An Appalachian Widow and 9 Children, Circa 1929
(as best recounted from childhood memories and history)
(as best recounted from childhood memories and history)
On a hillside in the heart of Appalachia near the end of March in 1929, I imagine it was still bitterly cold. Perhaps days were getting warmer, but the landscape would have been stark. The trees barren, the sky grey and the hills brown. I've seen enough winter here to know that much.
No doubt within the little dwellings scattered in the hills, the homesteading families were looking forward to spring. It would have been, after all, just around the corner. Life should have been looking up. The worst of winter would have been behind them, hopefully.
The sun would be coming out, the ground warming soon.
But around this time in Lincoln county, West Virginia, on top of what would become known as 14-Mile Mountain, a tired, middle-aged woman opened the front door of her one room cabin to meet two men holding her husband's severed body. The men claimed they has found him on the nearby railroad tracks. One of his youngest sons looked around to see his daddy's figure, and he recalled believing his father was still alive eighty years later to the daughter of his old age.
They buried the man in ground that would have still been hard, frozen, impossible to manage. And the woman never remarried.
He left behind 9 children, as one had already passed in infancy. Their youngest, eventually to be called "Peep" was only 9 days old at the time. He left not only many children, but his invalid, blind mother, as well.
The woman would tell her sons and a daughters in the years to follow, "Some people are born to a death," and so her husband had been, she was sure.
He knew it was coming for him, else why had he sat on their corn husk bed a short time before and warned her that should he die, she must not give their children away. This man, Win, she called him, was sometimes rumored to be a moonshiner. In his past, he had written poetry found in a national periodical. He has been a gambler. And he sat with her and made her promise unless they were starving, she would keep all of their children in their home; she would not give them away to grow up apart from one another.
I suppose it sounds like a man who knew his life was in danger, a man sure he would not be around long. A fellow who must have loved his bedraggled family a great deal. Whatever he feared was coming failed to be so powerful he could forget his desire that his children never be parceled out like used, unwanted belongings, regardless of what strain this would put his wife under.
So this woman of a serious nature and tremendous grit honored her promise to the man who had posed in photos with girlfriends before they were married and enjoyed life, as well as a good joke.
As soon as he was buried, people began to show up at the door, for women without husbands did not keep 9 children alone in the mountains of West Virginia in 1929. They told her she must let some of them go.
They knocked day in and day out, offering to take this one and that one. Offering to take them in pairs or singles. It was just what was done. Children didn't mean then what they do now. Old and young. Folks would take them to work on their homesteads, in lieu of children they couldn't bear or for any reason one might imagine. She could not keep all nine of her children, and that was that. The well meaning folks said she would never be able to feed them all. They would starve. She had no man to hunt, to work, to plant, to harvest. She was alone.
I imagine had the lady relented and let them go, the young would have went first. The little six year old boy probably would have grown up working like an indentured servant, not a favored young boy to his mother. How one decision could have changed so much reaching even into today.
Over and over she recounted what she promised her man, instead. No. She would not give their children away. Not unless they were starving would she separate them.
She became a washer woman. She spent her days walking far away to wash for other people, and the little boy who peered around to see his daddy's body ran into the hills to cry for her to come home morning after morning for he loved her most of all. And she loved him most of all, as well. He would often talk about hunting every day for squirrels with his slingshot during this time while she was away to help make sure they had something to eat.
4 years later, My Daddy would go to work logging at ten years old where he made a penny a day. He said, "The good Lord never spoke about retirement," and he continued to work until his body quit. Long after I came along when he was nearly sixty, as a matter of fact.
My grandmother, born in 1890 and dying in 1961, never gave away any of her children. They did not starve, though some of the younger children perished to what was called the "Bloody flux" back then. My daddy was nearly one of those.
When they drafted him during World War II, this stoic woman wrote to tell them they had sent all of her other sons overseas, and that they must not send her youngest boy.
When she died, Daddy had made a great deal of money. He buried his mother in a solid copper coffin. With honor. She was laid beside her roving man, Win, who, after her death, Daddy learned had been murdered for $20 by the very men who brought his body to his mother's door in March of 1929. Of course, Daddy was too much like his mother to talk about what he learned. Peep, who was 9 days old back then, recounted it many years after Daddy had died to me one day.
Least I forget, I put it all down. I didn't come along until 1982. I will never know much about my Daddy. I know far less about the grandparents who lived lives of hardship I cannot ever grasp and were gone lifetimes before I was born.
All we really have are memories in the end, though. And as time goes, all we will be are memories for someone else to carry; at least we hope we are carried.
As a day ends, everything we have at that point becomes handfuls of stories and recollections. I think we must hold tightly to them for they are really all we have when the sun sets.