My grandmother sat on my bed. Her feet did not touch the floor.
“What in your life are you most proud of, grandma?” I asked. I remember feeling my young eyes narrowing, brows furrowing. I’d wanted to ask an important question and thought I had. My own legs dangled from the chair I’d moved up so I could sit face to face with the older woman.
My grandmother, whom I knew as mighty in her own kitchen, then ducked her head as her upbringing would have dictated. “Each of my children,” she answered shyly, “lived to be an adult.”
Warranted 22 karat gold. 1000 ovenproof stoneware. Two pitchers, reminders of the past, grace my own dining room. One is for serving cream, vanilla-colored and lovely to the touch. Rimmed in gold, this pitcher was used for elaborate family dinners and special occasions. For the table set with a fine linen cloth. The other pitcher, the brown one, was used to hold molasses. Real molasses, not pancake syrup. This pitcher graced a table covered not with linen but with oilcloth. This table was set in a room heated by a coal stove and lit by a kerosene lamp. Coffee was “served up” in a small tin pot. Either of my grandfathers could be caught drinking coffee straight from the saucer because “it cools quicker in here, Sis,” they’d apologize to me, the horrified child.
“Tell me about the good old days,” I’d tried to coax my living grandmother to talk on this particular afternoon. One set of grandparents had already “passed on,” but with the couple left, I was determined to fulfill my social studies assignment of interviewing relatives about our family history.
“There were none,” came my grandmother’s reply. Sensing my dismay, though, the older woman did encourage me to “go talk with your grandfather. He’s the one with all the good stories.”
My grandfather reported that both sides of my family had come from the coalfields. A society hard to imagine today—tent towns, shantytowns, and then later company houses often cast right at the lip of the mine. Boys, like my own grandfather, who’d dropped out of school at nine, ten, or twelve, not because their own parents didn’t respect education, but because theirs were families desperately in need of money.
Coal mining paid 17 cents a ton at the turn of the century. There were no benefits for the seriously injured. No retirement. No widow’s compensation. And there were many widows. Women who’d dropped out of school at sixteen, fifteen, even thirteen, to have families. Miners’ wives. Women who spent whole daytimes and nighttimes listening for the whistle, meaning “their man” would arrive safely home. Theirs was a husband who’d once again been spared death in a roof fall, a fire, an explosion. All for a dollar a day.
My living set of grandparents had made it somewhat successfully out of the mines. This particular grandfather had last worked and actually retired from an office where he “could see the sun,” and hence, the proud set of china with its cream pitcher for his wife. However, both sets of my grandparents had, for much longer, supported homes that sported sturdy molasses pitchers.
My grandfather did have “good stories.” He made it clear, my grandfather did, that one need not accept “what was given” in life. Indeed, one person could make a difference. However, when my grandfather heard about my grandmother’s comment, his brow had furrowed quite deeply. The man suggested I ask her about surviving strikes and unemployment, about surviving downright violence. Grandma had “faced down” guns, my grandfather swore. She’d faced down armed “thugs” sent to seek him out, the union organizer! Why, my own grandmother had been the one to go to the door!
I decided to try again. My grandmother did not dwell on facing guns, though. She spoke mainly of housework. Hard work. My grandmother spoke of doing loads and loads of wash out in the yard each week. Of stirring boiling water in a large tub until her skin “blistered.” Of breathing in black dust and washing out black dust from pit clothes, miner’s clothes that were heavy and twice the size of her own thin frame. She spoke of making soap from lye. Yes, lye burned. She spoke of making biscuits each and every morning of her life. Why, all meals were cooked “fresh from scratch” three times a day. At dawn, my grandmother rose first on workdays to pack lunch buckets.
My grandmother told me the story of how sometimes the women actually met to “gather weeds.” Certain wild green herbs grew near the mine’s railroad tracks, and also the Queen Ann’s Lace, wild carrots. The women would also gather wild berries and the sassafras root for sweet tea. All could be “cooked up” and consumed during the lean times.
Some of the weeds were also for medicine. There were few doctors. Families could get aspirin, but no antibiotics. Lemon with comfrey or mullein, sometimes “a hot toddy” was what my grandparents’ children, my parents, got for a cold. There was molasses or sorghum and a bit of horehound for a bad cough. All of my grandparents, I learned, had lost brothers and sisters during childhood. Young cousins and companions. My grandmother’s own mother had born eleven children. Of eleven, only three survived to become “of age.” Only my own grandmother had survived past middle age. Hence, the “lucky” woman’s answer: “Each of my children lived to be….”
That afternoon in my young life, I nodded a “thank you” toward my grandmother and was off into a setting sun. I do not know if I even bothered to write down the woman’s initial answer to my all-important question. I have, however, never forgotten it. Never forgotten this moment when, actually, I was quite puzzled by Grandma’s answer. I, who did not have to fear dirt, disease, and imminent death because of the women who’d rolled up their sleeves and “cleaned up” before me. Women who generously served to me both cream and molasses–“Eat, eat.”
Moments cast in china, moments forged from stone. The two pitchers from my own table will be passed on to generations, just this very season off to college and “on their own.” Pitchers whose grace-filled lines and hard-bitten angles speak of lifetimes that refused to give way to poverty and despair. Pitchers whose lines curve and angle much like the flesh-and-blood arms that cleaned, cared for, and taught that as long as one struggles to create some sense of belonging, some sense of home–one need not fear. The legacy from working women, every one: we can endure, even prevail. After all, our beloved human family has been delivered shining thus far.