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The Road Home by Eileen Scramuzzo

The muddy road leading up to the coal mine tipple was unpaved, as most of the back roads in the 30's were, at least the ones that Bernice had encountered. FDR had many projects going on in the large cities but not for little old Fallen Timber. "Hurrah for them," she muttered as she struggled up to the shack she called home. It was lopsided, unpainted and unloved, as were the other seven homes that straddled the coal mine. Yards of toys and dirty faced children ran wild as the mine whistle screamed that it was the end of another day. Bernice had to hurry as the venison stew and homemade bread had to be heated. The hot water too had to be heated for the wooden tub in the basement that Ivan would be needing. He left his dirty clothes outside for her to shake the coal dust out before the laundry tomorrow. Her fingers were pinched by the cold mountain air as she gathered the clean clothes putting the clothes pins in her pocket. Eight houses all in a row. All ugly, all alike with the same long underwear flapping in the wind. The groceries were all put away as Bernice dreamed of a refrigerator so she wouldn’t have to go to the store every day and fight the muddy road. Thank the Lord, she did have a phone, as the men in the mines could be called at any time to start work. The neighbors called constantly with all the daily news. The biggest news is who is currently pregnant

When the mine whistle blew at 3:00 p.m. each day, the world stopped and the routine began. Homemade bread and venison stew were devoured quickly after the baths were over. When the weather permitted a little gardening was done. Then Amos and Andy and the Shadow radio programs came on. Not too much conversation was in the making as miners all day were alone and by evening were too tired to say much. Sears & Roebuck were more company to Bernice than Ivan. A new fangled invention called Oleomargarine was Bernice’s latest thrill. She waited until Ivan was not around and looked at the square one pound package with wonder and broke the tablet of red dye on the white lard and mixed with her hands until it turned yellow. Red streaks appeard and she mixed it again. Hesitantly she tasted it, made a face and put it on the table. If Ivan did not know the difference she would use it instead of butter and save a nickel.

Five a.m. came fast as Bernice packed the lunch bucket and filled the carbide in Ivan’s hat to light the way into the deep world of mystery and darkness. The mines were almost used up and Ivan had to wade through knee high water to get to his post. Not too much conversation was about work in the mine as Ivan would like to gorget it existed. Tuesday was exciting for the ladies of Fallen Timber as the traveling man from the Atlantic and Pacific store parked at the bottom of the road and be met by a group of women dying for anyone’s companionship. Bernice needed safety pins and needles. She could have used a nice new shiny pan but she knew it would not please Ivan. The ladies lingered as long as possible and waving their goodbyes assisted each other up the muddy road. The phone startled Bernice and she grabbed it greedily as her neighbor excitedly announced that a handsome salesman was on his way to visit each and every home. The coffee pot was put on as all housewives hid their aprons and waited for their turn. A knock on the door and Bernice saw a gorgeous man in a Sunday suit and tie. His smile was generous as was his sweet greeting as he asked if her mother was at home. Bernice shyly stammered that she was the lady of the house. Ivan’s special chair was waiting with freshly made cookies and steaming coffee. The salesman showed her booklets and brochures but all she could see was the curly head of hair and his ever so bright smile. "She should never forget it," she thought. He showed her medical books and she thought that medical books would be a great thing to have and a great buy at only $500! He said that she could call him David. She had never known a David and it did sound so romantic; she signed on the dotted line as he told her that she had a week to change her mind. She helped him with his coat and leaned as close to him as possible because he smelled devine.

Her heart pounded as she aired the room of cologne so foreign to her home. The signed contract was hidden as Bernice relived her secret love but knew the day of reckoning would come. Ivan picked up the mail at the Post Office once a week and received the shock of his life at a bill for five hundred dollars for a set of medical books purchased by none other than his wife, Bernice! The walk up the muddy road was faster than ever before. His face was red with rage as he came in through the basement door. Before he even changed his clothes he exploded at Bernice who fell at his feet in tears. She shielded herself from the blows that did not come as he called her a fool. "What have you done?" he yelled as the coal dust gathered on the floor. "I wade through water up to here," pointing to his leg, "and am frozen to the bone, not seeing the light of day....and you, you buy books? Are you mad or were you born an idiot?" With one hand he lifted her by her dress and hurled her to the floor. He walked out, coal dust following him and didn’t return for many hours.

Bernice was huddled in a heap as he had left her. When he came home, he said, "Woman, don’t ever sign my name or yours every again, without my permission. Understand?" Then he asked her to show him the books. Obediently she got them out from under the bed where she had hidden them. They were a marvel to see, initialed in gold letters and leather bound. Ivan still could not believe she had purchased them. "When your chores are done, each day," he said, "I want you to study one chapter a day and recite it to me each evening. I will test you every week and you had better know what you are talking about."

Bernice’s neighbors knew of her plight and would shake their heads as they listened to her to her recitation of complicated words and strange illnesses. As Bernice would read her assignments Ivan stood over her like a huge tiger.

Doctors were scarce in or around Fallen Timber so it came to pass that Bernice started to be consulted when a child had an ear ache or fever. On Saturday afternoons folks gathered at the Post Office to chat. A chair was saved for Bernice and people came up to ask her questions. If possible, Ivan would stand in back of her and direct traffic. On one occasion someone asked about shingles. Without any emotion, Ivan said, "My wife is only on the D’s. Next year she may know the answer to that. At five p.m. Ivan held his wife’s arm as he led her home. Even though it was the same muddy road, they now walked it with pride.

Originally Posted (Jun 10, 2002)

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