a double exposure of floral curtains on a railroad sign and building

The Coal Cellar

A poem for “Inheritance”

By Nikki Giovanni
Photograph by Matt Eich

Electricity was late and expensive
Coming to Appalachia
Knoxville especially so
Twice a month the coal
Man would come to fill the cellar
For warmth and sometimes food
And what I loved most was the fireplace
Where Grandmother and Grandpapa would sit
Near to tell stories but
Oak Ridge came for the war
Or maybe the war came for Oak Ridge
And atomic energy replaced coal
And the cellar became a home for mice
And maybe some insects that we never
Needed to bother since they didn’t bother us

One summer day Grandmother said
To me, “Since John Brown will be gone
For the conference why don’t we see what
Is in the cellar”
I didn’t think anything but if your grandmother
Asks you to go cellaring with her
You go

Way to the front she pulled a box out
And handed it to me
“See?  I thought it would still be here”
And we climbed out and up or maybe up and out
And into the kitchen where  we were both dripping
With ash
“This belongs to your great grandmother
Cornelia
The first person born  free”
And there was a sterling silver dinner spoon and fork
Black as can be but properly  hallmarked

“I’ll let you polish them”

Which I did though it took
Several days
To bring them to silver

I’ll bet there are many precious
Things in the cellars
Of Appalachia
The most being the trust my grandmother
Had in me to keep the silver polished
And not discussed with anyone

Maybe not a big bank account or trust fund
And certainly not any property but I inherited
A morning and a great deal of knowledge
In a cold coal cellar
With my grandmother