talent away. I picked it up--a hidden gauntlet, grandmother to mother to child--as carelessly as if I had found it in an alley and wondered what it was. I was punished for years for picking up something that might be dirty.
I guess that the year they met was 1887. I think the passion caught fire so that perhaps neither of them, certainly not Addie, could ever have withstood it. He, in his mid-forties, may have been more calculating in his watching as he passed, judging as he would have judged a dog, a horse, another man. He was the favorite son. Whatever he wanted, he got, or took with all the charm that was so famous. He wanted her. At last he had found somebody who could give him a family, which was the only thing in human relations he hadn't tasted, one way or another.
And Addie, who had never been in a house that had an upstairs? She watched across the river that had nearly taken her life and saw faraway, wide green fields and slow-moving horses feeding, and in the distance, almost out of sight, nestled in the hills beyond the river, a tiny red brick house. Its many windows caught the sun, and she knew that it was not tiny, but huge, bigger than any house she had ever seen. But the river was between her and my grandfather, impossible. She must have stood there, as she had when she was a child, long before she met my grandfather, and gazed across to the north side, the far, far side of the river.
"Across the river," the house where Addie's lover lived, was as far from the coal dust she knew as the moon. It rose above the river mist as unattainable as Paradise, and as near as the ferry that ran between East Bank and Cedar Grove. But what she saw in the distance was more a mirage than just green hills, rolling fields, and calm. She saw feudal divisions of money, property, and power in what had been, such a short time ago, a frontier valley.
Posted April 10, 2002