It was a dark, cloudy evening when Father told us the news. Our family was gathered around the worn dinner table in the small kitchen of our farmhouse. My father was sitting in his usual seat at the head of the table, his callused hands clasped together and his elbows resting on the faded tablecloth. He looked from me to my eleven-year-old brother, James, and finally to my mother. Her eyes looked sad as she met his nervous gaze. They had been strangely quiet all through dinner. As eleven- and thirteen-year-old children, my brother and I rarely spoke at the table unless we were spoken to.
Mother took a deep breath. “Jack,” she said quietly. “What’s done is done. We must tell the children.” She sighed and brushed a strand of blond hair out of her brown eyes.
Father nodded. His face was lined with sorrow, which startled me. He was a strong man. Everything about him seemed sturdy. He stood six feet tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, with sunburned skin from years of working in the cornfields of our farm in upstate New York. It was usually hard to tell his inner emotions because he never let them show.
“Times are tough all over,” Father said slowly and reluctantly. “These past few years have been hard on all the farmers around here.” I knew this was true. Although my parents didn’t talk to my brother and me about it, we had overheard our parents talking. Our crops had been doing badly for the past two years, and we had been able to sell very little of our harvest. I knew my father had had to borrow money from the bank in town just to keep the farm going. He was a proud man and hated to do it, but he had had no choice.
“We’ve lost the farm,” he finally said. He looked down and shook his head.
James froze with shock. I was thunderstruck, clutching the edge of the old wooden table to keep from falling out of my chair. James and I were both born in the little farmhouse. It was all we had ever known.
There was a long silence. We all expected Father to continue, but he seemed unable to. My mother, sensing this, said softly, “We owed the bank more money than we could repay. We held on as long as we could.” She paused. “The bank is taking the farm.”
“Where will we go?” James asked fearfully, his voice shaking. I looked at Father, wondering what would become of us.
“West Virginia,” Father replied quietly. “We’re going to West Virginia. There was a man in town last week from a coal mine down there. He says they have jobs, and the coal company will pay for our train tickets and give us a house when we get there. Your mother and I have discussed it, and we think it’s best. There’s always a job open there, and if I do good work, I’ll be well paid.” He paused and looked at each of us. “We leave on a train next Wednesday.”
No one said anything for a long time. I turned and looked at James. His dark green eyes were full of a sadness deeper even than mine, and he looked as though he might cry I restrained myself from reaching out to grab his hand, though I wanted to badly. But I knew that he didn’t like me touching him, now that he was eleven and “growing up” as he put it.
Mother cleared her throat. “It’s getting late,” she said briskly. “James, Anna, you should be in bed.”
James and I silently got up from the table and cleared and washed the dishes, as we did every night. Then we went upstairs. We stood at the top of the stairs, not knowing what to say. James whispered, “Anna, I don’t want to move.”
I replied, “Neither do I. But there’s nothing we can do about it. At least we’ll all be together.”
Later, as I pulled my thin blanket tight around me, I tried to imagine what West Virginia would be like. It was my last thought as I drifted off to sleep.
* * *
The days until we left passed quickly. Everything was a blur. A man from the bank came, and there was an auction to sell off the farm equipment and what little furniture we had. Father stood outside, stony-faced, watching as things were carted away. James, Mother, and I remained inside, unable to watch. We busied ourselves, packing the few things we would be taking with us into trunks. Sadly, we bid our few neighbors farewell.
It seemed that only a few minutes had passed from the moment of Father’s announcement that we were moving to the time that we were boarding a crowded train to West Virginia. I had never been on a train before, and for the first time in days I was looking forward to something. The journey was to last five days, Father told us, for the train would make frequent stops along the way to pick up passengers.
My excitement soon wore off, for the train was stiflingly hot and crowded, and it moved sluggishly. I tried to begin a conversation with James not five minutes from the start of the journey, but it was difficult to hear each other or concentrate on what we were saying. There was so much noise, and so many people who couldn’t seem to keep from treading on my feet.
As we neared New York City, James and I stared in awe through the grimy window at the bustling city We had never seen such big buildings before, or so many people. As we disembarked from the train to get some air and something to eat, Mother seemed nervous and cautioned us to stay close. We bought some sandwiches from a street cart and sat on a wooden bench to eat them. As we ate, people swarmed toward the train, speaking loudly and excitedly in foreign languages that I had never heard before. Father called them “immigrants.”
