by Robert Stothart
Featured Art: Generations, by John Schriner
…I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse…
things which are not.
Now they’re standin’ in a rusty row all empty
And the L & N don’t stop here anymore.
Winter’s first fuel came cheap, scrap wood, free for the taking, piled along the road next to the sawmill half a mile back toward town from my house. Lying in bed—borrowed mattress on a patched linoleum floor—I listened to wood fires pop and snap taking night chill off my two rooms. Light from the yellow flames pierced through slots in the iron stove’s iron door and danced in reflection across the inside of my front window.
In September, Mother Annie told me to go get wood at the sawmill. I had no running water, only a well with a handpump and an outhouse at the place I rented. I had electricity and cooked on a hotplate. The potbellied stove stood cold in the center of my front room for two months.
The little red-shingled house sat off the road at the end of a fenced lawn. A few steps out the back door, just beyond the outhouse, railroad tracks ran along the bank of the Elk River as it flowed west out of, I’ll call it, Addington. The Elk River starts in the east of West Virginia, a region of forested mountains, deep-seated Paleozoic earth folds. The river drops down through subterranean passageways, rising again to curve north, west, then south before draining into the Kanawha River at Charleston, West Virginia’s capital.
Mother Annie shared a house with Tub, her son, and two grandchildren, not Tub’s kids. Their gray clapboard house perched across Route 20 from me on a dirt road that branched off the highway and climbed steeply away into hillside woods. Route 20 out of Addington parallels the river and the railroad bed (tracks since gone) for a short distance, then turns south into and around the mountains toward Cowan and Camden-on-Gauley.
Mother Annie watched me from her porch as I started down the hill toward the sawmill. She leaned from shadow into a swath of sun that would, at that same hour, diminish day by day into the dark of winter. Mother Annie, a tall angular woman, attended to her household with quiet perseverance.
Tub ran a community center in an unused Western Maryland Railway depot beside the tracks next to the sawmill. I worked with him part of each day and described him in a letter to my family: I sit for hours talking to Tub and his friends…. He is unbelievable…animated and definite….He alone runs the community center like a monarch with a firm strong hand. That was part of my job early on, part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty: handing out clothes and helping kids with homework. We had a small library and some desks in the empty depot.
Tub and I sorted clothes donated by churches from around the country to be given away to the poor. We put dresses and shirts out on racks. Much more came in than went out. We stacked boxes packed tight with clothes in the corners of the depot. When Tub said clothes, it sounded like crows. We made posters and fliers for community meetings, kept the place swept out and tidy. We set up folding chairs in the large room off the loading dock when needed for meetings. I frequently walked up to Tub’s house late in the day to talk.
Tub’s mother pointed out what I needed to know: “Evenin’s’ will start bein’ cold, but alls you need is some wood for now.”
When the roar of the buzz saws went silent at the end of the day, millhands gathered scrap cuttings from under the saw beds—butt ends of 2x4s, shims, and trimmings with scaly bark still on. The workers, covered in sawdust, carted wheelbarrow loads up to the road and dumped them. Families came for firewood through the evening, many stood around to talk. You could hear their coughs and their laughter and see the burning tips of cigarettes long into summer’s twilight. I stood by and listened.
This was 1967, the year Bob Gibson outpitched the Red Sox in the World Series. There was no radio signal strong enough to reach into the valley for my Sony transistor to pick up. No night games in the Series then, so I arranged some of my work in town during the afternoon games. I’d duck into the hotel behind the bank just off the courthouse square to catch an inning or two on the black and white console television always on in the lobby. I had loved the World Series ritual since third grade—that precious string of autumn days, four to seven of them with travel days mixed in suspending the drama, all of a piece with the color and scent of falling leaves and crisp air.
But in 1967, out of school and away from home for the first time, excitement for the World Series faded. No more listening furtively to games during class with my transiter in my desk and the little wire running under my shirt to the tiny earphone hidden in my ear.
A New York Yankees’ fan, I first watched Gibson overpower the Yankees in games five and seven of the 1964 Series. By 1967, the Yankee home run duo of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle had been broken up, and Maris was in the outfield behind Gibson for the Cardinals. Bob Gibson, his fierce glare and the way he poured his whole body into each pitch, held me in awe. This was more than baseball. I learned how being fatherless, poor, and black sustained Gibson’s dominance from the mound to home plate.
