Without roads, the coal had to be loaded onto barges and shipped down river
Many years have passed since I spent summer vacations in Coal Fork, West Virginia…and during those years a number of things happened. Rita, the third sister, discovered she was unable to have children and adopted a little girl; a few years later Breast Cancer took her life and the child was sent to live with Ruth and Clifford.
The boys grew up and went off to college; two ultimately became teachers and the third a Pastor. Ruth, a woman who could see beauty in everything, lost her eyesight completely. Although her world was one of total darkness, she never stopped thanking Jesus for her many blessings.
When the work at the coal mines finally gave out, Uncle Clifford uprooted the remainder of the family and moved to Michigan where the three boys had settled and where he’d been able to find another job. Although Ruth couldn’t tell day from night, she continued to cook the family meals, bake pies and take care of eight grandbabies while her sons and daughters were at work.
My Mama told me homemade pies were simply a frozen Mrs. Smith’s Pie, popped into the oven and served warm. She also said to be sure the empty box is buried at the bottom of the trash bag…but that wasn’t how Ruth made hers. She used real flour and creamy butter. She didn’t have to see the texture of the dough to know when it was perfect, she felt it. She could tell by smell which apples were sweet enough for the pie. Although her eyes were blind, her heart could see everything it held dear and when a lesser person might have given up, her Faith made her strong.
Years passed with Geri and Ruth’s families each going their own way. There was no longer a reason for us to go back to Coal Fork and Michigan wasn’t the place my Mama called home, so the sisters sent Christmas cards, called one another on their birthday and on two occasions Ruth’s family brought her to see Geri – first to New Jersey and then to Maryland…but the cousins who had been so close drifted apart. I remember the day my Mother received word that Ruth had passed away, she went into the bedroom, pulled the shade down and cried like a baby. Although I’d not seen my cousins since childhood, I had the odd sensation that a chunk of my world had suddenly snapped off and floated into oblivion. Even then, I made no move to reach out and take back what was mine.
We toured the black tunnels of a coal mine, then stepped out into the sun for one last picture.
About four or five years ago I tracked down Rita Lou, the cousin named after the third sister. She’d moved to North Carolina as had one of her brothers. Rita Lou now had two married sons and grandbabies of her own! We spoke several times on the phone and then last summer when we were planning our annual trek to New Jersey, I called Rita Lou and asked if we could come by…just like her Mom she welcomed us with open arms. In fact, she arranged a reunion with all the cousins. Our caravan of cousins traveled to West Virginia, tracked through the places we’d known as children, visited with a few distant relations still living in the area, and then ventured off to tour one of the few still working coal mines. Seeing the cramped spaces those men worked in and feeling the damp chill of that dark underground hole brought back powerful memories of Clifford flashing a white toothed smile from a blackened face.
I learned a lot from Ruth and Clifford…but unfortunately I didn’t realize the value of what they taught me until it was too late to tell them. I used to believe they were poor, but now I realize it’s the rest of us who are poor. That family had everything they wanted in life, while most of us are still reaching for another gold ring.
Rest easy Ruth and Clifford, because your work on earth is done, and done well. And Aunt Ruth…when you see Geri, give her a hug from me and tell her I miss her more than words could every say.
There are a lot more stories to tell, but right now words seem meaningless…so I suppose I’ll just get to the point of this story. Tell the people you love just how much you love them…because like the old Coal Fork homestead, one day they may simply disappear and you'll be left with little more than memories…so make them sweet.
West Virginia…where rivers wind their way through green mountains beneath a misty sky
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.
Spare Change was recently named a nominee in the category of General Fiction in the E-Festival of Words Best Independent Book Awards Competition, what a lovely surprise that was. With the hustle and bustle of all that's been happening, I sometimes lose track of all the good things that have gone by and receiving an award is certainly high on my list; so I'm taking a moment right here and now to recap all the wonderful accolades my books have received over the past few years.
In 2012 SPARE CHANGE won the Reviewer's Choice Award in both the General Fiction Category and the Southeast Literature Category. It also won the Jack Eadon Award for Best Contemporary Fiction. In 2012 SPARE CHANGE was also one of the five finalist chosen by a panel of judges as the Finalist in the BookBundlz Annual Competition. And, in 2010, while it was still in manuscript form, SPARE CHANGE won a Royal Palm Literary Award for Unpublisheed Women's Fiction.
In 2011 What Matters Most, a book scheduled to be released November of 2012 also won a Royal Palm Literary Award for Unpublished Women's Fiction.
In 2009 CRACKS IN THE SIDEWALK took First Place honors in the Royal Palm Literary Award Competition for Published Women's Fiction. This book went on to win the FPA PRESIDENT'S BOOK AWARD GOLD MEDAL in 2011.
In 2008 GIRL CHILD won the National League of American Pen Women Award for Published Fiction.
All in all, the past four years have been truly exciting, but perhaps the greatest of all accolades is when a reader comes up to me and says…I just finished reading your book and I loved it. Those are the words that every author longs to hear.
I am thrilled beyond words at having won three different awards in the 2011 Reader Views Literary Competition so I'd like to share a bit about Reader Views, explain how the competition.is structured, and provide a link so that you can browse the list of winners in other categories and hopefully discover some wonderful books by authors you've never read.
I'll start with a profile of Reader Views – it is an organization that brings readers and writers together by introducing selected books in a monthly newsletter that boasts over fifteen thousand subscribers. In a little over five years they have reviewed over eight thousand books and worked with over three thousand authors including such notables as James Patterson.