I thought the train ride would never end, but on the fifth day, during the evening, we stopped at a small town. The sign at the train station read: Red Jacket, West Virginia. James, Mother, Father, and I pushed and elbowed our way out of the train, along with many other riders. “It’s the coal camp,” I whispered to James. I looked down, and in doing so, I saw that the road’s light brown dirt had been thickened and darkened with a black powder. Even though I had never seen it before, I knew what it was. It was coal dust. I was shocked that it coated the streets, covering my shoes and, when a wind blew, blackening my clothes.
James’s eyes widened as he stared. He jumped, startled, as Father called, “James! Come help with the trunks.”
After James and Father had retrieved the trunks, we started down the street. We walked past large homes with several big windows. They looked even nicer than our old farmhouse. Across the street were neat wooden buildings with signs on posts out front. There was a store, post office, doctor’s office, and the mining company’s office. “Wait here,” Father told us, and he went into the mining company’s office. We sat on our trunks and waited. He came out a while later, holding a key. “I’ve been told where we’re to live,” he said. “I start work in the mines tomorrow.”
We turned off the main street onto a smaller back street. Along this were rows of small, indistinguishable houses that reminded me of the rows of corn back on our farm. Father stopped in front of a little wooden house. It wasn’t as roomy as the houses at the front of the street, but it looked sturdy. Though it was small, I didn’t dislike it. It was better than my expectations, in fact. It had two stories, one door, and one window on each floor. Father twisted the doorknob and pushed the door open.
Inside, we looked around the room that was the first floor. The room had a bulky, iron, coal-powered stove, a table and four chairs, and a double bed in the corner. At the back wall was a stairway. As we ventured upstairs, I noticed that most of the stairs creaked.
The upstairs room had two beds, separated by a small table. A bare lightbulb dangled from the ceiling. It had one window, which cast dancing sunlight into the room, brightening it and making it seem more cheerful. “What’s this room for?” I asked.
“It’s the attic, and also where you and James will sleep,” Mother said with a smile. “Your father will bring up our trunks, and you can settle in.”
James stared around at the empty space as Mother and Father disappeared down the stairs.
After a moment, Father came into our room, bearing James’s and my trunks. We unpacked our few possessions. We had each been allowed to bring one of our personal belongings. James had brought a pad of paper and a pencil, because he loved to draw and was a talented artist. I had brought the one book I owned. We put our trunks at the foot of our beds.
James strode across the room and peered out of the small window down at the street below. “There are so many people,” he said quietly. “I’ve never seen so many people in one place.”
“Neither have I,” I replied, following him to the window and looking out, too.
We didn’t speak for a moment, just stared down at the people milling around the street. All strangers. I took a deep breath, trying not to feel frightened and intimidated by the presence of so many people.
Father’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Anna! James! Come downstairs!”
We went down and helped put things away in the kitchen. Then we ate dinner. Shortly afterward, we went upstairs to bed.
I lay awake for what felt like hours, but finally, I dropped into a restless sleep.
* * *
In the morning, I rose before the sun was up. I dressed and went downstairs to find Mother in the kitchen. Father and James had already left for the mine. In our new home, James and Father would work in the coal mine, and I would stay home and help Mother.
Mother and I went to the company store and bought the ingredients for bread and some dried beans. We paid in scrip, the money issued to us by the coal company. When we returned home, we cooked the beans and made bread for our evening meal.
Around seven o’clock, Father stepped through the door with James at his heels. Their eyes were tired and they clutched the handles of their lunch pails. Their hair and clothes were black with coal dust. For a moment, we only stared at each other. Then Father put a hand on James’s shoulder. “I think we did well for our first day,” said Father, a hint of pride in his deep voice. James gave me a small smile, his white teeth glinting in his dusty gray face.
“Father works inside the mine, and I’m a nipper,” he said. “I sit by a door in the mine and whenever I hear a coal cart coming, I open the door and close it when the cart’s gone past.”
After Father and James washed up, I set the table and Mother set out the beans and bread we had prepared. Father began to say grace, and I shut my eyes and folded my hands in front of me. Then, suddenly, a feeling of familiarity overcame me. Father finished saying the blessing and began to eat, leaving me feeling surprised and a little confused. Why had I felt that rush of familiarity? As I looked around the table, as I saw my parents at either end of the table and James sitting across from me, I realized that this was the way we’d been seated in our old farmhouse in New York. And with that realization came the knowledge that, though we were hundreds of miles from our old home, as long as we were together, that was all that really mattered. Life in Red jacket would be different and probably hard, but we still had each other.
I passed the basket of bread to James, and we smiled as our eyes met. Then I spooned a portion of beans onto my plate and began to eat.