I changed the upstairs bathroom rugs last night, rolling up the long, multi-colored rag rug that provides a path away from the tub; grabbing, too, the shaggy little white rug that cradles the toes of shavers and make-up appliers leaning toward the mirror at the sink. I bundled them down the laundry chute and swiffered up the haze of baby powder that always descends upon the black tile. I pulled out a fresh set of rugs, the blue ones, the long one for the tub path, the short guy for the sink.
The blue rugs are my favorites, hand-woven from old blue jeans by Betty Lou and her church lady friends. Almost fifteen years old, they seem indestructible–I have thrown them in the washer hundreds of times, maybe thousands; I have hung them over rope lines or draped them over pipes to dry. Umpteen sets of store-bought rugs have shed their rubbery backing and been tossed; my blue denim rugs last and last.
I use them, as I often use beloved items, thoughtlessly, taking their beautiful utility for granted. But last night, for whatever reason, the act of spreading those rugs on the bathroom floor made me think of Betty Lou and Roscoe Village. We had moved to a new town after Mark finished law school, I was in-between full-time jobs, and I worked, for a year or two, as a historical interpreter at the little restored canal village. I have been blessed with wonderful and challenging jobs in my working years, but never have I had another job so filled with fun and joy as working at Roscoe Village. And seldom have I met people so hard working and sincere.
I learned the real definition, at Roscoe, of “salt of the earth.”
There was Dick Hoover, a retired preacher, who taught me about the printer’s trade and about being a school marm in 1850’s Ohio. Charley, a cabinet maker, shared secrets of the cooper’s craft, and showed me how one makes a round container from what I’d always figured to be unyielding wood. Mary, who was 80 when I worked with her at Roscoe, had been there over 40 years; her picture as a beautiful young interpreter was printed and re-printed, to her delight, in the Village literature. And there was Betty Lou, ten years younger than Mary, who taught me the ins and the outs of 1850’s housewifery in a sleepy Ohio canal town.
I trained with college students; I was in my late forties. I worried about finding comfortable shoes to wear that looked authentic; I worried about bundling my ornery hair into something resembling true frontier style. The students worried about covering their new tattoos with the lacy cuffs of their gingham dresses, and whether their piercings–studs discreetly removed during work hours–would be evident to Village visitors. They were lovely young people, hard-working, kind, and creative,but I grew closer to the elders, Dick, Charley, Mary, and especially Betty Lou.
Things were busy at the Village in the summer months; tours came through every thirty minutes, and we ushered one group out the back door as another entered the front. Betty Lou was usually the upstairs guide in Dr. Johnson’s house; she told people about the wonder of the Doctor’s family having real, imported wallpaper, showed them how the flycatcher worked, boasted about the Johnson’s fine china, shipped all the way from Europe at quite a pretty penny. Downstairs, I was the cook; Betty Lou would send the visitors down the steep cellar stairs to where I had a trussed chicken spinning above the open fire on a string; fat would fall into the fire; flames would hiss and spit. The chicken’s skin crisped and crackled, and people begged to try it, but health laws forbade that. We could share, however, the corn bread and cakes we baked in a covered cast iron dutch oven set amidst the coals.
I learn to pile coals on top to insure even baking; Betty Lou could judge temperatures and baking times if she knew the type of wood we were using.
The days flew by, and so did the summer; before we knew it, the college kids were heading back to campus, and the park slowed down. Tours were by appointment in the fall. The breaks in between gave us time to clean and organize, and time to talk.
I learned that Betty Lou was a skilled weaver; there was a vintage loom in the village and her deft hands worked it swiftly. She knew how to set the woof and weave the rag strips into the warp; she fringed the ends and sent the final product to the administration building store where shoppers scarfed them up at fifteen dollars a pop. Outside of work, though, Betty Lou and her church lady friends had their own looms. They crafted rugs from strips of old blue jeans. These they sold for a pittance; I bought three rugs from them for less than the cost of one rug at the store.
Betty Lou was in no danger of her hands becoming the devil’s workshop; she was always busy, at work and at home, where she sewed and gardened and canned. She worked at the village for extras; that year she was saving for a new living room suite. She was never idle; in the free moments, she showed me how to cradle and wash that splendid china, how to coax the dust and grit up from between the polished floor boards of the Doctor’s house, and how to oil and wrap some of the antique tools in the downstairs work room.
She was a kind, clear, patient teacher; I liked working with her, and I diligently tried to keep up with her seasoned efficiency. We talked as we worked, and I learned about Betty Lou’s life.
Her husband had been a miner in West Virginia, as had the men on both sides of their families. Many died young of the black lung; some were lost in explosions and nightmarish cave-ins. They decided, early on, it was no life for their boys, and they vowed, early on, to get clear of the mining life. Their house was owned by the mine; the store in town was, too. If a family bought all their stuff from the store, there was never quite enough money; they fell into debt to their employers, and each year’s passage indebted them a little bit more.