I now lived in a region of poverty where things were connected and weighed differently. Poverty is a state of its own with no fixed borders and generally ignored by the nation at large. Poverty’s citizens possess little, divorced from ownership of place, yet I marveled how most tenants lived with more communal rootedness, as well as love of where they were, than most owners. The determination I saw in Bob Gibson when I looked into his face on the hotel’s TV was there in coal miners’ faces, faces of lumbermen, faces of all those out of work and on welfare, mothers’ faces, children’s faces. It was as if each of them sat ready in the bullpen, and if called to the mound and handed the ball—men and women alike—they’d deliver with the intensity and accuracy of Bob Gibson.
By October, days closed early down in the river valley. Wood fires gave over to coal fires that burned all night. The man who rented me the house, a gaunt man sick with cancer, brought his pickup heaped high with cheap gob, a kind of waste coal loaded for him at Bolair’s tipple. I unloaded half the truck at his house, the other at mine, and we split the price.
Standing at her heating stove, Mother Annie showed me how to bank a coal fire to last the night. She stood over the firebox, door open wide, her face thrust deep in the shimmer of hot air as she sized up the bed of coals. Tub sat in his easy chair and watched. He deferred to his mom in everything, listening and watching as she gave instructions. They both dipped Copenhagen.
My stove was just like hers—squat iron firebox, potbelly with a large door to shovel coal in and a smaller lower door to shovel ashes out. Mother Annie stood long-wasted and manly. Her body bent to her left at the hip as if she’d wrestled an angel and still bore the mark. She rolled her hair tight into a bun and taught with her hands and her big knuckled fingers to describe the proper shape, the coal’s angle of repose, for feeding fire inside the firebox. She lifted her hands, fingers spread as if to make shadow puppets, showing how the draft from below feeds the fire under the black coals, and how gravity through the night feeds the coal, if loaded properly, gradually into the devouring flames.
In contrast to the sprightly wood fires of early fall, coal burned low, potent red. The coal fire shadowed creases in Mother Annie’s face, emphasizing deeper light of her life as mother, grandmother, and teacher.
About the time we shifted from wood fires to coal fires, Mother Annie said, “Time we got the pawpaws.” I’d never heard the word pawpaw, or if I had, it hadn’t registered. Tub sat dozing in his chair. Mother Annie lifted plates from her dry sink into the cupboard. Tub made no reply. I didn’t know what she meant.
Two days later the kitchen table and all her counters were covered with pawpaws. Her grandchildren in school, Mother Annie had gone out alone in the woods gathering pawpaws, the mountain custard apple.
Her harvest lay in neat rows, each fruit set carefully apart from any other. Pawpaws are a small wild fruit that looks like a misshapen pear. Her two grandkids ate supper carrying their plates of SpaghettiOs around the room. One light bulb burned unshaded overhead and cast our shadows across the walls.
Each pawpaw was firm, like a little greenish fist, the way children make fists, not clenched or angry fists, but tired and grimy fists, the way their fists fold closed when they come in at night, the way they hold them when they fall asleep on couch or rug.
Mother Annie said the fruit was ready. She’d give them the night and asked me to come by the next afternoon to help bury them. Her lower lip pooched out with dip as she surveyed her harvest from trees she knew back in the woods.
The next day, her grandkids helping, we carefully placed all the pawpaws in cardboard boxes. Each little fist shape wrapped in layers of newspaper so the skins wouldn’t touch and bruise. Under Mother Annie’s watchful eye, we stacked the boxes into a rusty wagon she pulled from under the porch. We wedged in a bag of sawdust from the sawmill. Using a shovel as a walking stick, Mother Annie led the way. The kids and I followed, pulling the wagon while trying to balance the load on a narrow path uphill into the woods. I’d never seen Mother Annie away from her house or yard. After limping down the porch steps while grasping the railing and then the handle of the shovel, she picked up speed through the woods. Gathering her long dress around her legs, she led us over the shallow spill of a brook into a clearing where she asked me to dig out a rectangular pit.
She told us to spread a thick layer of sawdust over the bottom of the pit. Then more with her hands than her words, she showed how to mound each fruit with sawdust, making sure none were touching. Mother Annie, in a worn tweed overcoat with leather buttons and collar turned up, her silver hair falling out of the usual bun, and her cheeks rosy in the chill, leaned on the shovel during her gestured instructions. When all the fruit was in place, we finished with a topping of sawdust and smoothed the earth back over the pit. Down on our knees, the kids and I drew the soil back with our hands and forearms, leaving a shallow rectangular mound.
