|Downtown Bramwell, West Virginia, ca. 1914|
MD was born in Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1921, and spent the first part of her life in the little town of Bramwell, only eight miles outside of Bluefield, where she lived in great comfort as the only child of the second son of a wealthy coal-mine-owning family. Although many people think of West Virginia as a rather hardscrabble place to live—and for many of its inhabitants it is—those who owned the mines lived a storied existence far removed from the misery of those who worked in the mines or who lived in the hollers that surrounded them. Many of the area's Coal Barons, as they were known, lived in Bramwell, where they built large and comfortable houses. Little Bramwell was reputed to have the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any town in America at the turn of the last century.
|Many of the houses that the Coal Barons built in the|
hills surrounding Bramwell are still standing
Although not ruined by the Great Depression, MD's family's circumstances were much reduced, and her father decamped, along with his wife and daughter, to Detroit, where he spent the remainder of his days representing the interests of the family business selling coal to the automobile manufacturers based there.
|The family's main offices were located in downtown Bluefield,|
where my grandfather kept an apartment
Initially the business in Detroit was good, but over time demand there for the family's coal diminished and then subsided altogether. By the end of my grandfather's days, the mid-1950s, the auto companies were no longer using coal to fire their plants, and the family's mines had pretty much petered out. My grandfather—by this time a widower—was reduced to living on the income of a trust set up for him by his dead wife's parents. A sad comedown, indeed, from his salad days as a young man, when the prospect of no longer being rich would have been shocking to him, if not unfathomable.
|Much of my grandparents' set's social life revolved|
around the Bluefield Country Club
MD's parents met as college undergraduates, when my grandfather played football at the University of Virginia and my grandmother was a Sweetbriar College sweetheart. They married shortly afterwards, before my grandfather left for France to fight in the Great War, outfitted with custom-made uniforms from Brooks Brothers. No army-issued kit for him. My grandmother, who was bewitchingly pretty and adored expensive clothes, came down with influenza during the Great Pandemic of 1918-1919 and recovered from it only to learn years later that what she really had contracted was—instead—multiple sclerosis. The disease eventually invalided her and then ultimately killed her just shy of her fiftieth birthday, only a few short weeks after my parents were married.
|My great-grandmother built this house in 1914 to live in|
after her husband died and her children were grown.
MD would stay here when visiting as a girl
My mother described her childhood as a largely solitary and lonely one. Like her parents before her and her own children after her, she was largely cared for by domestics when she was young and spent much of her adolescence away from home at boarding school. Her parents were preoccupied with the challenges of her mother's illness, among other concerns. During most of her school vacations she stayed with her grandparents, dividing her time between the house, shown above, in Bramwell, where she stayed with her father's mother, and Indiana, where she stayed with her mother's parents. I have a print of that house, too, a large brick Italianate, but I can't seem to find it no matter where I look for it. Perhaps that's a post for another day.
|The Watsons were close friends of my grandfather's family, |
and Mr. Watson was one of MD's godfathers
When I was growing up MD didn't talk much about her childhood or her parents, except to say that she felt she was a disappointment to her mother, who wished her prettier and more social than she was, and a burden to her father, who was mostly focused on tending to his weakening wife when he wasn't away at his hunting camp in Canada, where he escaped to whenever he could. He didn't care for working all that much.
|I don't recall our connection to Mrs. Elkins, if there was any.|
Another example, though, of how the Coal Barons lived
MD's mother's parents died when MD was in her early thirties, and she found herself, much to her professed surprise, sufficiently well set up by them that my father—by then her husband—was able to leave a career in corporate law and instead pursue one largely focused on service to his country, confident that my mother's income would be enough to pay for the private-school educations of each of their four children, along with buying and maintaining the houses among which we divided our time. It was also what allowed my parents to ultimately walk away from each other with no strings attached after their marriage disintegrated.
|One of the family mines in the Pocahontas Coal Field|
This is what made it all possible . . . until it didn't anymore
MD was always rather cagey about her upbringing and her financial situation, and she felt guilty that her family had owned and profited from coal mines where the conditions for the miners were dangerous, the pay low, and the life hard. She didn't like to discuss it much. She also steadfastly refused to answer any questions about her financial circumstances when people got too nosy, seeking to figure out how it was she was able to live with no visible means of support. MD was of a generation and a class that still believed that speaking about such matters was not done outside of the confines of one's trust and estates advisers' offices.
|The unbelievably tidy interior of the exhibition mine|
at the Pocahontas Coal Field in West Virginia
MD's reluctance to speak of such matters, even with her own children, became something of a joke—at times a rather trying one, I admit—among me and my siblings, as she refused to speak about finances virtually to her dying day. Within the family she would only discuss her finances with my older brother, Frecky, and only near the end of her life, when he began helping her manage her affairs. If anyone outside the family had the temerity to fish about, she would freeze them out by saying, "Why, whatever do you mean? I'm just a coal miner's daughter!" and then laugh enigmatically, even bitterly, knowing full well that she had done more to confuse her questioner than enlighten them.
And that's just how she liked it.
I found the vintage postcards used to illustrate this story among MD's effects when my siblings and I emptied her apartment after she died, more than a decade ago. I rediscovered them recently while rooting through a box at Darlington House, and I was transfixed. They are a vivid record for me of a world once inhabited by my mother and her family, long ago and far away—a world that is as remote to me as the moon.