I was once a coal miner's wife By Kandi Workman

Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain for the first time.


I’m a West Virginia UMWA coal miner’s daughter. Granddaughter of coal miners. Both of my parents came from coal camps in Mingo County, and my granny’s house was adjoined to an old mining bathhouse that my papaw converted to a workshop. My dad said his great, great uncle used to own all the land up Pigeon Creek, from Delbarton on. Said taxes ate him alive and a coal company bought almost all his land, except Curry Hollow, if memory served him rightly.


When I was growing up, I swore to the moon and stars I’d never be a coal miner’s wife, no way, no how. Strikes. Layoffs. All that dust and dirty buckets and heavy boots. The scares. Dad was covered in 1997, when I was 18. A version of him survived.


I got married when I was 19. A buggy boy at Black’s Foodland turned factory worker in Nitro turned water pipeline layer doing a federal job in Cabin Creek turned coal miner by the time he was 21. The money called to him, and like a receptive lover he went. He just couldn’t say no. I became a coal miner’s wife, and neither of us was ever the same.


Jeremy eventually went to work at Revolution, the Massey mine in Boone County, WV, near where we both grew up. He was a Massey “member,” terminology pointed out in Blood on the Mountain that was used to create a false sense of place in a surf-like system. My family went to the Massey clinic in Madison, a medical facility established by Massey, and our visits were paid with Massey money. We attended Massey Day in Logan several times (all hail Massey). We even played with Massey bucks, an incentive program in which employees could accrue points and purchase items from the Massey catalog, anything from clothing to guns to toys to vacations, it was in there.  We even owned the Masseyopoly board game (a gift from the company). That’s not a joke.


Money was good. Better than good. Jeremy took classes and completed an apprenticeship and  received his underground electrician cards. A decade later, by the time we separated, Jeremy could bring home $8k a  month during a time-intensive work month, seven days a week at 12 hours or more. Revolution was not family-friendly, and he couldn’t say no.


I admit I’m still heavy with guilt when I think of the end of my marriage and the demise of the traditional Appalachian family Jeremy and I had created. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his. I know this now. However, in the beginning of the end, from admittance to acceptance, I blamed it on him, inwardly, as I performed the “it’s not you, it’s me” bit. He was an insecure man, I thought, and I knew hearing his wife say she wanted to end a 13 year marriage wasn’t going to forge his self-worth. I wanted to verbally own all the blame and guilt, gladly and willingly, if it meant I could get out of the dark hole I lived in day after day. 


I didn’t understand it then, didn’t understand why he couldn’t say no, why I was raising my kids on my own, why I had become his maid and cook and personal shopper, among other things, except his friend. Why did he want so badly for me to become friends with his mining buddies’ wives? Ugh. Like, you’re in a hole with these guys more than you’re with your family, and then you want to spend all your free time with them (he couldn’t say no), and choose their wives as my friends because I have no freedom  to go out and make my own? An almost inescapable numbness settled in.


Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain for the first time.


Denny messaged the other day to tell me Merry Christmas. He was Jeremy’s section boss when we split. Him and Jeremy used to ride together, third shift, so he’d be at the house every evening and every morning. When Jeremy’d get to talking hateful, Denny’d look at him and say, “Now, Pup, you shouldn’t talk to your ole lady that way. She’s a mighty gracious, lovely woman, and if my wife did half as much as she does for you, I’d be pampering her every day and she’d never have to take out the trash.” Of course, Jeremy never got it. He’d say, “She’s the toughest woman I know. Stronger than a man. She can handle it.” But I couldn’t.


Denny’s mom died the other day, and it makes me wonder what his thoughts are about life now.


Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain for the first time.


I watched my life play out before me, the parts I understood and remembered, parts familiar and friendly, and the revelations of things known but not seen. Living here in Southern WV is very much like not being able to see the forest for the trees. So much of what went wrong in my marriage went wrong because my then-husband was being exploited and made to think that he had the good life. No, scratch that--he was made to think he had the best life. He couldn’t say no.


One Sunday morning, mid-Dec in 2010, I woke up, went downstairs, and sat at the kitchen table. The house was quiet. I was so much in my head, mood-flat, teeter-tottering with suicidal flashes of images that I would wish away immediately. I thought, yet again, “Is this the life I’m going to live until I die?” Jeremy came down, smiling, all the kids still in bed. Maybe I was crying, I think. Not sobbing-crying, with sound and theatrics, but the kind of cry when tears melt from the slits of your eyes with no emotion attached to them because the emotion is tucked 300 feet deep somewhere inside, and the tears flow from that swollen well. He asked what was wrong. Calmly, without a shift in emotion, I told him our marriage, our life, was wrong, and I wanted a divorce. Then, with a spark of joy, I became elated and smiled because I had spoken that truth to life. I laughed. I laughed in the midst of his pain and humiliation and fear and immediate sense of abandonment. The laugh of recognition.


His words to me were, “But our life is perfect.”


Tonight I watched Blood on the Mountain for the first time.