We hurried back as wind picked up high in the branches. Our sentences broke away in disconnected fragments. Clouds covered the setting sun, the rectangle of bare soil our only marker. Sister and brother crowded close to their grandmother on our way back. I watched the hump of her shoulders over the children’s heads. One of her hands grasped the shovel handle. With her other hand, she held aside small branches so they wouldn’t whip back across our eyes.
Everything I got is done and pawned
I walked alone off the hillside from Mother Annie’s and across Route 20 to my house. I didn’t have gloves; my fingers, stiff from the cold, smelled of open earth.
When I left home two weeks after graduating from Santa Fe High School, I didn’t have a clue where I’d end up. Our class motto was Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. OK, but what’s today? Already, high school—my day-to-day busyness for four years, making a total of thirteen busy years in public school—had, along with the World Series, simply left me and moved off in another world.
During my senior year, I’d met some VISTA volunteers (Volunteers in Service to America) assigned to Santa Fe. VISTA was an arm of the War on Poverty, an earnest Children’s Crusade. Santa Fe’s VISTAs worked with Brother Godfrey of the Congregation of Christian Brothers. He started La Clinica de la Gente and Young Citizens for Action, trying to address economic and racial issues, as well as gang tension in the city. I helped with dances and panel discussions. For our last dance of the year, we got Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs with their hit “Sugar Shack.” I admired the VISTAs for dropping out of college or quitting jobs to join the War on Poverty. I was keen then on anything besides a prescribed course. After Santa Fe, Brother Godfrey left the order and turned to making films: Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi—titles from the Hopi, life out of balance, life in transformation, life as war.
My family in Santa Fe was borderline poor because my dad was an artist, not a businessman. We couldn’t afford extras. I didn’t have a driver’s license, and I couldn’t plan on college.
At the minimum age of eighteen, I applied to VISTA, and they took me. After training two months in Cincinnati and Boone County, West Virginia, I was assigned to Addington, West Virginia, a town of about a thousand with a picturesque court house square, two hotels, post office (I had Box 66), restaurants, churches, and schools. I spent my time, however, on the edge of town, along the Elk River and up hollows into the woods. I worked with people who were out of work, most without prospects for work. I worked with families whose children quit school. Few families had running water. The ease of their talk, the prescience of their jokes, along with the clarity of their expressions of sorrow, drew me in.
I’d known about West Virginia’s poverty since John Kennedy ran there in 1960’s Democratic primary. Nearly every house I visited displayed a picture of Kennedy. Dick Gregory, in his essay “Shame,” writes about growing up poor in St. Louis and tells how he’d sneak out of class into the cloakroom to eat paste. He writes, Pregnant people get strange tastes. I was pregnant with poverty. Even though the government paid VISTAs a subsistence salary, I wasn’t really poor; I was privileged in comparison to those around me. I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I could write home for money or quit and go home any time. Powerful people and businesses held West Virginia’s wealth, wealth from lumber and coal, and most of that money left the state along with the trees and the coal, leaving the mountains scarred, the watercourses fouled, and the people poor in their bodies and in their homes.
Many in West Virginia felt the shame of poverty similar to Dick Gregory’s. I began bearing poverty among them as a young and naïve witness. I saw almost at once that handing out clothes was not the solution. As Dick Gregory explained: There was shame in wearing the brown and orange and white plaid mackinaw the welfare gave to three thousand boys. Poverty in a community that is held within the scaffold of poverty affects each body and each family. It impedes the spirits of mothers and fathers and the children they bear. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, in his last address before his death in 1968, spoke of the worldwide problem of disenfranchised people, characterizing exactly what I saw in West Virginia:
Man living under certain economic conditions is no longer in possession of the fruits of his life. His life is not his. His life is lived according to conditions determined by somebody else.
America waged two wars in 1967, both with economic roots deep in our history. I volunteered for the War on Poverty. Congress, however, kept cutting that war. I wrote my mom and dad one week we didn’t get paid, The politicians have nearly destroyed the War on Poverty. I claimed the government dismantled the War on Poverty at home to finance the war in Southeast Asia. Over time, the cost of both wars would prove untenable. That neither war appeared to be successful already gnawed at me.
