Made of Dust

An imperfect guy who likes to write

Coal People

My great aunt Jessie squinted in the direction of the sun as it set on the hill, orange light broken up between the trees. She was reminiscing with us about her dad, my great grandfather, Dee Barrett.

She was there. I mean back there, back then. Back when she was a young girl, sitting at the table with her dusty feet swinging from the chair’s height, surrounded by her sisters and brothers. She was with us in the physical, but in her mind she was at that table.

She shared with us that evening how she could vividly remember the way he’d come home, kick his filthy boots off and remove his miner’s hat before entering the tiny place they all called home.

She talked of the excitement they would all feel when he walked through the door. She said “Mammy”, their mother and devoted miner’s wife, would light up too. Their joy was not because he was fun and playful. He wasn’t the dad who teased his children and wrestled them on the floor. His hands didn’t reach for them with gifts or treats.

Hardened country men just weren’t that way. Particularly ones who had been to war and come home to a life of poverty and faint hope. Coal miners’ joy, any of it the Great Depression hadn’t already squelched, was most certainly left behind somewhere in those black caverns of the earth. No, the joy the family experienced was just for the fact he was home from the mines.

She continued to watch the sun sink down over that hill and talked in soft words about how bright blue his eyes were. They wouldn’t touch their plates until he had sat down himself, at the head of the table, still covered head to toe in coal soot. She said some nights his face and hands were so black that he was almost unrecognizable. Those blue eyes of his though, she seemed to glare as if concentrating to see them in front of her.

She spent several minutes telling us a variety of stories about the people of their coal valley, where wages were not even U.S. currency, but coins and stamps the company itself had made and could only be used in the company store. It was like working for free.

A valley of hard-working, God-fearing, poor folks with next to nothing, yet they found joy. Theirs were pleasures of the simple sort. Being together. Telling stories, both true and legend. Singing gospel songs or blue grass on the porch, picking on banjos and handmade instruments and most certainly breaking bread.

They didn’t have electricity. They had no plumbing. They grew their own foods and hunted for foods they could not grow. They didn’t have toys, games or even shoes on their feet. The clothes they wore, they made themselves. They shared everything, including beds, sleeping head to toe with siblings. They didn’t have much and wouldn’t have had anything if it weren’t for a few very important things they did have.

They had family and friends.
They had music.
They had neighbors, real neighbors…real community.
They had morals.
They had work ethic.
They had a school, they all shared a room.
They had resourcefulness.
They had remedies and solutions for all sorts of ailments.
They had a deep connection to the woods, streams, mountains and animals around them.
They had mercy and grace for one another.
They had courage, strength and honor. No one person was better than anybody else.
They had faith, worshiped God and thanked Him for all they did have.

As the sun eventually tucked itself behind that hill and the sky began to lose its brilliant evening colors, I could see my great aunt had a smile on her face.  No matter how tired, physically beat down or covered in earth my great grandfather was when he came home, he was home.  For that brief moment she was home too.

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  1. The picture above is of my great grandfather Dee Barrett and his wife, Minerva Jane or “Jenny”. Dee was a World War One veteran and worked in the mines until he passed away at a relatively young age. My grandmother was around 16 and my aunt Jessie in this story was a bit younger than that when he died.

  2. Jenny would be my great aunt. Her brother Nip was my grandpa. This is a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing.

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