Coal Black Crown

By: Patricia J. Angus

Mara Oreb 1893 - 1973
Mara Oreb 1893 – 1973. Photo courtesy of Gagich Family Archive

A soft summer breeze caressed her face as Mara gazed upon the verdant garden she had planted in neat rows just a few months before.  She was good at nurturing the young plants and watching them grow.   Everything was green and maturing nicely and would abundantly produce fresh vegetables to keep her household fed.  This was a good year, a year with a plentiful harvest soon enough.

Mara wiped her brow as she climbed the wooden stairs up to the porch of her rented home.  Two furry kittens playfully crossed her path, and she sat on a creaky chair, carefully inspecting her work from a higher vantage point.  She removed the hairpins from her thick, black hair and let the plaited crown of tresses tumble around her tired shoulders.  Housework, gardening and cooking consumed her days in the West Virginia coal camp, and she was grateful for this momentary respite from her daily chores.  Four boarders and a husband – all coal miners– were enough for any one young woman to handle.  Yet, Mara longed for more.

She ran a brush through her once braided locks and dared let her mind escape for just a moment.  Oh, how Mara yearned for a child, a baby to call her own.  She wanted someone to love, someone who would love back unconditionally.  Mara and Srdan had been married for a few years now, and still no child between them.  The intensity of her husband’s resulting anger was only surpassed by that of her own silent grief.

Mara let her thoughts get the best of her.  The brush fell onto the wooden slats of the porch as she cupped her face in her hands.  “It isn’t fair,” Mara sobbed.  “How could God do this to me?”

Tears spilled onto her ebony hair, and Mara shook as sorrow engulfed her.  She longed for a child to cradle in her arms. She longed to be a child again, surrounded by the love of her family far away.  In her mind’s eye, Mara could see the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic.  She could smell the salty air and hear the songs of fishermen swirling about her.  She felt the warmth of the sun beating upon her face as she walked along the bumpy cobblestone streets of Vela Luka.

Stairs leading to St. Joseph's church in Vela Luka, Croatia.  Photo (c) 2014 Patricia J. Angus
Stairs leading to St. Joseph’s church in Vela Luka, Croatia. Photo (c) 2014 Patricia J. Angus

Mara caught a glimpse of the porch’s wooden steps, and somehow in her mind they transformed into the stone staircase leading to St. Joseph’s parish, the place of her beginnings.  With her eyes closed, Mara raised her head as if to look toward the bell tower in the church’s courtyard.  Her parents had carried her up these stairs to be christened as an infant, and now Mara climbed them carrying her burden of grief.  She wept for children she did not have.

Mara felt herself ascend onto the church’s courtyard and continue to float upward into the Heavens where she was overcome by the Brilliance of God Himself.  His Love permeated her aching soul.  He was seated upon a golden throne and was surrounded by a semicircle of 12 silver thrones, upon which sat the original twelve apostles.  Mara’s heart leaped within her breast.  “This is my chance to ask God for a child,” she thought optimistically.

As Mara reverently approached the throne, God pointed His golden staff in her direction.  Already knowing the desires of her heart He lovingly commanded Mara to go back.  “Go back!” He instructed.  “Go back to where you came from.”  Then He tenderly looked into her eyes and added, “Marica, when your hair falls out, you shall have children!”

Mara paused for a long instant and pondered these words deep inside.  The kittens brushed against her ankle as they chased a mouse into the garden, and Mara cautiously blinked away the moist puddles from her eyes, realizing she was once again at her coal camp home.  She could not believe what had happened.  Was it real, or was it just a dream, an optimistic reverie?  Bewildered, Mara pulled herself upright.  Automatically her fingers flew through the daily ritual of braiding and wrapping her hair into a wreath around her head.  She vowed never to comb it again.


The seasons came and went in quick succession.  Mara cherished the dream, ever hoping for a child, but eventually her hope waned into despair.  The cold air bit into her exposed skin as Mara went outside to draw water for laundering the coal encrusted clothing her men wore day in and day out.  As miners timbered and picked in the deep dark caverns, Mara worked against the elements above ground.  She primed the lever to fill the galvanized tub with water that she would later heat on the coal-burning stove inside.

