Let me take a step back and explain how I got to that chilly morning in March.
My life is divided into two parts: Before my mother died and after. It’s like a wall, thick and impenetrable, dissecting the two halves of my life. On one side is my childhood, fast a fading memory. On the other side, all the responsibilities of adulthood. Those responsibilities came a little too soon, but I wasn’t given a choice.
I was born on December 6, 1907, early on a cold, snow-filled morning in a coal mining camp just south of Fairmont, West Virginia. Born in a company camp, delivered by a coal company doctor, in a company home that looked just like every other miner’s home in town.
I was my parent’s first child, my birth barely noted by the outside world, no grand announcements, just a pair of happy and relieved parents. They didn’t have long to enjoy my arrival, for December 6, 1907, has not gone down in history as the day Molly Anne McCoy was born. Rather, it is the date of the worst mining disaster in American history.
Around 10am, in the town of Monongah, several miles away from where my family lived, an explosion ripped through two of the Fairmont Coal Company’s connected mines, burning alive or suffocating some 500 men and boys hundreds of feet beneath the ground. The explosion was felt for miles: People were thrown to the ground, pavement cracked, streetcars were knocked off their rails.
Monongah was a model mining town. It was a place where you wanted to work, where my father had wanted to work. A friend convinced my father to join him instead. Otherwise, hours after I was born, I might’ve lost a parent.
My father was among the volunteers who rushed to the scene to help with the rescue, full and willing to risk his own life for the chance to save another’s. Miners looked out for one another. That’s just what they did.
But there wasn’t anything for him to do. Not anything for anybody to do. Those boys and men down in those mines were all cinder and ash. Some died mercifully quick, right where they stood. One man died as he ate an early lunch, what once must have been a sandwich raised to his lips. Others were found in ugly, contorted positions, fighting for a breath of precious air that never came. With no one to save, my father helped dig out the bodies.
My mother told me it was the only time he ever thought about finding a new line of work. My father was good at what he did though, and for someone without a lot of schooling, the pay was good too. Mostly though, it was force of habit. He had been mining for years now, change was hard.
This was the life I was born into. Danger and death. Brotherhood and courage.
As the years passed, and my father took us from town to town in search of better wages, I was joined by two brothers and a sister, Frankie, the Bane of My Existence, Bobby, the Boy Wonder, and the youngest, little Gracie Ellen, thumb sucker extraordinaire.
Being the oldest came with its own set of privileges and responsibilities. The good: I got to boss my younger siblings around, and the bad: I had to keep them out of trouble, about as easy a task as herding extremely clever, accident-prone cats. Of all the responsibilities I had though, my most important one was going to school.
My mother was a single-minded lady. She had a plan for each and every one of us, and that plan included going to school and having a better life than what she and my father had. When she was laid up by frequent bouts of illness, the coal dust hanging heavy in the air seeming to do her no favors, she refused to let me quit school to help out more around the house. It wasn’t part of her plan.
She’d watch us while we played and while we did our homework, her lips pursed, observing us, seeing where our talents lied. She had the highest hopes for Bobby, I think. Maybe even college, if by some miracle we could get the money for it. The boy was smart, the smartest kid I had ever met. A walking dictionary, he knew the meaning of words I had never heard of, and he actually liked school, though I had no idea why. He had already skipped one grade. He probably would’ve skipped more, if we hadn’t moved around so much.
I think my mother’s plan for Frankie was for him to live to see his eighteenth birthday. If Frankie succeeded in that, he’d end up being an Arctic explorer or a professional alligator wrestler, although my mother probably preferred him to take up a more respectable trade.
She didn’t quite know what to do with me. Cook, seamstress and gardener were all out. I strongly suspected she kept me in school in the hope I’d discover some hidden talent. Maybe juggling.
I think my mother even had a plan for her and Dad. He certainly wasn’t going to come up with one himself. He focused on what was in front of him, not on what would or could be.
There were two things my mother was religious about: Religion and money. She scrimped and saved, taking on all sorts of side jobs to make a few extra pennies. Sometimes, out on the porch in the evening, I’d overhear my mother talking to my father about opening up a store one day. That was her dream.
My mother didn’t have a plan for Gracie. Gracie had been too young when my mother died for her to decide on anything.
October 22, 1918. That’s the day everything changed. That fall, just as the Germans were close to defeat and the Great War was nearing an end, just as we thought the deaths would stop, our people started dying at home.
They called it the Spanish Flu. I called it my greatest fear, for it took my mother from me forever. Forty million people around the world shared her fate. The flu claimed its victims quickly. People often died in less than a day, coughing up blood, turning blue.
In the coal camps of West Virginia, schools and churches closed. People became prisoners in their own homes, afraid to step outside. A horse-drawn hearse passed by our house every night, traveling in the dark so the living wouldn’t see how many had died that day. While the rich ordered expensive tonics we made due with prayers and old folk remedies. When the doctors were afraid to visit the sick, a few brave miners’ wives took up the burden.
October 22, as golden leaves covered the ground, the hearse stopped at our door. A few days before, my mother had complained of a headache. She said she was tired. Looking back, it must have been bad, she never complained.
My father knew what it was. He sent us to a neighbor’s house and refused to leave my mother’s side. Did everything in his power to save her. But almost every family in the coal camp had lost a loved one, we couldn’t escape. The hearse came.
Then my father, one of those people who you wondered if they ever got sick at all, fell ill. I had never been so afraid. I couldn’t console my brothers. I didn’t know what to do with Gracie. Without our father, we’d be split apart and sent to a children’s home. He was all we had left.
Somehow my father survived, through sheer stubbornness I suspect. He wasn’t going to have his children be orphans in less than a week.
When it was certain my father would live, the questions started. With our mother gone, what would become of us children? A man couldn’t raise them alone. Couldn’t keep house. That was woman’s work.
I remember lingering in the hallway, listening in while the miners’ wives gently tried to coax an answer out of my shell shocked father. What would he do?
“We’ll find a way,” my father muttered tersely, but the women weren’t having it.
I think my father was afraid to ask, afraid I’d say ‘no,’ afraid to ask me to end my childhood. Maybe afraid I wasn’t up to the job. So I volunteered.
It wasn’t as preposterous as it first appeared. Happened all the time. Almost eleven years old, the eldest daughter, my mother had taught me almost everything I needed to know to run a household. I could work a stove, knew how not to burn myself on the iron. I already cared for my brothers and sister. What I couldn’t do was be their mother. But I could keep them safe, keep them fed. I could make sure they weren’t sent away from my father and in doing so, help them keep the one parent they still had. They’d just have to make do with me, the sorriest of imitations.
I dropped out of school. I never liked it anyway. My mother wouldn’t have approved, but more than anything, she would’ve wanted the family to stay together. I know that.
There was an unspoken understanding between my father and me: I might have had to drop out, but we were both determined to see to it that my brothers and sister made it through.
After an unhappy Christmas, we were on the move again. There were too many memories in that old company house we called a home, we had to keep going. We headed south. Word was there were good jobs to be had, in a town called Matewan.