There is a little town in Southern Illinois, just a remnant of a town nowadays, named Muddy. It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude it probably wasn’t named for a Mr. Muddy. Back in the 1930s it was a coal mining town, one of several along a stretch of road in Saline County, just outside of Harrisburg on U. S. Highway 45… first Muddy, then Wasson, Eldorado, Raleigh. I suppose the mines came first, then the road, and soon the railroad, needed to haul the coal away. Today Muddy is mostly gone, a few small houses, grassy fields, and broken concrete, bordered on the east by the highway and railroad. A person can google this town and learn about its past but I’d like to tell you how it was from the eyes of a child in the 1950s.
My mother’s parents lived in Muddy in the early 1950s even though Grandpa no longer worked in the mines. Their seven children were grown and gone, but just a few houses away lived Grandpa’s mother and his old maid aunt, Mammie and Til. And one row over lived a cousin, Vol Rich, with his family, and closer to the mine, another of Grandpa’s sisters, Mary Adeline, nicknamed Mice. It was a Smith family community. I believe the mine shut down about 1937 so this must have been a place where housing was affordable and available, once company housing now little houses for rent.
In my four-year-old mind, Muddy was a summer vacation world with soft green grass, pretty yellow dandelions, and cousins! The little wood framed house Grandma and Grandpa lived in was big enough for two people but when our family of five dropped in, and some of our aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived we spilled out into the yard and beyond. Walking barefoot along a dusty road, avoiding cinders and clinkers, kicking up powdery dirt, us kids explored the area as children will, always warned “don’t go near the mine.”
I don’t remember if the house had electricity in 1951…probably not. There was no running water, no indoor plumbing. But Grandma kept a chamber pot inside at night so we didn’t have to venture out to the outhouse, and that had its own unique odor. Grandpa smoked and chewed and Grandma dipped snuff. They were Kentuckians, after all. They drank coffee too. Their home was soaked with the odors of living, heating with coal, cleaning with lye soap, cooking great northern beans, frying bacon, drinking coffee and whiskey, and smoking cigarettes. If I could capture those smells and save them in a bottle to be uncorked for a quick sniff when I am feeling low or homesick I would do it. I know my sense of smell is connected to a primeval, visceral place in my brain where emotions live and wait to be awakened. For me an unexpected whiff of the smell of cigarette smoke, once so common but now rare in my life, takes me back to a time and place when life was simpler, when I was four. And when I talk on the phone with one of my cousins who still carries that southern lilt in her voice I feel a clenching in my chest and tears come to my eyes.