Soon after I arrived, the focus of our work shifted from rendering services to community organizing. I learned, though slowly and awkwardly, the virtue of working with people toward common goals rather than doing things for them. I wrote home: We do not provide services. We get people to find the answers themselves and to work to solve their own problems…We are there to listen—perhaps suggest and sometimes push a little….
I started working with men on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). They met regularly in Tub’s community center, in the large open area inside the loading dock, some standing, some sitting, all leaning in and listening attentively. At my first meeting, the group voiced objections to being taken out along county roads to cut weeds in the name of work training. They proposed a program for dismantling abandoned houses and salvaging material to repair homes in the community. They wrote up grievances and demands:
The AFDC Program takes away our dignity and respect.
Cutting weeds doesn’t give any person training…. [It] exposes us to public abuse and criticism.
Supervisors use us for their own ends.
We recommend: Work projects such as reforestation, pollution control…road building and home repair for the needy…
In my enthusiasm after that meeting, I made the mistake of going out to one of the weed-cutting crews and walking the line of men handing out organizational fliers that included the list of grievances and proposals. I fashioned myself as Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. I hadn’t noticed that the boss was keeping cool in his car under a shady maple. When I finished, the boss stepped out of his car, walked up to me, put his fist in my face, and yelled in no uncertain terms to never talk to any of his men again. I was shaken, partly by the big man shouting at me, but even more so by the threatening reach and power of those for whom the big man worked. Soon after that I was arrested for violating Addington’s curfew. As I walked home one night, the town cop drove up behind me, stopped and frisked me. I spent a night in jail in the basement of the stone courthouse. I found out later that Addington had no curfew. Oscar Romero wrote that when working for the poor you must risk the same fate as the poor. I knew I had it easy.
There were six other VISTAs assigned to our Community Action Program. We lived and worked spread out over the county. The six shared access to government cars. Since I was the youngest and the only one without a driver’s license, I stayed on the outskirts of town. I walked everywhere, or hitched rides with the others. I was the only one engaged to be married. I’d met and fallen in love at the VISTA training site in Cincinnati. Margot Miller had dropped out of nursing school at the University of Washington to join VISTA. She’d been assigned to South Chicago to work with Mexican migrants. We planned to get married and start our lives together working with the poor even if Congress cut the War on Poverty. I wrote my family: Margot is the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. She is Scotch and her attitude is that we can always live on less. [Good, because I was profligate.] But you see the living is what is important.
As I walked back to my house the evening after burying pawpaws, I saw Lucy, a VISTA from San Francisco, standing by her car outside my gate. She lived in a cabin in the far north of the county where she’d chosen to work. She was a gregarious contemplative who preferred residing at a distance.
“Come on into town for supper.”
Driving in, she said we’d meet some of the others and go to the Roadside tavern afterwards. I told her about the pawpaws. Lucy was twenty-two and talked of Haight-Ashbury and the Filmore. She’d seen Jefferson Airplane and Joan Baez. We sat in the car outside the café not wanting to pause the story about the pawpaws. Paul, a VISTA on hiatus from Maryknoll seminary, walked up and pounded on the car roof and signaled us into the café.
“Quit it. We’re necking!” Lucy shouted. She wanted to know all about Mother Annie and insisted I introduce her.
After supper, we headed back out Route 20 to the Roadside, a rambling barn of a building. The Roadside, commonly known as the beer joint, sat on the edge of the highway over the river. I don’t remember if it even had a sign. They served only three-two beer, so at eighteen I was legal in West Virginia.
Inside a well-lighted bar with six barstools greeted customers. Hardly anyone ever sat at the bar. Emmie ran the place with a cold stare, but she admitted all comers, even our group of young outsiders from across America. The dance hall, a darker room with a juke box and tables around the dance floor, opened to the right. Many weeknights, the Volunteers in Service to America were Emmie’s only customers. Favorite songs on the juke box then were “Up Up and Away,” “Somebody to Love,” “Sounds of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” “The Letter,” “The Happening,” and “A Lighter Shade of Pale.”
Lucy drove with a lead foot. I rode with her to a Community Action conference at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia. Hank, one of the AFDC fathers, and Reverend Randall, a preacher, travelled with us. I wrote to my family about the drive:
Coming back was pretty funny—there were four of us. Lucy, driving, a man on welfare, and a Baptist preacher. Well, we were only going about 55, but this made the preacher nervous and fidgety; he even wanted to get off and take the bus—and besides that he started singing hymns!
