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.