A True Story and the People to Go with It

. . . my father once asked me a series of questions that suddenly made me wonder whether I understood even my father whom I felt closer to than any man I have ever known. “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.”

Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?

“Only then will you understand what happened and why.

“It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

— Norman  Maclean, A River Runs through It

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (conclusion)

In a recent public conversation about young educated people leaving West Virginia to find their fortunes elsewhere, I heard someone say, “Maybe someday they will appreciate the security of these mountains.” The word security struck me as strange, and so I asked the speaker what she meant. “That word you used, security, why did you choose that word? Because I don’t see this place that way. Help me understand.”

She never answered me, and while I thought several times about going back to prompt her again, I let it end there. I let the question linger in the air because that is its natural place. It is a place between mountains like echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

And so my heart returns to Charles Edward. I do not know very much about him at all, but in some ways I think I know enough. He was the father of 10 children. He had one devoted wife. He was a coal miner in West Virginia and he died at a young age. I imagine he gave his all to the people he loved, and that all probably meant very little of his true self left over for his own use. As a mother, in some ways I can relate to that. I imagine him drifting off at night to a hard-earned rest: Did he dream of his own boyhood, of what he thought the world would bring? Did he drift off to sleep in pleasant thoughts of life beyond the mines, or did he struggle with nightmares of never seeing light again? Though I don’t like to think of it, I worry that my great-grandfather was caught in the echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

Charles Edwards’ youngest son was my grandfather. He died this year, the last of the ten. He will be buried in Fayetteville earth with many of his brothers and sisters, though I don’t know in this moment where his father lies. He probably lies in the ground in Fayetteville with his family. His bones are melding with the land by now, a strange and lovely constitution of former miner, father, husband and mineral. There is poetry in the idea that a miner returns to the earth, lends his elements to reconstituting the very place from which he took value.

As I bury my own grandfather, I think of Charles Edward. I wish I could have been there, could have seen his body laid to rest, could have cried for him on the day he went into the ground for the last time. He hasn’t been much of anyone to me most of my life because he was literally cut out of the picture. He has been a ghost. It is not for me to judge why he has had no real presence with the living until now, but it is for me to call him up, now. It is for me, his great-granddaughter, to pull back the thin muslin curtains and call his name. It is for me to call out to my silent great-grandfather in my own moment of decision. I need him to talk to me.

What do you think I should do? Your great-great-granddaughter is here now. By the way, she’s gorgeous, I wish you could see her ride Lopaz, the wooden gliding horse you used to have for your own children on the porch in Fayetteville. Remember Lopaz? I wish I could know you knew Lopaz was making this generation of children happy. Did you make this horse? Buy it with the little non-scrip you had?

But I’m losing my place. What I want to know is what you think I should do right now. My husband has a calling to Vermont. It’s far away, but it’s mountains. Really nice mountains. And the work is all about helping people find good things to do that don’t compromise the life they want. He’ll be trying to help make fathers of ten children sleep easier at night. You’d like what we are doing. I think you would like it.

What was that you asked? Do we win, does your great-great-granddaughter win? I know why you ask that question, and I forgive you. I forgive myself for wanting to say yes. I think at the end of the long goodbye, my answer to you and to myself is that she one day will not recognize the question. She will live in such a way and in such a world that she tilts her head at the idea of winners and losers. There is very little, Charles Edward, that I can give you. You are gone in most definitions of a life, and yet here I am writing about you and feeling motivated by your spirit. I give you all I can around shaping the future.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

I say it is security because it does not change. I say that which does not change should be evaluated with a keen eye and unsentimental heart.

I say security is something to be challenged.

And I say letting go of this place hurts the heart, but only as the sunlight hurts one’s eyes when he walks out of the mine, and into his family’s future.

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 3)

As inelegant as it is, here I must say that not all things are wrong. There are many hard and beautiful truths in a West Virginia life that other places may never know. I am reminded of the betrayals of a true love. Not much is lost when you never cared, but there is a unique pain in the infidelities of the one to whom you’ve given your heart.  West Virginia births and raises true loves. We don’t do things half-way or a little bit. We come out into this place like wires, connected, to a land of creeks and sky and hills. We hit the earth a part of it, and “mountain mama” is not just a line from a song. Whether we want to have this relationship or not, it is both a birthright and a burden.