The man on welfare was very quiet. I’ve known him awhile and really like him. He brings me some milk from his cow every week. But anyway, the preacher was talking on and on and really seemed nervous. And after a silence came out with, “Yup, I’ve been a Republican all my life,” and the man on welfare says, “That’s why you’re so nervous.”
Late one summer twilight, lost off a mountain road up near Lucy’s cabin, we walked an untended apple orchard, away from any house, trees scraggly and bent out of bearing shape. There was a long, empty building off to the side on the edge of deeper woods. Somebody had taken the door. All the windows were broken out. With benches pushed and stacked against the wall, it might have been a church. We pulled a couple of the benches out in the middle of the floor over the broken glass. We could barely see each other’s face and started talking about the round-faced little kid, Benny, from town. His mother worked long hours in one of the cafes. Following us around, Benny hung on our every word. Achingly lonely, never with friends his age, he started coming straight to our office on the top floor of the bank building every day after school. He had adult opinions on everything and made himself a part of our group, latching on to each of us.
Benny walked out to my house one Saturday when I was gone and borrowed all my Beethoven symphonies, took each vinyl record out of its sleeve. He carried them away in a poke. He also borrowed my little battery-powered record player like the one in Moonrise Kingdom. Bringing the record player and the records back, he handed me the stack and said he loved the music and played each for his mom. Scratched from carrying them to and from town, they were unplayable.
Lucy whispered out of the dark, “We need a school for Benny.” In the waning light, orchard branches twisted apart like arms of dancers frozen in reach. We dreamed about a free-form school for Benny and others. We’d find some abandoned building like the one we were in, buy and old school bus and bus them out of town, and start fresh, a school nothing like the one they went to, or any school we ever went to.
Sometime later, on a night of bitter cold, the first blast of the approaching Appalachian winter, Lucy and I stopped late at the Roadside. Emmie, her hair in curlers and wearing a fuzzy bathrobe, said she was about to close up but waved us in anyway. She stayed with us and visited. Emmie, elbows on the bar, smoked and talked with us more than ever.
Noticing a picture over the end of the bar, one we must have passed a hundred times, Lucy put her hand up to stop our talk, “What’s that?” There was a small framed Budweiser advertisement, a print titled Custer’s Last Fight. Emmie walked over and ran her finger across the frame to clear the dust and told us it was advertising from years ago, way before she had the bar. She said Anheuser-Busch sent out thousands to bars around the country. We stared at the picture a moment, then laughed: Custer, at the moment his luck ran out, had become advertising for Budweiser in bars across America.
Years later when I walked around the black iron fence where Custer supposedly fell on Last Stand Hill above I-90 and the Little Big Horn River, I remembered at once that faded print, Otto Becker’s Custer’s Last Fight. I thought of Crow Agency; and Lame Deer; and Pine Ridge; and White Clay, Nebraska; and Madrid, New Mexico; and Philipsburg, Montana; and White Center in Seattle; and Lowell, Massachusetts; and the Hawks Nest tunnel; and the Roadside beer joint along the Elk River, all of a piece, one big picture.
I was blind but now I see
Around Addington and up in the hollows, poverty shouldered individuals and communities high along a precarious ledge. The precipice was deep and not so much seen as felt, pulling on people gravitationally as they simply tried to make their way, often behind masks of superficial contentment. Poverty showed deeply in faces as summer became fall and fall turned to winter.
On Halloween, the town police car pulled up to the sidewalk where I was walking. The officer who had arrested me for violating curfew called me over. He pointed to the back seat where a little boy in a clown suit sat crying. The boy held his plastic mask on his lap like a basin for his tears.
“Do you know him?”
I did. His grandmother lived up my road. I got into the police car, and he drove us to her house. Shirley, without taking time to put in her dentures—she could eat a crisp apple without them—climbed in next to her grandson, and gave directions where to go in town. We stopped in front of the drugstore on the square. She told the officer we’d be OK. Shirley, holding the little boy’s hand, and I behind them climbed a narrow stairway to a hall of dark-stained wainscoting and knocked on an apartment door. Shirley’s daughter-in-law opened the door. Drunk, she slid behind the door and sank to her knees while opening it wider for us to enter.
