Hardscrabble Salvation

I learned my work ethic from watching my mother refuse to quit


| November-December 2010


In 1974 my mother, my father, and I moved from a trailer park in Cleveland to a 97-acre farm in Liberty, West Virginia. I was 13, a city brat, an only child, and I thought I’d died and gone to hell. The world I left was coated in concrete, which led to shopping centers and movie theaters. The world to which I was banished was covered in corn, beans, potatoes, and squash, which led to blisters.

A wise child would have been grateful. He would have seen that so much land, so much freedom, is worth a little blood. He would have thanked his mother for this second birth, and his father for teaching him how to care for land.

I was not that child. I fought against the land, against the work. I doubt that I passed up many opportunities to complain to my mother, and I’m sure all my grievances could be summed up as “You did this to me. You’re working me to death. You’re killing me.”

My father, who was once a tree surgeon, died of a heart attack four months after we moved, age 40, sitting in his Chevy pickup in the parking lot of an auto-repair shop, waiting to fill out a job application. My mother’s voice was hoarse when she told me. I’d woken to the sound of crying to find strangers from the funeral home sitting in our living room. She assured me that everything would be all right.

It was not all right. With winter on our doorstep, we had no running water, no heat, no electricity, no money. She did what many people in small towns in West Virginia do—she found work at a plant, and drove two hours a day, round trip from the boonies to South Charleston, which bills itself as the “Chemical Capital of the World,” to earn enough money to afford the privilege of owning and tending land.

In the evenings she came home and worked with me on the hillsides, hobbling over stumps on her one strong leg, swinging an ax, helping me clear land. She’d contracted polio at age 2, and her left leg, from the thigh down, was mostly bone.