There was no heather on Da’s grave
when John took up his tools,
the eldest of four bairn, in knickers
clad and new to school.
He ditched his slate for Da’s lunch pail,
pit gear and candle hat,
then bade his silent mother bye
and gave her hand a pat.
So proud she was before her time
to see her boy so small
run off to work without a care
for how life’d changed at all.
I’ll be your man now, Ma, said he,
which made her proud, so proud
she kissed him on his bare forehead
but would not cry aloud.
A Breaker Boy at first, he hunched
inside a wooden box
and sorted coal bare-handed from
its slate and shale and rocks,
ten, eleven hours a day,
six days of every week,
a clatty lad with blackened face
and lungs that tended weak.
He then worked as a Spragger running
fast beside the drays,
jamming sticks between the wheels
to slow them on their ways.
An agile boy and lucky, he
preserved each limb and finger,
but hearing is more delicate.
His tinnitus would linger.
Some never learned to stand the constant
noise, the dust, the grit,
the cave-ins, gasses—daily threats
of going down to pit.
But John was not just any boy.
His Ma had always known
he’d make her proud, as proud as any
son who was full-grown.
As Nipper, tending gate, he felt
train tracks for distant quakes.
He sang canary songs and played
with rats to stay awake.
’Twas cushy work, some thought, until
they died ’neath crashing doors
or lost their jobs to slumber and were
moved to harder chores.
For years he toiled deep in the mine
where big men couldn’t fit,
and sometimes squirmed through crevices
where seams begun to split.
Eight years later he had grown
as tall as any man
with whiskers on his chiseled chin,
a credit to his clan.
So proud to be his Ma’s support,
the man about the house
who gave his all to please her so she
wouldn’t want a spouse.
Oats they had, and barley, too,
potatoes, sometimes meat.
The children all had food, though seldom
boots upon their feet.
But then one day she married, and it
came as such a shock
he packed his poke and set out,
brassic, headed for the dock.
An uncle lent him passage for the
journey to the States.
He settled into steerage
with a passel of shipmates.
Ma followed him when she found out,
so frantic for her John
she came to bid her lad farewell
before the ship was gone.
She wanted just a kiss goodbye
but he spurned her, too proud
to understand she loved a man
who’d pleaded and avowed
he’d be her man now, so that she
might let her boy go free
to seek his fortune elsewhere as
the man she hoped he’d be.
She watched the sails shrink far away,
with three bairn at her side.
And she was proud, so proud to launch
him in the world, she cried.