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rules of labor
1903. Pickney City, Alabama
My grandmother's story:
The mining slums of Mabren, Praco, Flat Creek, Bessie, thin red rivers of road traversing the hills, cutting through the dark mornings of hazy mist as the miners leave the boardinghouse, the smell of coffee in their nostrils, their hands clutching paper sacks and thermoses as they trek down the dirt roads to the mines. "Get movin'" one of the miners says, squinting in the pale, steamy half-light. By 6:00, there's a lull in the clatter, the rooms empty of the gruff noise of men. My great-grandmother Barbara stops in the dining room to catch her breath as the watery light seeps through the windows. The sky is lint gray, a faded blanket. She works as a cook in her sister Kate's boardinghouse in Pinckney City, Alabama, peeling potatoes, baking bread, stirring endless pots of stew. At night the stink of cabbage clings to her dark hair as she unpins her topknot, shaking loose her glory. But there's little time to think about such things. One shift has left, another is due within the hour, tired, hungry men, coal dust beneath their fingernails, clotted in the pores of their skin.
Barbara walks briskly from the dining hall into the kitchen where her three-year old daughter, Mary, my grandmother, sits in a corner, playing with a broom. Even Mary can be useful, can bring silverware from the tables, can pick up trash dropped on the floor. And she must be useful for they have nothing to give the world but their labor.
"Mary," Barbara calls."Stop doing that. You go on and pick up the forks dropped around the tables."
The girl looks up from her play with the gratitude of a lover. She slaps her hands together for attention, but her mother, distracted, has already turned away.
Barbara stares at the pile of dishes, then briefly at her hands, rough and red, wrinkled from dishwashing, the knuckles thickening, nails clipped short, but there's no reason for vanity when you've come straight from a famine in Scotland, the hard knotting of the stomach, the dull ache of the brain. If she stares too long, she remembers the stench of steerage, that claustrophobic darkness. The smells waft over her: urine, shit, sweat, the stink of cramped bodies. She swallows quickly, stiffening, surprised when Mary brushes up against her, trying to nestle into her skirts. She swipes at her, an automatic defense. There's work to be done. "Go on now," she says brusquely, straightening, her fingers dipping into the greasy water.
As Mary slinks away, back to chores, to the shiny flash of a fork, that tiny place where her hand brushed her mother's body still tingles. She thinks of it greedily, a place she can lick, the smell of her mother embedded in the folds of her skin. But even these moments, too haphazard to be called attention, are numbered when Barbara meets Mr. Herron, a miner who likes the looks of the thin, pragmatic Barbara but has no use for a needy stepdaughter. "Mama," Mary whimpers, but it's no use. Once Barbara and Mr. Herron marry, Mary will no longer sleep beside her mother, but will be banished, like a character in Dickens, to a pallet behind the wood stove.
"It's time for you to get out and go to work," her stepfather says one night as he reaches for the steaming plate of potatoes she put before his plate. Mary, age eleven, nods, knowing there's no use to try to wheedle sympathy, to plead for mercy.
"Tomorrow," he barks and begins to eat.
It snows that night, a fine mist of white that covers the hills, the steep curve of the mountain now softened by drifts. Mary wakes at dawn, dresses and makes breakfast for the family, biscuits and eggs, thick coffee for her stepfather. She dresses as warmly as she can, woolen stockings, dress, sweater, coat handed down from her mother, working shoes that cover her ankles. Once the dishes are washed, the floor swept, she watches her mother bend over to feed the youngest boy, her nipples like darkened scars on a withered chest. Mary knows better than to try to kiss her mother, that tall, thin woman who never smiles. Instead, she says, "I'm leaving," and steps out into whiteness, gasps at the cold, and starts walking. It's so cold she can't stop, but walks quickly down the road the four miles from Pinckney City to Bessie, her hands beating at her arms to keep them warm. She looks gratefully at the trees, snow nestled in the branches, the boughs thickened in their heavy white coats, then shivers, pulling her arms into her chest, cold seeping through her toes. She's still a child, her body quick and supple, a girl's body with the beginning indentation at the waist, her breasts flat, only the pucker of nipples. Her mind lifts only at the slice of blue sky she sees just over the hills. Perhaps by noon, a weak sun will shine, warming her shoulders, her knees.
