I grew up in the sort of family that believes they have to earn everything in life. Nobody is given handouts, and if they are they don’t accept them. They think work is good for a body, and earning something will make it mean more. We were the family with the small farm. We were the “rednecks” that everybody made fun of. We were the backwoods kids that worked all summer while everyone else was over at the Sugar Grove Public Pool. We were the family that appreciated everything a little bit more than everybody else.
We lived in Grayson County, Virginia in a tiny town called Troutdale. It was about eight miles outside of Sugar Grove where everybody went to school. There wasn’t a public school in Troutdale. There was only Ms. Casey—a middle-aged woman who quit her job as a teacher in Abingdon to come back home and take care of her sick mama. After her mama passed, Ms. Casey didn’t want to go back to teaching, so she just tutored those kids who could afford her outrageous prices. I wasn’t one of those kids. We couldn’t afford much. Hardly anybody in Troutdale could, except Ms. Casey.
My family lived off of the land, mostly. We raised cows, pigs, chickens, and goats. We had one horse named Rocket. He used to be fast before he got old. We had two barn cats that ate mice and rats and wandered around the farm. We had a red blood hound that ate table scraps and napped in the chicken coop. We raised two dairy cows and two Black Angus cows. Pop sold most of the piglets that Big Betty had and raised the rest. He’d sell some of the eggs that the chickens laid, too. The rest of the eggs were either eaten or raised in the place of those chickens that we ate around the holidays. Fried chicken was my favorite treat.
On the other side of the house we had a corn field. Pop and Mama would always plant the corn together and not let us kids help them. Normally a body would appreciate six more helping hands, but Pop and Mama insisted on doing it by themselves. It was their own little tradition that started long before I was born. Though when harvest time came, we always had to help.
Beside the corn field was a garden. Mama and I planted everything from cucumbers to potatoes. We planted herbs and such, too. The potatoes were always my territory. I planted, watered, and weeded them. When it was time, I dug them up. I washed them and peeled them. I cut them up and put them in Mama’s special potato pot. Mama made tater soup all the time. I guess the proper way to say it would be “potato soup,” but we always just said “tater.” I loved the way the soup made the house smell. I used to sit and watch Mama cook it. She seemed at home in the kitchen. “She could’ve been a chef if your dumb ol’ daddy hadn’t made her stay,” Grammy used to say. “She could’ve been successful. She wouldn’t be stuck here.”
Grammy never liked my Pop. She always thought bad of him and figured he’s the reason Mama never chased her dreams. Pop said, “If my mama was still alive, she would’ve said the same thing about your mother. I don’t care, though. I love your mother. I’d have married her anyway.” Pop didn’t care that Grammy hated him. He would always smile at her and be friendly with her. She would scowl at him and turn her back. There was only one time when they were actually civil with each other.
About thirty years ago around my fourteenth birthday, my older brother was sent to work at the Pocahontas Coal Mine. He was only sixteen and had never been away from home before. He hadn’t even finished school yet. We needed the money, though. Maverick Jameson Thomas was my idol. Me and Ricki were thick as thieves. Sometimes after Mama sent us to bed we would sit up and talk about our dreams of going to Nashville and making it big in the country music industry. Ricki could play guitar as good as any professional. He said he was gonna be the next Woody Guthrie. Mama and Pop saved up for a whole year to buy him the Gibson guitar that he had his eye on. Ricki and I were as close as siblings can get. I think I took it the hardest when he left.
I missed him every day. I missed our nightly talks. I missed him at school. I missed him all the time. He had been gone for about three months and had only written one letter. He wrote to Mama and Pop to let us all know he was doing okay. He said he would write again when he could. It was another few months before his second letter came. He told us he was going to be able to come home soon. It was a good thing, too. Christmas was right around the corner, and it wouldn’t have been the same without him.
Christmas was about two weeks away, so we were expecting Ricki back any day. Mama and Pop received another letter on December twelfth that said he would be home on the eighteenth. Mama planned to make a big dinner for him. She figured he’d be home before supper and have time to catch up with everybody. We were all so excited that Ricki was coming back home, even if it was just for the holidays.
