A Mother’s Quarrel with West Virginia

A lament for children

By Sarah B. Barrick

I am no stranger to inequality and suffering. I was raised in Charlotte, N.C. during the desegregation of public schools. I never understood why African-American children, who were my equal in God’s eyes – and because of my faith and experience, in my eyes as well – should be treated like second-class citizens. Slavery seemed a thing in the distant history of our country. I didn’t realize how far we had to go (and still do) to correct this horrible human injustice. But, racism is still a problem in this country. The voices of people who have so much to give to this society of ours are still left unheard in too many instances.

View from a quiet spot in West Virginia's Kanawha Valley

View from a quiet spot in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley

I met the love of my life in my 21st year. It was 1978. He was handsome, smart, defiant and from the state of West Virginia. I worked in the main hospital in Charlotte as a Radiologic Technologist and he was a paramedic. We met on a blind date. Our first trip together was to visit his home state which he dearly loved. In the process, I got to meet his family as well. Now, North Carolina has some awesome mountains, but I’d never been inclined to really investigate them. This trip to West Virginia was eye-opening. The mountains were so beautiful. It seemed as if one could climb closer to God as the elevation increased. I was amazed at the carpeted landscape that went on and on. I fell in love with the Mountain State. A lot of that had to do with my love, Michael. And, honestly, I never knew what the spirit of welcoming was until I met his family. Being a shy, introverted person, I was nervous. They – in particular his dear mother – welcomed me and treated me as part of the family. I did become part of the family and Michael’s parents augmented the meaning and beauty of family for me.

There is another family member with no blood relation but that is in every sense of the word “family” to each member. He is a Catholic Priest. His name is Alan. It was imperative to Michael that I meet this all-important member of his family. So, Michael took me from Bridgeport, where his Mom and Dad lived, to Logan. We met at the rectory where Alan lived. It was ancient and lovely. There were nuns who cooked and cleaned and served us dinner, including some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted. The guest rooms were comfortable and his every need was attended to.

It seemed to me Alan had it made. I fell in love with Alan immediately too, although there was something unsettling about him. He had all the sensitivity and insight and wisdom one would expect from a man who vowed to shepherd others in his devotion to God. Besides all that, there was sadness mixed with love in his eyes. Alan took Michael and me on a trip to see the remote areas of Logan County. In particular, we saw Buffalo Creek, where in 1972 a disaster had struck. It was the most destructive man-made flood in West Virginia’s history. Alan had a four-wheel drive, which was necessary, because the roads remaining there could only be navigated in such a vehicle. We drove by some of the remaining homes that the mining industry had built for its workers. Some were still inhabited. The image that is forever burned in my mind is that of a mother and several stair-step children standing outside of their home looking at us as we passed. They had no shoes on their feet. It was not a warm day. The children weren’t playing. They didn’t look as if they had the energy for that.

I was almost angry at Alan for exposing me to this pitiful sight. And, he never stopped the narrative of the flood. How it happened because the mining company had not done their job to protect the people. How it could have been avoided. How 125 people lost their lives. And, families left behind, like the one I’d seen, were all too common. This was his parish.
This is also home to the Battle of Blair Mountain, which I believe, we discussed at some length that night at dinner. It was the first time I had heard of Mother Jones, the United Mine Workers and how forces within the state and without saw to it that the miners would not be allowed to unionize. In 1921, it took five days of battle with over a million rounds of ammunition fired before it ended. Although the miners lost their battle, it raised awareness of the horrible, dangerous conditions miners faced in the West Virginia coalfields.

Canyon at Blackwater Falls State Park

Canyon at Blackwater Falls State Park

For the next several years, my husband and I would spend every vacation visiting one West Virginia state park or another. My favorite is Blackwater Falls, but I love them all. The history of West Virginia was a regular discussion and although I knew of the hard lives of its people, I once again developed a fairy-tale romance of the state. It is so very beautiful. The wildlife is abundant, the vistas breathtaking. Then, my husband was ready for college. He had chosen the life of a paramedic right out of high school. And, having witnessed life at its worst and best, he knew he was ready to further his education. So, we decided to move back to the Mountain State. I worked in a small community hospital and he received a degree in English and in history at Glenville State College.

While he was going to college, I was in a different school. Many of the patients that I saw in this small hospital were impoverished. Their attention to their children’s healthcare in some cases was nothing short of neglect. And, abuse was common. As a professional healthcare worker, I took it all in stride except I couldn’t understand how people could be so resigned, in an almost prideful way, to live in poverty. It was in their faces, in the dilapidated houses, in the unwashed children, in the way they were suspicious of any outsider.

