I recently finished reading “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. It is a wonderful memoire by a woman who lived a very challenging childhood and came through the rigors of having an incredibly dysfunctional set of parents. Despite having a mother and father who were, at least by today’s standards, very neglectful of their children’s basic needs, Ms. Walls loved and loves them very much. Her stories are, at times, painful to read, but she shares them with a nonchalance that emphasizes how forgiving children can be. I was particularly touched by the fact that her last and longest “home”, really a broken down shack on the edge of the town of Walsh, West Virginia; is spitting distance from where my family is from.
Well, not me, but my mother and father were both born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia. That part of the country is incredibly poor and “The Glass Castle” brought back my memories of visiting my grandparents, and aunts and uncles that lived there. Bluefield, like Walsh, is a coal mining town. Both of my grandfathers worked in the mines and eventually contracted black lung. Every one of my father’s siblings, except one I believe, died from some form of cancer or accidental death (of course Aunt Sadie and Aunt Jean are still alive God bless them-but even Sadie is a cancer survivor).
We lived in Jersey from the time I was born; so for two weeks every summer we’d visit the Austins and the Barretts in Bluefield. I remember going to town and how run down everything seemed. The roads were either not paved or were cracking, and all of the homes ran on coal. My Maw Maw Barrett (isn’t It weird that we called our grandparents by their last names) had a huge garage type space that was filled with shiney, black, lumps of coal for the winter. I couldn’t walk anywhere barefoot that my feet didn’t turn black.
The trips were always fun for us and I remember some of my cousins, whom I thought all talked funny, would run around in tattered dresses, barefoot, hair knotted and flying in the wind. Mom would always make us dress nicely when we visited our aunts and uncles; particularly Aunt Patsy.
As I reflect back on things, mom would always save Aunt Patsy’s visit for the end of the trip. She’d dress up in a dressy outfit, a bag that matched her shoes and bright red lipstick to finish it off. My younger sister Lisa and daddy and I would all pile into the car and head into the city. Patsy’s house was at the top of a hill that was on one of the city streets. You had to climb probably 30 concrete steps with no railing, to get to the porch and when you got there one or more little kid, my cousins, would come running out to greet us; looking like they hadn’t showered in weeks.
Most times daddy wouldn’t go up there and I realize now that mom dreaded it but it was something she felt she had to do. She was the oldest after all, and had responsibilities to her siblings. I remember how bad the house smelled. It was dark and musty; hardly any furniture and nothing in the way of drinks to offer or share. Patsy was married to Jimmy and Jimmy was as skinny as Aunt Patsy was fat. I think he got a disability check and that was the only way they really had anything.
We’d stay with Aunt Patsy for a while. She was really too big to even get up and move around the house while we were there. After a bit mom would say it was time to leave. She’d always reach into Aunt Patsy’s pocket with some amount of money to leave as a gift. Patsy would protest slightly and then just smile her black toothy grin. When we’d get back to where dad was waiting with the car, mom would put her arm up on the window and rub her head.
“Poor Patsy” mom would say.
And then the rest of our visit she’d break into tears now and again.
That’s how things were in Bluefield. I think dad knew he had to get his family out of there but daddy only had a 6th grade education. In fact of my father’s siblings, only two out of nine ever graduated high school. It just wasn’t that important when there was money to be made in the mines. So daddy started driving a truck for a company called Smith Transfer. Eventually Mr. Smith made him a manager and finally moved daddy up to New Jersey to run his northern terminal. Daddy was the night manager so he’d go into work at 4:45 at night and come home around 3 a.m.
To make ends meet he would get up at 5:30 a.m. and drive a school bus. During the day he’d work odd jobs doing carpentry or paving driveways. He’d work till his afternoon bus run and then come home and sleep for about 30 minutes after dinner. By 4:45 it was time for him to start all over again. That was his routine. He did what he had to do to keep his family out of that cycle of poverty.
I remember how proud he was when I started college, although I wasn’t really aware of what it meant to him. Daddy didn’t get to see me graduate college. He died of massive heart failure when I was in my second semester of my senior year. He was 56 years old; way to young to leave us.
Daddy got us out of Bluefield, but it literally cost him his life.
Parenting Tip of the Day: Share your stories, start a blog or write your kids letters. My boys never met my dad; but they know about him and what he did for me and my family. I always tell them, the harder they work, the luckier they’ll get.