Shirley was direct, “You forgot him at school, didn’t you? The cop found him walking the street. And the cop spotted Bob.”
The young woman pulled herself up by the doorknob and crossed over to her bed in their one room. Elbows on her knees, chin in one hand, she sobbed and wiped her nose with her other hand.
“Why doesn’t Buster write me, Shirley,…ever?”
Shirley’s son, Buster, was in Vietnam.
The little boy’s mom looked up and waved me over, “I can’t thank you enough.” Then pleaded, “Could you please stay here a little, until Franklin goes to sleep anyway.”
Shirley grabbed my arm and rose in front of me moving to her daughter-in-law, “Talk to me. Look me in the eye, and we’ll get down on our knees and pray this out right here and now!” Shirley signaled me to leave. In the hall, I could hear the younger woman’s cries as Shirley’s voice rose in her beautiful sing-song, free-form prayer I’d often heard. As I left the room, I glanced across at little Franklin who was watching both women with a child’s look of terror and awe.
One night after days of rain and wind just before Thanksgiving, Lucy and I ventured out behind my house, skirting my landlord’s garden that straddled our yards. We went blindly along the train tracks into the downpour, feeling our way using the railroad ties like stepping stones and following the tracks to a trestle where we made our way out over the river to look down between the ties into the roiling waters, a ferocious sluice through the dark, tumbling in broken crests, still rising from days of storm. If we slipped, would we have fallen between the ties into the raging river? Lucy wore a yellow rain slicker and walking ahead of me looked like Christopher Robin. Winnie the Pooh had regained an odd popularity then. If you were a cloud, and sailed up there, / You’d sail on water as blue as air, verses of A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh’s author, finding their way into a song by Paul Kantner and Jefferson Airplane with Grace Slick echoing the lyrics while dissolving into a haunting, voiced wordlessness.
Hand in hand, working our way to the middle of the trestle, we could hear more than we could see as the waters coursed inches beneath us, so much darker and wilder than those placid reflecting pools under that same trestle where we waded and even tried to swim back in lazy August. Summer and the Hundred Acre Wood had gone. Questions outpaced answers: How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides…defend you from seasons such as these? With Lear we realized that we had grown up taking too little care of this. The Tet Offensive on the other side of the world was just weeks away.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, two feet of snow paralyzed all of West Virginia. Those were dark days. All but one of us went home for the holidays. Lucy stayed. Lumber operations closed down. The sawmen who usually had steady jobs found themselves without work with no letup in sight. Not eligible for welfare, no money coming in. Early in January, Lucy, Paul, and I went with four men to the welfare office in search of emergency funds. The only funds available were earmarked for burials. No joke. We stood with the men back on the street as they huddled together taking an inventory of what food they had stored among them—sacks of potatoes, ramps, some corn, dried meat, canned goods. One man counted on his fingers how many days of food their families had left.
Deep winter unleashed savage poverty. The four men climbed back into the truck they’d come in. Three Volunteers in Service to America stood helpless on the sidewalk, snow piled high over the curb. We had failed four men, friends, and we talked of others we knew up and down the valley closed in by the snow, and thought of still others we hadn’t met, and all their children. Each of us went home on our own.
At the end of January, I left to get married. Margot and I had requested working together in West Virginia, in Addington, but VISTA insisted we had to transfer to a different project, a project with Appalachian migrants in northern Indiana. Leaving was abrupt, off to new work, leaving work undone.
We were married south of Chicago by the Methodist minister who had headed up our training program in Cincinnati. Lucy and Paul came to our wedding. There was a small reception. Peter Smith, one of my high school friends from Santa Fe who attended college outside Chicago joined us. Our parents flew in. After the reception Lucy, Paul, and Peter went into Chicago. They got yelled at by the police for climbing on Picasso’s statue, made of steel by American Bridge Company, near city hall on Daley Plaza.
Margot and I rode a commuter train to Lake Bluff on the shore of Lake Michigan for our weekend honeymoon, then packed all we had in two suitcases and took a bus to our new site near Warsaw, Indiana, where migrants from Harlan County, Kentucky, moved to find work in the iron foundries.
We went through years of odd jobs: telephone operator, dishwasher, picture framer, weaver. Eventually college.
