By Brian Ellair
Sitting on a stool near the kitchen table where my grandfather and three of his brothers and his only surviving sister were arranged, I listened as they talked about growing up in the hills of West Virginia during the depression. Although the tales told at that table were from a time 40 years gone, the telling drew me into the family in a way that the simple presence of my great aunts and uncles had never done. As they spoke among themselves I could feel their attention shift to me from time to let me know they wanted me to hear this information about them so I could understand the depth of feeling that held them together.
Paul, my grandfather, mentioned how cold the winters were up on the mountain in cabins that had no real insulation and even though they lived on top of one of the largest coal concentrations in the world, most families couldn’t afford to use it to heat their homes. My great uncle Carl asked if anyone remembered when the mule froze. Laughter erupted from the gathering and my eyes shot around the gathering, a dumb look on my face. Seeing my confusion grandpa began to tell the tale.
On a bitingly cold January morning around 1934, Paul, Carl, and Romie slid out of bed to shiver in the chill air while their mother made them some biscuits and eggs for breakfast. The three boys wrapped up as best they could, trying to stay warm as they did their chores before school. When they walked out to the little barn to feed the chickens and the mule it seemed unusually quiet. The sotto voce complaints of the chickens were there as every morning, but the gentle stamps and shushing of the hay in the mule’s stall were missing. Carl opened the stall gate
and the mule did not even whicker or flick his ears. He stepped forward to pat its neck and was surprised to find it cold. Not only cold, but stiff. Running his hands along the flanks of the beast confirmed that the fire of life was gone, and gone for some time. The poor animal was frozen solid. It must have died just after the evening feeding and braced by the side of the stall, did not fall over. It stood in silent majesty as a testament to the weather.
Calling the others over, the trio stood not quite able to grasp what had happened, not only was this mule a valuable farm commodity, but also a gentle friend and companion for many years. Finally the boys shock was overcome with the realization that something had to be done. Paul wrapped a rope around the neck of the beast and all of them pulled as hard as they could to get it out of the stall. After some time they were able to move it out into the barn where, deprived of its support, it fell on its side and couldn’t be moved. It lay at an awkward angle so the rope around its neck would not budge the corpse. The line was then moved to the front leg and pulled taut. With a mighty heave all three strove to move the heavy carcass. Suddenly they went flying backward as the leg broke cleanly at the knee. Shock was replaced by nervous laughter as the rope was moved to another limb. Again the pull and again the snap of frozen mule was heard in the barn. This time they all fell over, not from action and reaction, but because they were laughing hysterically. The rest of the family hearing the commotion came out to check on the boys. By the time they arrived a third leg was laying in the straw. Eventually because the ground was too frozen for burial, the poor beast was tossed into a ravine.
I looked around at the faces red from laughter, and for the first time I realized I belonged to a larger family than just my mother, father, brother, and grandparents. Although the story did not amuse me as much as those involved, I knew I had been included in a tale that no one outside the family had ever heard. The telling alone brought the memories of the past in a cascade to
these largely unknown relatives that that I felt a part of the family. I realized that my presence was a catalyst for these people to ground us all in the emotions of family life. The chain is continuing down from the past, and really, what else is there in the world but the connection of people to one another.
image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/13698202@N06/3851946540/