Mara’s hands were raw from strong soap and the constant scrubbing of miner’s clothing against the well-used, wooden washboard.  The coal stains seemed permanently embedded into the fabric.  Soon the weather would warm, and it would be refreshing to pin their clothes on the line and watch them snap in the cool spring wind. For now, winter’s chill prevented outdoor drying, so the cold, wet garments would be hung near the stove to dry — stiff and lifeless.

Mara Oreb Gagich with Friends and Boarders.  Photo Courtesy of Gagich Family Archive.
Mara Oreb Gagich with Friends and Boarders. Photo Courtesy of Gagich Family Archive.

Mara heard the wagon wheels and horse’s hooves clomping from the road below.  As the horses came to a halt, wails and moans penetrated the early morning air.  She was used to hearing mournful sounds this winter.  A coal miner’s wife would dread only one other sound more, the piercing whistle that signaled a mine disaster.  But in this new year of 1919 no whistles blew; instead a silent killer came as one of the worst flu pandemics known to the modern world.  Inhabitants of the coal company’s housing were no exception to its wrath.  People were dying; homes became quarantined, churches closed, and the town stood still.

And the stillness cast an ominous cloud of darkness across the morning hours of winter.  Sharp chills flashed through Mara’s small frame, and she fell limp.  Moisture covered her forehead.  She shivered violently and was suddenly confused.  Where was the tub of water she had just filled?  What was that glow?  Was the sun rising already?  No.

Mara reached around her shoulders to pull her coat tighter, but a course woolen blanket met her hand instead.  She looked about her, and the confusion subsided as she realized time has slipped away without her noticing it.  A kerosene lamp cast a warm glow about the room, and a Slovak neighbor woman was moistening Mara’s forehead to break the fever. While Mara lay in bed, her eyes focused on a brush lying on the table nearby.  Long strands of coal black hair were entwined between the brush’s soft bristles.  She looked up at the woman tending to her needs, and their eyes met in silent exchange.

Mara tried to muster enough strength to lift her hand, but she stopped as Srdan entered the room with the company doctor.  Her husband’s face was gaunt from sleepless nights, concern for his wife, and never-ending shifts at the mine.  Fatigue had also taken its toll on the doctor who had been summoned frequently this winter.  He and Srdan stood at the foot of the bed as Doc rattled a stream of English, too fast for Mara to comprehend in her delirium.

“I must be dying,” she thought to herself.  “The doctor only visits when someone is about to die.”

She started to cry and reached to succor the grueling headache that pounded within her skull.  Her once luxurious hair was now thin and straggly, and strands slipped out as she touched it.  The fever.  She heard stories about women losing their hair to high fever, and now it had robbed her of her elegant coal, black crown.

Srdan’s face grew stern, and he barked at the doctor in Serbian.  It caught Mara’s attention, and she listened more closely to their conversation.  “You are crazy!”  Srdan shouted in total disbelief.  “You don’t know what you are talking about!”

Mara Oreb Gagich with three oldest surviving children, Millie, Robert, and Ruby.  Photo Courtesy of Gagich Family Archive.
Mara Oreb Gagich with three oldest surviving children, Millie, Robert, and Ruby. Photo Courtesy of Gagich Family Archive.

Having served in this ethnically diverse coal community for some time, the doctor was accustomed to communicating with patients of multiple dialects and cultures.  He spoke firmly and without hesitation.  “I am not mistaken.  Your wife is pregnant!”

Mara’s eyes closed and shut out the world.  A flood of memories cascaded into her mind — His throne, His staff, His brilliance, and the comfort of His Love!  His words echoed in her mind, “Marica, when your hair falls out, you shall have children!”  She was witnessing a dream come true.  In this lifeless winter, a child grew inside her womb.  This mother-to-be would nurture and love her child.  She would watch it grow in their garden of life, and receive love from this miracle.  A cat with her kittens cuddled in the corner to keep warm, and Mara lovingly nestled into the straw filled mattress, dreaming of the infant who would soon be hers.

Coal Black Crown © 2014 to present Patricia J. Angus

NOTE:  This piece of historical fiction is based on a true experience from the life of my grandmother, Mara Oreb Gagich, who eventually mothered eleven children.

The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

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