Western Kentucky is riddled with underground coal mines. When I was five or six, somebody told me that there was a big one dug right under the Dorris’s farm place, and I never could let that go. If I was sprawled out on the rug of Mammaw’s living room, I wouldn’t move around too hard, afraid I might shake us all loose into the underworld where men like my grandfather rode by iron gear into tunnels that made their lungs and fingernails black.
It took us eight hours to drive to Providence from Marysville, Ohio. This was 1977, back when you could throw a foam mattress in the bed of a Ford pickup and let your kids bang around with boxes of puzzles and a stack of books while you made miles. After the sun would go down, I’d lean my head up against the the back of the cab and stare out through the green, concave windows of the LEER truck topper, watching the earth grow wild.
The yellow fields turned silver at night, and natural gas pumps cranked like old men digging holes. Those pumps smelled sour, and if I fell asleep somewhere along the way, I knew we were close because of them, even before I opened my eyes.
The old people in Western Kentucky kept coal buckets on their front porches. Coal buckets were shaped like a lady pulling out one side of her skirt to curtsey. They had a thin wire handle that folded down when it wasn’t being used.
Coal is blacker than black, and oily. If you touch it, it will get dust all over your fingers. My great grandmother on my mother’s side painted her long fingernails slick orange, so she kept a pair of white, cotton work gloves folded over the bucket so she could grab a couple of pieces to throw on the fire. Coal fire smells thicker than wood smoke, and I always thought it burned hotter. It feels wet burning instead of dry. Coal fire hisses and whines, like a bunch of tiny little flat whistles are caught inside those rocks, and when the flame dies down, it turns into a village. The houses are divided by seams, red and blue with yellow windows, and orange streets sigh between them. A coal town is a living thing.
I’d inch nearer and nearer and end up burning my pants from the heat. I knew that coal had come from living material, some plated prehistoric beast perhaps, and somehow that made the burning sacred as a funeral pyre. Those were mammoth eyes compressed into rock, and maybe I could see through them, back into a world riddled with four-foot dragonflies, and giant ferns, and saber-toothed tigers.
That was the Denton house. My great grandparents on the other side were the Dorrises, the ones that lived over the mine. They were quiet people, and their house was a little way out in the country. When I remember it, I see this big wide tree with sleepy branches swishing out front, and I want to eat one of those little sour apples, the ones that grow on real trees, the ones where you have to cut around the worms with a pocket knife. And I want to be quiet.
My great-grandfather kept a detailed journal of the seasons, penciling in when the birds and the wildflowers would arrive and how the moon affected the garden. He knew the world around him by proper names, the hickory nut tree, the titmouse, the tiger melon. He kept his long sleeved shirts tucked in, and he wore a belt.
The Dorrises were clean people. Mammaw did the crossword every day to keep her mind sharp. She wore shirtwaist dresses, and she kept her white hair modest. Her food was cooked with patience, and she’d spread it out in pretty glass bowls on a lace tablecloth. It wasn’t fancy lace, just regular, but she liked to make sure her people knew that they were important to her. You always knew that a bite wasn’t going to go wrong there like it does at some old people’s houses.
Mammaw embroidered, and she made tiny, even stitches on her quilts. All the great-grandkids wanted something she’d made after she died. I wanted the crocheted Lord’s Prayer, and mom has it now. It’s hung it in the upstairs hallway, so you can see it every time you go down from sleep to meet the day.
During the Great Depression, Mammaw Dorris walked through the woods to gather edible wild greens in a basket. She took them to the families with poor children. She knew there were nutrients in those leaves. With whatever earth she was given, she was generous from the earth. Someday I’d like to have a couple of Buff Orpingtons, because she loved them.
Her daughter, my father’s mother, held my hand and told me that the biggest thing her mother had given her was permission to be curious. If you asked my great-grandmother how something worked, even something like your body or somebody else’s body, she would tell you. She didn’t make a joke of it or tell anybody you’d asked. She didn’t make it dirty that you wanted to know. She respected you and told you the answer humble and straight. She thought it wasn’t a shameful thing for a child to be curious, and that saved a lot of grief, because having questions is natural for children. When my grandmother told me this, I got the feeling that being raised without shame back in those days was something to have. I also knew that she was telling me that my questions weren’t dirty, either.
The Dorrises had a television, but they kept it off so people could talk. Instead we played with carved wooden blocks and crayons. I’d get drowsy listening to the grownups switching stories about people I didn’t know, and then I’d crawl up near the window to watch the big tree outside, the one with the glimmery leaves, catching the gold evening light. Then we’d hug everybody, and kiss them, and pile up in the truck.
Before we would drive away, Pappaw would walk out to the garden and cut me the prettiest Abraham Lincoln rose he had. Then he’d pull a stick of Wrigley’s gum out of his pack for me to chew during the ride. I would lean into the back of the pickup, smelling that rose, then the gum wrapper, back and forth, feeling a little shy, thinking that someday somebody might fall in love with me and cut me roses. And I wanted to be a kind person who listened to the earth, who gave good gifts, who trusted Jesus, who lived clean on thin soil, because I’d seen again how beauty ran in my blood.