I think again of my great-grandfather. What did Charles Edward grow up believing? I imagine he was like the rest of us. He grew up believing that that is a good place. He no doubt came into the world with a strong belief that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would disparage what West Virginia is would be easily and swiftly defeated. What he did not know, what none of us know at first, is that this place is a commodity to be traded, and that loyalty to this place is like falling in love with a hooker. That sounds terribly harsh, but I believe it is accurate.

Those in the know will tell you that despite the fantasy, no one sells their physical and spiritual self because they want to do it. They do it because the children are hungry. They do it for reasons that call out for solutions, and the way in which the terrible wants are met with resolution is not in question; at least not in the moment of decision and transaction. As a parent myself, I understand this on a fundamental level. There are some things I like to think I would never do, but I’ve held a screaming, hungry child. I know what it is to have every element of your responsibility and your future literally in your hands, and to have to make a decision about how to help. All morality and ethical consideration goes out the window, save the system you’ve inherited as a parent. That system says that the ends justify the means. Feeding and clothing and caring for your child is the only purpose you have, and the only bedrock principle of how you make decisions.

If West Virginia were a parent, would she struggle so? I wonder when I personify this place if it would trade its streams, its mountains, its communities for food for its young? And as I even ask the question, I know the answer as clear as anything I’ve never known. It is as simple as not wanting to know. Yes, she has sacrificed all of that. And like real human children do, we have learned from our mother’s example. Give in, give up, justify. Do whatever you have to do so that your children don’t go hungry. Don’t obsess or worry about the now, or even about the consequences of the now. Save the little ones, and forget yourself. Your only real purpose is to keep them alive.

Charles Edward had ten children and a wife to keep alive. Did he ever even have the time to wonder about the effects of coal mining on anyone but himself? He was a miner back in the days when men bent low and stayed low in the dark from dawn until night, chipping away at the rock walls of the mine shafts with hammers and chisels. They loaded chunks of coal into rail cars that followed them into the dark and that carried their treasure safely out into the daylight; they continued to strike the hard earth, in the dark. At one time there weren’t many jobs for a young Fayette County man that would allow him to feed ten children and a spouse. Mining coal developed a reputation for being the only work worth doing that even approached paying enough to feed a large family.

Of course, the coal industry rarely paid actual money. Miners were paid in scrip, a form of artificial money that could only be used to cover expenses at company stores. I don’t know for sure if Charles Edward was paid in scrip, but I imagine that at least part of his compensation came in this form. This kind of control over the fruits of a worker’s labor is one of the most notorious and detested parts of the coal industry legacy in West Virginia. After days of mind-numbing hacking at stone walls and hour upon hour of breathing filthy and even toxic air, a man’s paycheck still was not a moment of freedom. Your compensation was something you were privileged to hand right back to the company that kept you in dangerous conditions underground, and you were supposed to be grateful that they would take it back from you for whatever they could spare.

You were supposed to be glad that you had a job at all, and while this trite outlook always has some genuine truth to it, the sentiment behind it has not served my people well in West Virginia. The gratitude philosophy just dead ends into a stone wall. There is never been much public discourse about deserving better, and I ask silently if that is because there hasn’t been much private speech about it, either. Somewhere along the line, articulating wanting and deserving more became corrupted into being selfish and disdainful of this place. Layered decades of a mono-economy made any words against the one thing everyone believed mattered, the coal industry, into dangerous hate speech.

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 2)

West Virginia has a long history of conflict. The conflicts are documented in our history books and highlight near-wars like the Battle of Blair Mountain and the textbook controversy that rocked Kanawha County in the 1970s. In these kinds of fights guns are fired; sometimes, people die; and almost always there is a gouged scar on our cultural landscape. On a recent visit to Vermont I heard myself trying to explain how things play out in West Virginia, and what came out of my mouth after a few glasses of wine was, “We are a culture of winners and losers.” My dinner guests were hooked, I could tell, when they put down their own glasses and leaned in to hear more.

