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Coal Miner's Daughter

"I'm 15. I'm getting married. My mother doesn't want me to get married." But that's just the beginning of the story.

After blasting her way through the hoot owl shift, harvesting West Virginia coal from midnight to 8 a.m., Betty Toler headed to a friend’s house for the fitting of Toler’s youngest daughter’s wedding dress.

Jenny, the bride-to-be, asked for help with the bow on the back. Betty struck a match and a mother-knows-best pose—and made it plain that she opposed her 15-year-old daughter’s plan to marry her teenage boyfriend. Then she lit a cigarette, hand-on-hip resolute. Jenny, equally resolute, sat on the bed and buried her face.

James Stanfield started shooting.

Stanfield, a photojournalist on assignment for the book A Day in the Life of America, had met Betty through the local mineworkers union. He had spent a shift with her in the mine, then followed her to a friend’s house for Jenny’s fitting. Anticipating a charming mother-daughter moment, he had set up a strobe light and electronic flash in the corner of the bedroom. Then the two butted heads.

“I didn’t expect this situation to break out,” Stanfield says 20 years later. “I never made the photograph I intended, but made one far better. It was one of these situations when you say, ‘Is this really happening to me?’ You just kind of hold your breath to not break the mood or the spell.”

Stanfield, who has been working for National Geographic magazine for 40 years, considers the May 2, 1986, portrait “one of my five nicest photographs.” It occupies a two-page spread in an anthology of Stanfield’s work. In lectures, he uses it to illustrate the necessity of bonding with subjects “so they no longer know you’re there.”

Both mother and daughter say they were indeed oblivious to his presence at the time. Even more remarkably, for two decades they were unaware this arresting glimpse into their lives even existed. Stanfield says he intended to send them copies, then got distracted by an assignment about the Ottoman Empire. Then came one about the pope. Then the president. Then nomads.

Meanwhile, mother and daughter faced pressing deadlines as well: Jenny’s wedding was only weeks away, and the baby she was carrying was due within months.

Jenny, 35, still lives in Wyoming County, West Virginia. She remembers: “I’m 15. I’m getting married. My mother doesn’t want me to get married. But I’m stubborn and strong-willed. I’m not going to listen. It’s going to be my way, even if it’s wrong.”

She speaks quietly, slowly, with just a trace of a drawl. “I was young, dumb and stupid. And in love for the first time. No mother’s words—none whatsoever—can stack up to that.”

So they fought. Betty kept insisting that her daughter wear heels and stockings; Jenny would not hear of it because the hand-me-down dress was a little short. She wanted to wear the gold-and-maroon-striped tube socks and sneakers she wore to the fitting. “I was not giving in on the shoes,” she says.

In the end, Jenny compromised, walking down the aisle barefoot.

On October 15, 1986, she gave birth to a baby boy and named him Darrelle James. The marriage didn’t last, but the mother-daughter bond held fast.

Within a year and a half, Jenny and baby D.J. came home to Betty’s house to live with her and her second husband, Jimmy Toler. D.J., now 19, just left their house in Clear Fork, West Virginia, for Florida; Jenny lives a quarter-mile down the road from Betty with James Belcher, whom she married 12 years ago, and their two sons, Seth, 7, and Brian, 10.

Betty, now 57, says she enjoys nothing more than scouring yard sales with her grandkids for toys. After nine years digging coal—she quit in 1987 with health problems she chooses not to specify—she says she still misses it. “I loved my work,” she says in a wistful rasp. “But I’m too sick. I have oxygen 24/7 and am supposed to do breathing treatments every day. But I never do what I’m told.”

Betty and Jenny saw the Stanfield photograph for the first time only recently, after I e-mailed it to them in the course of researching this article.

And? “I think it’s just an amazing picture,” Jenny says. “It tells so much but shows little.”

Betty says it evoked a feeling she has lived with for 20 years—the feeling that she had failed her daughter: “I actually cried. It took me a little while to get over it.”

Jenny, once again, was firm with her mother: “I told her there was nothing she could have said or did that could have changed anything. It was all my decision. She did not let me down.”

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