A few years ago, I had a few family members tell me “Coal is what raised you!” It was a phrase I’d also heard from the angry wives of coal miners in their comments to some of my earliest posts. It got me to thinking about my childhood, and the many things that did “raise me.”
The love of my parents, and the selflessness they showed me and my brother, is what really “raised me.” It was the mornings spent in the garden picking beans with my mom as dad slept in a bedroom darkened by plastic garbage bags, having had worked the hootowl (3rd shift) the night before. It was learning how true, honest to God coal miners, sacrificed their paychecks to restore pensioner’s health benefits, it was singing the songs at strike rallies, and driving around to picket lines to support the miners pulling their shifts.
It was the way my mom taught us work ethic, but would also pack our school backpacks with snacks and turn us loose into the woods where we’d spend the day discovering new places or building “bases” with our cousins. It was all those times dad would stop on his way home from the mines and pick us up little things, all to see how excited we’d be when he got home to give them to us and the times he’d spend with us rough housing on the living room floor. It was the many evenings after school we’d spend with mom at the public library when dad was working evening shifts. It was helping mom and dad dig the family ginseng patch, and learning about yellow root and blood root so we could have a Christmas following the mine layoffs of the early 90s. It was watching my dad tear up as a man, knowing dad was laid off, refused his $20 bill for tilling our garden with his tractor.
These are the things that made me who I am today. Yes, my dad was a coal miner by trade, but it wasn’t coal that raised us. That was just what paid the bills. If we’d lived in Michigan and dad and mom worked in the automotive industry, would people say that cars raised us?
I know that dad was proud to be a coal miner, as were my grandfathers and great grandfathers. It got in their blood as they say. But if you strip away the profession, they were just proud to support their families as good, hard working, selfless people. They were, and still are Appalachians.
Coal mining is just what everyone had to do because powerful industries, along with their land agents and corrupt politicians forced us all into mining coal. If coal did do anything to raise me, it raised me to understand how greedy and selfish people can be. It taught me the difference between right and wrong while reinforcing the values Appalachian people held to for so long—love thy neighbor and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. No, coal didn’t raise me. The goodness inpeople’s hearts is what raised me.