by Karol K. Weaver
A year before his death, my father confessed to me that, as a youth, he left his foreign-born mother and American-born sister at the site of a minor car crash for which he, driving without a license, was responsible. Born the fifth of eight children to immigrant parents, my father, like many other boys and girls in the area, lost his coal miner father when he was six. My daddy, his own father’s namesake and a boy who revered gamblers and gambling throughout his life, was lucky to have been the fifth child. As a result of his place in the birth order, he wasn’t forced, like his older siblings, friends, and neighbors, to end his schooling or obligated to turn over his pay or send home money from the service. He finished high school, enlisted in the navy (as his elder brother had done), served as a corpsman, and used the GI Bill to become a pharmacist.
Relentlessly fulfilling the expectations of what it was to be an American man and trying to make up for events like death and economic and industrial collapse, my dad worked and he worked and he worked. Strapped with a Russian last name that was ten letters long and constantly mispronounced, my father, a skilled businessman who was familiar with the local culture, declined to change the five-letter and good English name of the drug store he bought in a farming community near the heart of coal country. Many of his customers assumed his last name was the name of the store and addressed him as such.
Like other coal region men, whether they worked in the mines or elsewhere or whether they worked at all, Daddy enjoyed a privileged position in his own household and, for my family, that position was signified by his chair at the kitchen table and by the habit my mother had of making sure he was fed first and best. Eventually, after getting the last of her seven children out the door and into grade school, she followed him to the store, occupied the front counter stool, and made sure that customers paid their bills (because my dad, perhaps thinking of his own mother’s money troubles, would have let them slide). She remained at that counter and at her husband’s side. As a result, her three youngest children played and worked in the aisles of the store. Like children raised in other stores, I developed an ambivalent opinion of his harried customers, who through their very purchases revealed the physical and mental turmoil they or their loved ones were facing and on whom my family and I depended. Unlike other pharmacists of his time, he was not carried out of his drug store feet first. He stopped counting pills, but continued to run the business and pay the bills. He served the community for over forty years.
And, striving still to make up for and make good on his childhood and haunted by the mother he once left waiting on the side of the road, he worked and he worked and he worked to care for his disabled wife. After putting her to bed one night, he drifted off to sleep and never woke.
Aurand, Harold. Coalcracker Culture: Work and Values in Pennsylvania Anthracite, 1835-1935. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.
Dublin, Thomas and Walter Licht, The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
Porter Benson, Susan. Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Weaver, Karol K. Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, 1880-2000. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.
Karol K. Weaver received her Ph.D. from the Pennsylvania State University. She has written two books, Medical Revolutionaries: The Enslaved Healers of Eighteenth-Century Saint Domingue (University of Illinois Press) and Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Region, 1880-2000 (Penn State Press). She is a proud coal cracker.