But when the sun breaks through, it warms only the nape of her neck, the tops of her shoulders. It never reaches the soft fold of her ears, the frozen tundra of her toes. She stops at the community store, relieved to be inside, near a fire and warmth. She huddles close to the fire, staring at the floor, then foolishly blurts, "I'm a good worker. Is anybody in these hills needing help?" She blushes, puts both hands inside her pockets. The manager, a soft-hearted man, takes pity on her, and sends her home to tend his sick wife and care for his children.
Bessie is a thriving community, serving the Bessie Mine, the Risco Mine, the Porter Mine, workers coming and going, moving into the shed-like houses, buying food and clothes at the Commissary, whites living up in the mountains, blacks down in the hollow, closer to the mines. The Ku Klux Klan is already entrenched, kicking out unmarried couples "living in sin," "doing their dirt," and guarding the separation between blacks and whites. There's only a remnant of a union and little regulation in the mines, but back-breaking labor is all most of the people know. For four years, Mary works for the family in Bessie, goes to church every Sunday, the only place besides the Commissary where people come together, the women in hand-sewn cotton dresses and flowered hats, the men in starched white shirts, grave-faced and solemn. Among them there's a young man, dark and intense, whose eyes shadow Mary's progress up the aisle. He's been raised by grandparents, reported to be petted, "spoiled rotten," though not spoiled enough to escape the mines. A hard worker, he's been doing a man's work since age thirteen. He's also a dark-haired flirt, a man who likes the ladies, who stares through Mary's clothes at church until she feels as though she's singing hymns dressed only in her bare skin.
One day he follows behind her, studying her as she walks down the aisle, the service over, women knotted together in bunches, the flowers on their hats faded, their bodies gone to fat, the men, often reed thin, tubercular, talking and smoking, furtively eyeing the pretty, young girls. She can feel him behind her, little jolts of electricity at her breasts, in her stomach, sudden nips of pleasure she can't explain.
"Can I walk you home?" he asks simply. His black hair is thick, brushed back from his face, the eyebrows dark and straight, the thick lashes meeting as he blinks. Only his smile curls in sexual expectation.
She turns away quickly. Lord, it's like a hungry animal breathing down her throat. "No," she says, trying not to stare into those hazel eyes, to get lost in that wicked thrill. It's the first time she's said no to an invitation, no to affection. Oh, to see his face buried in her neck, those hands reaching inside to undo the stiffening she's worked so hard to preserve! Imprinted on her brain is the day her stepfather drug her outside and made her lay her head on the chopping block, the wood cold with frost, her cheek going numb. At seven, she was so frightened, her body shook uncontrollably like a chicken's. Her stepfather's face was red, blotched with anger, the ax beside his feet, ready for use. "I'll learn you," he roared while her hands trembled as she held onto the wood, waiting, knowing the world only as a dark, devouring place and yet having no words for her fears. Of course, he didn't do it, didn't need to now that she understood she was at his mercy, bound to him even for permission to live.
The good-looking miner catches her answer like a player fielding a ball. He smiles, waits only a second, then says, "Hell, I didn't want to do it anyway," and strides ahead of her into the white heat of a summer afternoon.
But the good-looking miner is persistent, his appetite whetted. And eventually she submitsan old storyperhaps giving him first a shy smile, lifting dreamy eyes to stare at the gleaming whiteness of his neck. She isn't pretty as he is, isn't the "catch of the community," but merely a girl never loved, a girl starved, trained for endurance.