I wasn’t sure there was more to say, and I didn’t expound much on my words; I think they speak for themselves. But I have rolled the wine-tinged phrase around and around in my own mind without ceasing for days now.

West Virginia is a culture of winners and losers.

It is something so obvious once I said it out loud that I hardly know where to start, and yet the looks on my dinner companions faces said it was not entirely normal or expected. I think communities that are thriving well  beyond where we are in West Virginia have either never accepted the winner/loser dynamic or have so solidly rejected it long ago that hearing it is still real in other places is like hearing that dragons exist. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but you are shocked nonetheless.

We don’t really resolve things in West Virginia, and accepting that reality has been a slow train coming for me. I haven’t wanted to internalize and deal with the fact that this is a place of hurts that fester untended. In an odd way I think we’ve learned, as a people, to allow our wounds to go full-tilt into permanent scars. When I look at mountain top removal, or mine deaths, or cancer rates or any number of “wound like” truths in our Appalachian landscape, I wonder. I wonder where that line is when people stop trying to get well and start trying to catalogue their scars. “We may never get well,” they say, “but we can make you look at what happened. We can try to make you look at what you did.”

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye

Following is a spontaneous first draft intro for my next creative nonficition packet submission. It will get better. But one of my favorite parts about pursuing my MFA is to just sit down and let it out.

I am leaving West Virginia. It is not the first time, but it will be the last time. I’ve gone through some cyclical departures, but this one has all the signs of a last goodbye.

This strange place is my home. I was conceived and born in Appalachia, as were many of my recent maternal and paternal ancestors and relatives. We are hardwired into the hills. We come from the rock and the soil and yes, if I am truthful we come from the coal. One of my great grandfathers was a coal miner. He fathered ten children, and yet when I see his photograph not twenty years before his death he is a young man. Handsome, tall and lean, he has a look about him that is telling; it tells of an internal age that a casual viewer cannot gauge.  For some reason I’ve never been able to articulate until now, I have refused to own him. My entire family has refused to own him. His name was Charles Edward, but I had to look up my grandfather’s obituary to confirm that. I’m not sure how I know his wife’s name by heart, but his is a thin disintegrated sheet of paper in my history files.

I can still see her photograph with no effort. In fact her son, my grandfather, prominently displayed for years her photograph in his home. In the picture she is as a vibrant young woman in a lace collared blouse and rich blue velvet gown. It was decades after I first saw this photograph that I saw the entire picture. She is smiling with the glow of love because she is standing next to her husband, Charles Edward, in the unaltered photo.

But in the altered photo my great grandfather is no more. His son, my grandfather, decided to cut him out of the picture and to remove him from a visual place in his home where children and great grandchildren might know who he was. On some level, cutting him out of the picture was who he was to my grandfather, Charles Edward’s son. My grandfather was the ninth of ten, and his father died a coal miner well before he had any real memory of his dad. Better to just cut him away. I don’t know that I would post photographs of an unknown parent myself.

But the unknown, the dead and absent, the ghosts, don’t just go away. They tolerate the neuroses of the living for a time, but they always return to claim what is theirs. This is the story of what is Charles Edward’s. I’ve come to believe that my final goodbye to West Virginia on behalf of myself and Charles Edward’s great-great-granddaughter is part of what belongs to him.

Lopaz | a sonnet for my grandfather

Lopaz

And then the Lamb invited me to look,

and I beheld a faithful flowing steed

with one glorious hoof atop the Book

my life faithfully kept in word and deed.

My ears perceived a gentle rising call

emitted from a distant room beyond

my sight, and all those lost to me were tall

and gathered locked in bright eyes wet and strong.

In life I rode in boughs the wooden frame

painted to color life but pulseless ran

amidst the kingdoms, rivers, stones, by name

I called them mine; yet now I rein my plan.

Gesturing to the stable my mother

stands before my sisters and my brothers.

I wrote this in honor of my grandfather, H. H. Sims. He is transitioning from this life to the next, the last of 10 children raised in Fayette County, West Virginia. Lopaz is the name they gave their rocking horse; he’s really more of a gliding horse. He has served many children through the generations!