Then, having never entertained the idea of becoming a parent myself, I had a revelation. I must become a mother or my life would be meaningless. This sounds strange, but be that as it may, it is what I experienced. So, with Michael’s agreement, our beautiful daughter, Lindsay, was born. I had a perfect pregnancy and delivery by a doctor whose name lives on for all the good he did in this community. Everyone in Labor and Delivery treated me like a queen. They allowed Lindsay to sleep with me. That was years before it was a common practice. After six weeks, I returned to work.

My life had changed. I no longer could look at these poor, unwashed, sometimes abused children with the same eyes. I excused myself regularly to go have a good cry. Each child was somehow my own and the thought that they would possibly perish for lack of decent care broke my heart. I got called in to the hospital in the middle of the night to x-ray an abused two-year-old with a fractured skull. I had to tie the screaming child down in order to obtain the much needed film. He died in the helicopter on the way to Morgantown. After my husband finished his college education and I was pregnant with our second child, I could not wait to get out of the Mountain State. I had seen enough.

I still love West Virginia. And we are back here now for reasons that are very important. We live in Bridgeport where life is picture-perfect – if you don’t count the corruption in the county’s politics. People are friendly. Education and sports are highly revered.

But, you don’t have to go far to see that neglect and abuse is still taking place. But it just isn’t children who are victims. Whole families are. Big oil and gas harm the environment and threaten public health and safety, including those working in the industry; and, lottery sales provide slim hopes to those looking for an easy way out.

West Virginia is like a beautiful woman who is repeatedly raped. Each time she loses a bit of herself. Pollution of the streams and rivers speak of it. Mountaintops that once were and now are not, speak of it. As a result, people are abandoning their beautiful farms.

She is still beautiful. What can be done to keep her from losing more of herself? When will education and health care for every child, poor or wealthy, finally become a priority? And, when will we decide that turning our faces away from the pollution and destruction that is the by-product of mining her resources a sin? What will the Mountain State be for our grandchildren? Why don’t we think in those terms? When is enough, enough? These are the questions I first asked 36 years ago. It is a shame we must continue to ask them.

© Sarah B. Barrick / Appalachian Chronicle, 2014.

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4 responses

  1. One of the best overviews of the past and current situation of West Virginia… Until the people of this beautiful state understand that the extraction industries take more than our minerals, the quality of life in West Virginia will continue to deteriorate. The extraction industries have enslaved our politicians and they don’t even know it. For the sake of money, they believe that, by pandering to the extraction industries, they are somehow doing a good job. I’ve lived here all of my life and have made attempts to improve the lives of my fellow West Virginians. I have learned the only way that change will come is to follow the successful tactics of the extraction industries. Town hall meetings, media advertising, and published letters from concerned citizens, such as this one, are the only way to bring awareness to free West Virginians from the slavery of the extraction industries.

  2. What an incredibly powerful message has been expressed in this ‘letter’! It is simple, it is heart-felt, and it captures so profoundly the essence of the issue. Just as in the past when coal, gas, oil and chemical extractions have destroyed human and family health in the name of monetary profit, so now, ‘fracking’ is here to repeat this same pattern of death, destruction and devastation. A small chorus of voices are beginning to be raised in opposition to this pattern of violence. Please, let other voices be raised as well, until there is a tidal wave of opposition which the politicians and regulators CANNOT ignore!

  3. Thank you for this beautiful expression. I too am a mother, and now a grandmother. My home here is my refuge, and the only thing I have to give to my children and grand children. I am horrified at the poisoning and destruction that is occurring to this beautiful land.
    When will there be an appreciation, respect and preservation of the unique environment that we have here?
    I love my home. I love West Virginia. We are not expendable!

  4. Don’t look to others for change, we are the change. No need waiting for Godot. Change starts small, in the community. What a bright and shining example this author is. Myself I have wondered about the neglect and abuse, I’ve found plenty of it, in my one role as a landlord in this state. I like to keep things beautiful, and encountered just what the author describes. Not all the time, but I saw and experienced things that I didn’t need to have in my life. Now we have to leave this beautiful state we love, a stupid visa matter, because our farm business wasn’t big enough … that is the deal, create jobs, receive permission to stay in this country. Cannot blame all of this on West Virginia, but some I can. There’s not enough buyers of healthy things that are good for you here. It would presuppose an end of abusing oneself. A change of the abuse consciousness. Where we (still) are for a while, it is paradise. Our hearts are broken, split, because, how can anything be so beautiful, and yet, so … kind of desperate. Nature, the peace, the sounds, the people. If abuse is what you know, you abuse what you have, people or things. We go back to Germany, and fracking is banned there. Water is pristine, especially in the Alps, where we are moving to. People care. I will be an ambassador for West Virginia. Bring foreign tourists there. Because I know the place. This is my, our, small contribution. Don’t cry for me West Virginia … the truth is, I never left you.

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