We live in a world where plenty is the norm, where kids wear designer sneakers and carry the latest technology in their back pocket. We become agitated when our computer takes more than 29 seconds to boot. We text our friends, download a new movie and send out for sushi…but how often do we stop to consider how truly fortunate we are to have all this at our fingertips?
Oh, we read about brave and noble characters who have overcome life’s toughest challenges, and we’re touched by those stories. We even pass the book along to a friend, unless of course it’s on our Kindle. For those of you who have read Jeanette Walls The Glass Castle you might think being poor means fly-by-night, irresponsible, down-on-my-luck circumstances that entitle a person or an entire family to behave badly…but I know better.
Two summers ago, my husband and I had a reunion with my cousins who I hadn’t seen for more years than I care tocount. Of course, we’d all changed…everyone was now married; all were parents, some grandparents. The men I knew as boys now had thinning hair and expanding waistlines, the girls who could at one time jump across the creek now had bad knees and carried pictures of grandbabies…but one thing had not changed…the entire family’s love for one another and for Our Heavenly Father.
We met in North Carolina and in a caravan of cousins we traveled back to West Virginia…along a stretch of road called Camel’s Creek, and then onto an old dirt road that runs through the hollow of two mountains until it reaches the scattering of houses that make up the tiny town of Coal Fork. We found the spot of their old homestead, but the house was long gone. Lost perhaps to time, intruders possibly, or coal mine speculators looking to make way for railroad tracks. It never was much of a house anyway – tiny according to today’s standards – but it was more of a home than any house I’ve ever seen.
My Mother, Geri, was born in Coal Fork, as was Ruth, her sister. They were two in a family of eleven siblings. Times were hard and the family didn’t have the luxury of living under one roof; once the girls were old enough, they were sent to live with relatives who needed house help, the boys became farm hands for neighbors. Despite what many might consider unbearable circumstances, the three girls – Ruth, Rita and Geri – remained close. Geri married a college boy from Charleston and moved to the city. Ruth married a young man she met at church and remained in Coal Fork. Rita…well, this story is about Ruth, so I’ll come back to Rita later.
Ruth and her new husband received one wedding gift – a wooden rolling pin. So with their meager possessions they moved into a tiny four room house that was wedged into the side of the coal mining mountain. Ruth carried her Bible in one hand and the rolling pin in the other. Did they own the house? No. Did they rent the house? No. In the little community of Coal Fork, there was no owning or renting; if a house stood empty and you had need of it…you were free to move in. Of course the house was little more than walls and a floor, there was no plumbing, no electricity, just a cast iron coal stove to be used for both cooking and heat. But it was a house and it was free. It had a stretch of land suitable for some farming and a well that had a plentiful supply of cold clear water – water far better than anything you’ve ever tasted.
Ruth and Clifford raised their family in that little house. Within the first five years they had three boys and a few years later a little girl. Clifford worked in the coal mine. He and Ruth rose long before dawn, she poured a scuttle of coal into the stove and cooked breakfast as he pulled on the overalls he wore for work. At times his lunch bucket held little more than a piece of bread and jar of coffee, still the family never turned away a person in need of food. What they had, they shared. Clifford claimed he was one of the lucky ones, because when the mine laid men off, he kept his job. A job where he spent ten hours a day chiseling coal from the tunnel that curled into the belly of the mountain…his back hunched so his shoulders were level with his knees. When Clifford came trudging home at night, he was covered with the black of coal dust, the only skin to be seen was pale circles around his eyes where he’d worn miner’s goggles.
You’d think such a life of hardship would cause a family to be bitter, and if this were one of my novels it probably would go that way. But this story is real. It’s not a group of characters I’ve created in my mind, these are living breathing people whose love of one another and Faith in Jesus Christ influences me still today.
I look back on Coal Fork, with its dusty dirt road, dry creek bed and one-room general store and find some of my fondest childhood memories. I remember my Daddy cussing as his big car bounced in and out of ruts along the road. I remember having biscuits and gravy for breakfast, real honey thick with pieces of honeycomb, carrying a salt shaker with me and eating tomatoes fresh off the vine. I remember hunting dogs that curled against your leg like a lap dog and cousins who were forever playing pranks on one another. I remember Uncle Clifford’s wry sense of humor and Aunt Ruth’s patience as she turned a deaf ear to my Daddy cussing. I remember that before every meal the family thanked God for all they had, and if I was still awake when Ruth climbed into her bed, I could hear her whispered prayers asking for God’s forgiveness of my Daddy. I remember all of this because for many years we spent summer vacations in Coal Fork.
But of course, remembering these things can sometimes be the most wonderful part of this story…on Friday you’ll learn what happened to Ruth and Rita, the third sister. You’ll also get to meet my cousins as they are today.