Reader Views sponsor an annual literary competition that is open to authors worldwide, providing the submission is written in the English language. The competition offers twenty-five different categories/genres plus nine regional categories and three global categories – reaching out as far as Australia. The competition also offers Specialized Awards that are sponsored by individuals and companies involved in the publishing industry. You cannot enter the competitions for Specialized Awards, they are selected on merit and to qualify for consideration, the book must be a first place winner in at least one of the competition categories. To browse the list of winning books, click on the following link…
The 2010 Winners included such blockbuster hits as Leona Bodie's Shadow Cay, which took the First Place Award in the Mystery/Suspense category, so it's easy to understand why I am so awed by the honors paid to SPARE CHANGE. It won the First Place Award for General Fiction and the First Place Award for Southeast Regional Fiction. It was then selected as the Receipant of the Jack Eadon Award for Best Book of Contemporary Drama,an award sponsored and named for Jack Eadon, author of the American Drama Series. Oh yes, did I mention that award carried a $100. prize? Okay, it's not a fortune, but most writing competitions are for bragging rights only, so for me it's a very big deal and the first cash award I've ever won.
The Criteria for determining the winner of the Jack Eadon Award is as follows: The characters must be vividly portrayed as those individuals who can exist side-by-side with someone living in this world now, dealing with issues of today in a dramatic fashion. The setting must be excruciatingly real.
Writing is a solitary business – day after day it's just you and your computer, which is probably why writers can often be found hopping around the social media sites, developing virtual friendships, sharing bits and pieces of news with readers and other writers. We don't get the ongoing feedback of a boss or co-worker, we don't get a pat on the back or a ‘job well done' – we operate in somewhat of a void – UNTIL something like this comes along. For a writer it's a great big ‘ataboy' so please bear with us if we're inclined to brag a bit when we win an award. And although these awards are delightfully prestigious, the truth is our greatest reward is when a reader says “I just couldn't put this book down.”
Reader comments and reviews are the lifeblood of an author – so, I want to pause here for a moment and thank all the wonderful readers who took the time to write and post reviews. THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART.
Well friends and fans, since you’ve already met Ethan Allen Doyle, the lad in Spare Change, I thought you’d like to meet some of the other characters and get to know a bit about them. Today I’ll be interviewing Olivia Ann Westerly, the protagonist of the story. Olivia is a woman who at a young age developed an overabundance of superstitions and beliefs that clung to her for most of her years. Granted, some of those beliefs may seem a bit quirky to those of us who see life through the eye of reality, but Olivia knew what she knew and there was no changing her mind until Ethan Allen came along.
Q: Olivia, you married Charlie Doyle when you were well into your fifties; but as a young woman you were engaged to Herbert Flannery, why didn’t you marry him?
A: It wasn’t because of Herbert, he was a fine gentleman, but I wanted to be somebody and do something with my life—that was never going to happen if I was tied to a man who expected me to cook, clean house and have babies.
Q: That leads me to believe you’re an extremely independent woman, are you?
A: I suppose I am, but it’s little wonder. I’ve seen so many of my friends lose their dreams and expectations in a pile of dirty diapers; marriage means babies and with babies that’s exactly what happens. After seeing how Francine had to beg her no-good husband for a few dollars to buy a new dress, I knew I never wanted to be in such a position. Right then and there I decided to be in charge of my own life and make my way in world alone, without a husband to boss me around or babies to weigh me down.
Q: But making your way alone, isn’t that rather lonely?
A: Yes. There were times when I was very lonely—but I thought loneliness was the price I had to pay if I wanted a career and independence. It wasn’t until after Charlie died that I came to understand how terribly lonely, loneliness is.
Q: After Charlie died, did you ever consider remarrying?
A: Heavens no! There was only one Charlie Doyle in this world, and not a man on earth could measure up to him. Of course Ethan Allen finally happened along—he was the spitting image of Charlie, the same eyes, same mischievous smile, same way of stealing a woman’s heart…
Q: Ethan Allen, was he related to you?
A: At first I didn’t think so, but once I came to know the boy he was as close to me as my own skin.
Q: When did you first meet Ethan Allen?
A: It was a few months after Charlie died. I’d gone to the movies with Fred Porter and when I got home the boy and that sorry-looking dog of his were sleeping in front of my apartment door.
Q: Were you glad to see him?
A: I should say not! First off, the boy was eleven years old—eleven is the unluckiest number on earth! Everything bad that has ever happened to me was somehow connected to the number eleven. I had the measles when I was eleven, my best friend moved away when I was eleven and Charlie died on the eleventh day of our honeymoon. So no, I was not happy to discover an eleven-year old boy claiming that I was his only living relative.
Q: The story of your and Ethan Allen’s relationship is told in the book SPARE CHANGE – are you the hero of that story?
A: Hero? ~Laugh~ I rather think not. I didn’t exactly step up to save Ethan Allen, the lad just sort of burrowed his way into my heart and once he was there, I only did what any grandma would do. I guess if there’s a hero in the story it would be him. He’s the one who turned his poor little life around and made something of himself.
Q: Didn’t you also turn your life around?
A: Yes, but I was fortunate enough to have any number of friends to help me. The only person Ethan Allen had, was me.
Q: Looking back, are you happy with the way things turned out?
A: ~sigh~ Well, I would have liked to have had more time on earth with Charlie, but God in all His wisdom, gave me Ethan Allen instead.
Q: If you could do it all over again, what would you change?
A: I was about to say that I wouldn’t have wasted all those years worrying about a husband and babies weighing me down ~laugh~ but then I realized, if things were different, I might never have known Charlie and Ethan Allen, so after thinking it over, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Q: Would you suggest book lovers read SPARE CHANGE?
A: Sugar, that’s something they ought to decide for themselves.