Betty Lou’s husband was handy; he fixed up an old truck that someone gave him for a song, and they drove into the city to buy their groceries. They only bought what they couldn’t grow or raise or catch themselves. Her husband got permission to run plumbing to their house; they were the first in their coal-mining village to have indoor plumbing and hot water in a claw foot tub, a luxury for which their neighbors envied them no end.
But the thing that really incited envy was their television set, which they scrimped and saved to buy. Betty Lou’s man ran the wiring and fixed the antenna, and they were so proud to be able to offer Betty Lou’s aging mother the treat of watching TV. Betty Lou’s mama always watched the fights on Friday nights; she loved a good fight. The family would gather round the television, and prickles would run up and down their backs. We’re being watched, Betty Lou would think, and sure enough, when she turned around, she would see faces at every window, avidly watching the flickering screen.
Despite such luxuries, they lived very frugally, and before the children came of working age, they had moved to Ohio. Betty Lou’s husband got work, and the kids were enrolled in school. They all graduated high school, Betty Lou said, something that would not have happened in their mining town back home.
Sometimes we would talk as we worked, sometimes as we took our lunch in the ‘modern’ kitchen. The doctor’s house had been a residence until the sixties; a main floor kitchen had been added. When the Foundation acquired the house, it made no changes. The kitchen table with its tubular metal legs, the vinyl covered chairs, and the stove and refrigerator, were splendid in their 1950’s glory. A microwave had been added for employee convenience, but everything else,–the speckled linoleum, the cabinets with their wooden cutout trim,–was just as it had been went the last tenants left.
There was a feel about the doctor’s house, a depth, a layer,–something that made goose bumps prickle, especially when I was upstairs alone. The doctor and his wife had been abolitionists, and their home was a well-known stop on the Underground Railroad. There was a story of an escaped mother with a sick baby; some people said the baby died in the mother’s arms while they were hidden. To cry out would have been to reveal them both, along with the people who sheltered them, and so the grieving mother held the body of her dead infant while searchers trod the floors above her. The doctor, the story went, was inconsolable over the loss, over the fact that he couldn’t save that baby. The baby’s mother could not be comforted. The tiny body could not even have a proper burial without risking exposure.
Sometimes it seemed I would hear things there; sometimes there were furtive movements–mice, maybe?–glimpsed from the corner of my eye. One day I confessed to Betty Lou that the place spooked me, just a little, and she said they’d all felt it. It was real, she said; and she said, too, that sorrow was hard to purge.
She told me then about her own sorrow. After saving and sacrificing so they could move north, move away from the danger of early death for their boys, Betty Lou lost her daughter, who would have been just about my age, in a senseless crash. It was in the last days of the girl’s senior year of high school; she’d forgotten something she needed at home and got permission, at about ten in the morning, to drive home and get it. She was a careful driver, she had a friend with her; they were not distracted or flighty or under any kind of influence. But a semi truck swerved, crossed into their lane; the girls, just like that, were gone.
“Oh,” I said, helplessly, “oh, Betty Lou,” and I couldn’t think of anything to add. We sat, eyes welling, for a moment, and then she said, Well, it couldn’t be helped. She talked a little about the kindness of friends, family, and strangers, and then another tour group came in the door and we sprang to our stations, resumed our personnas. The subject never again emerged.
Betty Lou enjoyed life, worked hard, and gave substantially, and it would not be an exaggeration to admit that I revered her. Life moved on; another job beckoned, and I left the employ–and the joy–of the Village. I tried to go back at least once a year, though, taking visitors to see the old canal town, reconnecting with Dick, Mary, Charley, and Betty Lou.
And then another move took us seventy further miles away; the trip to the village was no longer an easy indulgence. Life filled up; time went on, and suddenly my time at Roscoe was five, and then seven, years ago.
I saw Dick at an event, and asked about my old colleagues. He told me with great sadness that he’d buried Charley just that past winter.
That chance meeting was five years ago, and I am a little afraid, now, to go back and inquire. Mary–she’d be 92 or so, I think; Betty Lou, in her eighties. Should I ask the questions whose answers I don’t want to hear? I push away that thought and plunge into the busyness of daily life, until a moment like last night’s, when a touch, an action, bring lovely memories back.
Someone remarked, the other day at work, that we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families. Work has become our new neighborhood; it’s where we find our friends, get our support. I am lucky now, and I have been lucky in the past, to work with wonderful caring people, people of integrity and creativity, passion and compassion–people who have visions of making things better and who believe our small contributions can help. I have had wonderful mentors in all my professional roles; some of those mentors have become lifelong friends.
My time at Roscoe Village was an interlude, a veering off the path, and I thank God for that special, unexpected time, and for the blessing of the wonderful people I had the honor to work with. I spread my denim rugs on my swept bathroom floor, I feel them with my bare feet, tucking and untucking the nubby, firm, ridged fabric with my toes. I will go back–perhaps this Fall,–and I will see if any familiar faces remain. But time passes; I can accept that now.
As Betty Lou says, it can’t be helped. But I know this, now, too: the things we shared together will always, somehow, remain.