The eighteenth came and went with no sign of Ricki. Mama began to worry, which in turn made the rest of us worry. Pop was left with the task of keeping everyone’s heads on their shoulders. Johnny and Laura, my two younger siblings, would cry for Ricki; Pop would play Ricki’s guitar and sing to them to calm them down. On December twenty-second, there was a knock at the door. Nobody ever visited us, so our first thought was Ricki. Ricki was finally home, and we could celebrate Christmas properly. Pop opened the door and saw an oddly dressed young man that stood where Ricki should be.
The man extended his hand towards Pop and said, “Howdy, sir. My name is Elias H. Jackson. The ‘H’ is for ‘Harvey’ like my great grandpa. My mama thought it would be…”
“What d’ya need, son?” Pop interrupted.
“I’m here to deliver a message from the Pocahontas Coal Mine. May I come in?” the man asked.
“Of course,” Pop mumbled nervously. Everybody stared as the man came through the door.
“Who is this?” Mama asked Pop in a sweet but anxious tone. She made her way over to where the man was standing and politely shook his hand.
“He’s here from the mine, Ida May. He’s got a message for us.” He turned away from Mama and focused on the strange man that was standing by the door.
“Is this about Ricki? Is he gonna have to stay in that mine through the holidays?” Mama wondered.
“No ma’am, I’m afraid the message I’m bringin’ is a bit more unpleasant than that.” Mama’s mouth dropped open and pain filled her eyes. “You see, there was an explosion in the mine, and your boy Ricki was right smack-dab in the middle of it.” Mama began to cry.
“Is he alive? Tell me he’s alive,” Pop demanded.
“He’s still livin’ but it ain’t lookin’ good. I figure y’all ought to get on over to the hospital and see him.”
We gathered our thoughts and rushed out the door. When we got to the hospital, Mama ran all around screaming, “Ricki! Where’s my Ricki?!” in between sobs. A nurse directed us to the area where he was being treated. I was the first one in the door. I ran to Ricki’s side and clung to his cold, black hand. I sobbed uncontrollably and shouted, “Don’t leave me, Ricki! What about our dreams? What about Nashville? What about everything we talked about? Don’t go nowhere Ricki! I can’t make it by myself!” Mama and Pop bawled as they clung to his other hand.
Ricki turned to me and said in a soft voice, “Now you listen to me. You better be good for Mama and Pop. You better take real good care of Laura and John-John. You better chase your dreams, even if I can’t do it with you. I love you, Marianna.”
The tears began to flow endlessly from my eyes. “I love you too, Maverick Jameson Thomas.”
He turned to Mama and Pop. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it home Mama,” he whispered.
“Oh sweetie, it’s okay. Everything’s gonna be just fine,” Mama assured.
“I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too.” She kissed his hand.
“Yeah, boy?” Pop asked.
“I love you, Pop. I’m sorry for giving you so much trouble as a young-un.”
“Now don’t you worry about that, son. I love you. Like your Mama said, everything’s gonna be just fine.”
Ricki motioned for Laura and Johnny to come to him. They climbed into his small bed and laid on either side of him. I laid my head on his arm and watched as his fingers curled around Laura’s tiny arm. Mama kissed Ricki’s forehead and then turned to Pop for comfort. He held her tightly in his arms.
“Just go to sleep, boy. You need the rest,” Pop said softly. “We’ll see you soon.”
Time of death: 4:17 PM.
The funeral was held at the only little church in Troutdale. The whole town showed up that day. My family was given lots of food. We received many letters and visitors. It didn’t matter, though. Ricki was gone. At night I would sit up and talk to him as if he were still alive. I knew he could hear me. I told him how I’d make all our dreams come true. I told him how Pop was teaching me to play the guitar that he and Mama had bought for him. I told him I was practicing my singing, too. I was determined to make it to Nashville one day.
Now here I am, thirty years later. I’m about to make my debut at the Grand Ole Opry as an up-and-coming country artist. I’m here today because of Ricki. I believe he knows that. I believe God allowed me to live Ricki’s dream because he was too busy entertaining everybody up in Heaven. Mama and Pop have joined him up there now, and Laura has started her own little family. Johnny has made his way to New York City to be a high-up business man.
As I walk out onto the stage and begin to sing and play, I can hear Ricki’s harmony in my mind. It is hard to hold back the tears. I know he’s up in Heaven singing right along with me. I bet Mama and Pop have joined in. Heck, I bet the whole angelic choir has joined us by now. When the song is over, I look up and say, “That was beautiful, Ricki. I’m glad we finally got to sing together again.”