How they slip off together no one has ever told me. But in their early moments of desire, their unprotected passion, a child is conceived. Maybe what the good-looking miner gives her is warmth, the heat of bodies lying together on a soft bed of leaves. I want to imagine that she felt beautiful that night, that all the warmth her mother had withheld came flooding through her body, a puddle of delight tongued into the soft membrane of her ear, exploding inside her chest, and spreading to that gap between her legs. I want the sex to have been worth it, a hot needle of passion she'd hoped all of her life to have. Now she's had it and more.
After she discovers her pregnancy, her life turns a corner, for the only certainty now is that she'll be humiliated, gossiped about, dismissed, maybe even run out of town. I wonder if she thought about that first trek from Pinckney City to Bessiethe journey begun when she was eleven, a mere girl sent out, unconsoled and alone, to wrestle with the world. I imagine her sitting outside, staring at coal dust blowing its black breath into the air and wishing she'd walked further, to the next town or the next, no matter the hunger, the distance. Why hadn't her stepfather demanded this of her? Not four miles, but six, eight, ten. She feels the tingle in her neck, the ax ready to strike. But her torment is yoked to silence: an infant, a baby, when she's yet to wonder at the stars thick across a winter sky. She's only a child herself, groping and blind at the bottom of a pitcher until that one moment she was lifted up. Lifted up and held.
But inevitably, it happens. Mr. Holt sends her home. "It's best," he says. She doesn't plead or beg mercy. No carrying on, no fuss, just the trek back to Pickney City, one foot in front of another. "I'm going to have a baby." She stands before her mother, saying it quickly, unemotionally, looking at the hem of her dress. It's mid-morning, the men gone to work, to school, the clock on the stove ticking its infernal time. When she looks up, it's only to stare at the curtains at the window, dove white, so clean the threads seem illuminated, separate.
"Slut," her mother finally says, voice low, her face twisted with malice. "Whore." It's barely a whisper, but behind it the cold creeps through the bottom of her shoes, moving up her ankles, her legs into the hidden bones of her hips. Snow. Exile. The hard knot of resistance.
Barbara sits upright, a poker of stiffness. She will not have a bastard held up before the community. And the next day she marches off to the sheriff, makes him find the good-looking miner and bring him to justice. "There's a bairn coming, and a marriage has to be forced."
Now the outer darkness closes in: my grandfather agrees to marry Mary but he refuses to love her, and every year makes her pay for her sins. My aunts said he kept her "barefoot and pregnant" while he played "bull of the woods," having affairs with neighboring women which made her cry late into the night when her children were in bed, the covers pulled up to their chins. I close my eyes, sitting outside my Iowa house where the earth is damp and sweet-smelling and try to see my grandmother, wishing I could comfort her. She's a woman who knows so little of affection, who's never learned to give it willingly or receive it with joy. When I look at the cheap watercolor portrait painted after their wedding, my grandmother's hair is light auburn, swept upward in a Gibson Girl style that flatters her full face. And yet already the eyes betray an uncertainty, a pensiveness to her stare that hints at defeat. Beside her, my grandfather stares jauntily at me, sure of himself, his gaze direct, his hat pushed slightly back on his head to reveal a shock of thick black hair. Unlike my grandmother's eyes, his eyes are curious, piercing. He has work to do, a life to construct.
Of course I know my grandmother could have refused my grandfather, could have denied him her body, and yet from the women in my family it's agreed that she loved him, perhaps even adored him though there was little affection and much arguing between them. "She washed the house inside and out when he came home from Hot Springs, Arkansas, after treatment for arthritis," my mother once told me. And I can imagine Mary cleaning the floor, the rugs, turning the mattresses, washing the curtains, the linens, all for the homecoming of a man who gave her no softness, no visible love.
