In what was once Lootie, Oklahoma, a small coal mining town that dried up when the coal seams did, sits the ruin of a clapboard house my family calls The Old Place. It was inhabited by my great-grandparents, and my mother lived there for a time, when my grandmother was between jobs and husbands.
Growing-up, my mother would take us on a pilgrimage to The Old Place each Thanksgiving. Sometimes someone picked-up an old bottle or a tool, but we were really there to hear stories. My mother’s favorite stories, the ones she told most often, were of hard times hardening the people who lived through them.
There is the story of the time a dog got into the smokehouse and ate the meat and how her grandmother, who in most stories is the kindness woman to ever draw breath, beat that dog until it was nearly dead.
I know. I don’t like this story either.
But my mother does. Her eyes light-up when she tells it. She revels in this otherwise kind woman turning violent in desperation. In the past, I have judged my great-grandmother for her actions and my mother for her revelry in them. Part of me, I guess, always will.
But my life is one of privilege when compared to the lives of the people who lived in The Old Place. The life of a dog is worth more to me than it is to people who have hungered. I know this. We are shaped by our circumstances, and, in comparison, mine have left me a doughy mush.
There is another story my mother tells with delight that I have never enjoyed.
My great-grandfather (the husband of the woman in the story above) helped organize a union of coal miners who struck in demand of the black lung benefit. The strike lasted for seven years. Seven years of no food but what they could grow or scavenge. Seven years of hunger, of watching children and grandchildren hunger.
The union finally won, and the union men went back to work, and when the union men began dying, their widows and orphans received compensation.
But scab coal miners die the same dry-land-drowning union men do. And when their coughs turned, they came to my grandparents and asked if they might join the union, so their children and widows would be looked after. According to the story, the sweetest-woman-to-draw-breath told them something along the lines of, “when my children went hungry, yours were fed, and this is the price for it.”
I don’t like this story. But I never watched my own grow weak. Never heard them cry with hunger. I have no idea how living through that would make me behave.
I know that a little over a year ago, I thought myself the kind of person who lived with a forgiving heart. Then a bad man entered my life. This man caused the suffering of those I love dearest. He caused a small child to suffer. He did this for a long time.
And suddenly, there it was, this hardness inside of me. This wish to see another human come to harm. There were times, I admit, I wished him dead.
And now I know something more of why my great-grandmother allowed those around her to go hungry when she might have eased their suffering. I still do not celebrate her decision, but if I saw those scabs as responsible for the suffering of my family? As responsible, no doubt, for the deaths of others?
I don’t know. I try my best to hold compassion towards my fellow humans. This bad man showed me there are times I am not able to do so. I resent knowing myself capable of such darkness, but knowing this has taught me compassion for the people in my mother’s stories, people whose hearts hardened under suffering.
The dark seam he exposed in me has provided some light.