In college there was, “A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day,” among John Donne’s Songs and Sonets. The name Lucy comes from the Latin lux for light. Lucy, St. Lucy, infuses this dark poem with profound and mysterious light. Lucy was important to Donne. In addition to the saint of his nocturnal, Donne named his fifth child, second daughter, Lucy. She lived to age eighteen. Additionally, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, was one of Donne’s patrons and recipient of many of his verse letters praising her as a model of virtue:
You have refin’d mee, and to worthyest things
Vertue, Art, Beauty, Fortune, now I see
Lucy, Countess of Bedford, stood as godmother to Donne’s daughter.
Three lines into the nocturnal, however, The Sunne is spent, and the speaker faces darkness, loss, and absolute poverty. Grief over the loss of a beloved coincides with the diminishing earthly light of winter solstice.
The night office for Saint Lucy’s Day is midnight between December 12th and 13th, winter solstice according to the calendar of Donne’s time. Legend tells of St. Lucy having her eyes gouged out as she held fast to the sanctity of her body as her holdfast of faith. Early in her privileged life, she realized she didn’t want to marry and so immersed herself in prayer and gave away her vast dowry day by day to the poor. Named with light, Lucy moves in the poem with the speaker through loss of earthly light and into darker human grief:
‘Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes…
For I am every dead thing.
But I am None. That was the despair over the life of poverty I’d seen West Virginia. For the poor there was no promise of sun after winter solstice. But through the poem, I realized a deeper turning:
…love wrought new Alchemie….
A quintessence even from nothingnesse…
….and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness death; things which are not.
Jacobus de Voragine’s thirteenth century Golden Legend, in Christopher Stace’s translation, has St. Lucy withstanding an attempt to burn her alive, so that I might free believers from their fear of suffering. Lucy embodies light out of the dark around her. She lives love’s alchemy. At her death, legend says her eyes were restored.
On nights after we left the Roadside, I went out back above the Elk River and sat on a barrel next to my landlord’s garden. Through summer the garden matured full to harvest—great rounds of squash, heads of cabbage, heavy red tomatoes, a row of corn. The garden gathered light even in moonless dark. By the killing frost, what remained lay on the ground, breaking into soil, fragrant even in cold decay. By winter solstice, all lay exposed to the coming snow.
I’d go out and wait by the garden to see the headlights of Lucy’s government car climb the hill out of town and turn north. Her car’s beams, light squibs, shot out in a broad curve up the hillside and swept over me before disappearing as she drove round the mountain to her cabin off the road hidden in the edge of the woods. Those light squibs gathered in re-filling empty flasks. With Donne’s speaker I could say, Let mee prepare towards her.
I became a teacher. Lucy became a teacher of the very young. Margot became a home health and hospice nurse.
I wasn’t around to see if Mother Annie dug the pawpaws out in a January thaw, or if she and the kids waited until the spring moved in full. I really don’t know why we buried that fruit. I long assumed it was to preserve the pawpaws, but I’ve read that the flesh of the pawpaw is exceedingly tender and difficult to preserve. I have not come across any other account of burying them. An extension agent in West Virginia hadn’t either and suggested that it might have been a way to nurture the seeds which, he said, “must be subjected to cold, without drying out, in order to germinate.”
Mother Annie knew what she was doing. I know that. I’d listened to her and watched her hands as she instructed the children and me. I remember the smell of open earth. We worked quickly before the blustery dark in that mountain chill at the end of Appalachian summer. Now, in the fall, when walking into the cool shadow of my house during the first cold winds down Owl Creek from the Wyoming mountains, I feel again that fierce embrace of my first autumn away from home, and I see the soft green-skinned fruit, safe through Mother Annie’s wisdom, blanketed under earth and snow, ready in the turn of seasons.
Robert Stothart was born in New Jersey and grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has published work in New England Review, Black Warrior Review, Florida Review, Cimarron Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and West Branch, among others. In 2018, he received the Conger Beasley, Jr. Prize in Nonfiction from New Letters, and in 2020, he received the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Nonfiction from The Missouri Review. His essay collection Wyoming from the Algonquian was a finalist in the 2020 Autumn House nonfiction book awards.
After teaching ten years in the education department of the Nooksack Tribe in Deming, Washington, Stothart taught fifteen years and retired from the Humanities Division of Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming. Stothart and his wife live on a small ranch at the southern end of the Bighorn Basin where their son and his family raise and train ranch quarter horses.