"When she died at fifty-seven," my aunt tells me, "Daddy was called from night duty at the mines. He worked the 11-7 shift as mine foreman." I imagine him at the beginning of his work, the damp, chemical smells filling his nostrils after the cool summer night air. He has walked to work as he has every night for thirty years. Now he's begun overseeing the shift, checking the last shift's production, flicking on the lamp atop his hat. When they call him home, he's surprised, then inexplicably frightened. He runs from the mines, scrambling up that graveled road, the pebbles skittering beneath his feet, his heart shuddering with fear. When he bursts through the door, he sees her corpse lying on the sofa, the doctor standing beside her. She is stone dead, turning blue. But he thrusts himself down beside her, throwing his tough arms over her body, his head resting on her belly. "Oh Mary," he blurts, his hands grabbing for her flesh, "I never loved anyone but you."
But, of course, she can't hear him, she, who never learned to turn her back, but waited patiently for him to hold her close in the curve of his arms. And this too is our legacy, this terror of emotion, of unburdening the heart.
Though my grandmother's death seems the proper end to the story, it's not the whole story. It says nothing about the sixteen children she bore, three of whom died at birth. It says nothing about how this family created dreams, how hopes were slyly sought and just as privately buried.
In the spring of 1919, a day when the trees are dressed with their new flesh of leaves, the sky clear blue, a great puff of cumulus clouds drifting towards the east, my grandparents cart their belongings to a new house, one with larger rooms, a back yard and a porch where my grandmother can brush her dog's white fluffy hair. With furniture stacked crudely inside the truck, with mattresses tied on top, the family begins their journey, down one set of hills into the valley and up another cluster of hills. It's only as they're driving into the new community that a wind springs up. The trees bend and whip, branches snapping. Dust drifts in thick, smoggy whorls. Screen doors bang against doorframes, clapping hard, wood against wood. As they cross Devon Bridge, my grandmother turns once, surprised to see the mattresses flap like wings and glide over the top of the truck. They rise for a moment before drifting slowly down to the river where they hit the creek with a thunderous splash. Maybe what she felt was a moment of lightness, an awe at the beauty of their flight, until she looked at the empty space now filled with a drenching rain. As she turns back to the road, rain slashes the red dirt; the hills begin to bleed.
They drive on. There's nothing else to do. The mattresses can't be retrieved. The night's comfort will be compromised but they have blankets, pillows, towels, clean sheets and food. The mattresses will never be mentioned. Like dreams, they're better left unnoticed, small hopes sinking deeper and deeper into thick, red mud.
It feels ridiculous to go to the graveyard and stand before my grandmother's grave. But still I do. It's just after Easter and someone has decorated the grave next to hers with giant, life-size Easter bunnies in lavender and pink. Their bunny ears bend stiffly in the wind. They hold bunches of browning lilies in their paws. Their whiskers are broom straws painted a snowy white. They're so absurd, I laugh.
"I hope Mary Baxter's getting a good chuckle over this one," I tell my aunt.
"She certainly better be," my aunt agrees, straightening the bunny's white satin tie. "There's not much else to do."
I stare at the grave, feeling nothing but this mild hilarity, and the sudden thought that I've never really known what my mother felt about her mother. Did she resent her? Was she ashamed of her? And was that all part of a complicated love? In a subtle way, I think Mother and I agreed not to talk much about Mary Baxter, this woman who was abandoned, who was both too hard and too vulnerable, who lived a life that couldn't be fixed. As I'm staring at the grave, the wind shifts, blowing wildly, and I see a flight of birds scatter noisily from a telephone wire. And suddenly I do feel something, an uneasiness as if I've brushed up against something hidden. I've always known my grandmother couldn't prepare my mother for the giant step of leaving the mines for life in the middle class. I see Mother earnestly trying to explain about vitamins and disease, the need for spinach and broccoli along with potatoes, her mother half-listening, too busy to give anyone her full attention. I see my mother sigh with exasperation, and then a restless anxiety grabs hold of my heart: neither could my mother prepare me for the life of an artist, that desperate fall into a more intimate place. We both left one world, the world of childhood familiarity, and could never really explain where we'd gone.
Three mothers. Three daughters. Can anyone prepare you for a life?
By Sam Hodges
The University of Alabama Press
Copyright © 1992 Sam Hodges. All rights reserved.