My parents started, or at least I think it started with them, a practice of visiting cemeteries on Memorial Day and placing flowers on the graves of ancestors. I recall that my mother always was particular about the floral arrangements that would be used and she spent a lot of time thinking and ordering the exact flowers that she wanted. The placing of flowers was accompanied by the telling of stories about friends and relatives as we stood over their graves.
My sister, Pat, has been a diligent keeper of this tradition and year after year has repeated these visits. I have not been as faithful as she, but this year Carol and I joined her and her extended family. Her group included her husband Skip, and their sons and daughter – Amy was joined by her boyfriend Adam, Scott was joined by his sons Jake and Nick, and Brian was joined by his daughter Brianna.
Pat’s family began the day very early and on their own visited grave sites, old home sites, schools and living family members around the Pine Grove area. We met them near a place we knew as the Oakwood Coal Company – Skip’s Dad and family ran this business until it was sold and turned into a landfill – today it is just a paved gravel space under which the landfill can be found. Next up was a visit for breakfast (where we met them) at a place called Buddy’s – in my high school years it used to called the ‘Tropical Treat’ and that part still exists! No ice cream that morning though. The day was wonderfully warm (80 degrees) and bright and sunny. Before arriving in Tremont we stopped at a place called Echo Valley. Today it is a camping site but many years ago it served as the location for our annual family reunions. Those reunions have since moved to a park in the Reading area. Echo Valley has a creek running through it and these used to be large picnic pavilions on the grounds. Some of the family would begin the day very early and breakfast (the works!) would be cooked on outdoor fireplaces. Watermelons would be kept cold in the creek for later in the day and the kids used to hunt for salamanders and crayfish under the rocks of the creek.
This visit to Echo Valley set a nice tone for the rest of the day. Stories, including the ones above, were shared with the rest of the family on the trip and that inquisitiveness led to the sharing of stories as we visited the graves of relatives.
We stopped next at the cemetery in Tremont where we walked around, stopping to marvel at names from the past and share stories of people that we knew. What stood out for me was that I noticed the younger generations were really interested in the stories that we told – that was not always the case and I thought back to my younger self and visits like these where I was not so interested in the stories that my parents told. Now I regret that I was not more curious because I am left with questions that are difficult to find answers for although I am trying the best that I can to piece the past together. We visited the graves of my parents, an aunt and uncle (Catherine and Ed), paternal grandparents (Beulah and Harry), my mother’s maternal grandparents (Gertrude and Henry), and other relatives and friends. One of the sites was the grave for Jonas Swartzlander who I wrote about in a previous blog entry. I discovered that he died in 1989 – which meant he was only 59 at that time. That stunned me a bit because when I worked with him in the early 1970’s he would have only been in his early 40’s and I was sure that he was in his 50’s or 60’s at that time. We then went ‘downtown’ – not much of a downtown since there are only about a thousand people living in Tremont today. Here we stopped at Pat’s and my old home, the bank where my father worked, homes of former neighbors, the American Legion (still there!), and places that used to be stores and businesses – a former butcher shop, a former grocery, a former restaurant and a five and dime that served as the cultural center of the town.. We continued to share the stories of these places and the people that lived and worked in them. There was a creek that ran next to the home we used to live in (yes, it is the same creek that runs down to Echo Valley) and someone asked me if we ever caught fish in it. When I was a small child that creek served as the sewer system for the town – pipes used to empty directly from the bathrooms of the homes and needless to say it was not a place to go fishing. Eventually a municipal sewer system was installed and the creek stopped serving that purpose, however the creek was used as a runoff for coal companies and it often ran yellow from the sulfur of the mines. When Hurricane Agnes hit the northeast a silt dam outside of town burst and the creek was flooded with black silt that ended up in the basements of many homes (including ours). It took a long time to clean up from that flood.
Next stop was the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery in Shenandoah where my maternal grandparents (Robert and Minerva) and Robert’s parents are buried. They are here because my great grandfather was employed as a stone mason and worked on many of the grave memorials in this cemetery. He also carved much of the statuary that can still be seen on some of the churches facades in Shenandoah today. I believe that he may have died from what was called white lung – the result of breathing in all of the particles from the stone cutting that provided his income. My grandfather was born and raised in a small house that still sits outside the gated entrance to the Odd Fellow’s Cemetery although it has been enlarged and remodeled since.
Finally, it was time for the day to end. Carol and I decided to drive back to Philly by way of route 61 – driving through Pottsville and Reading. I chose this route because I wanted to stop at a place called Coney Island. I had been introduced to this fine establishment by my father when I was a child and there was only one location at that time – a hole in the wall on Centre Street if I remember correctly, located across from a gloriously extravagant movie theater called The Capitol. Neither the original restaurant (actually just a hot dog shop) nor the theater exists in their original location, but there is a Coney Island still to be found. Unfortunately I thought there was one on Route 61 – alas, there is not, so my visit to Coney Island (on the other side of Pottsville will have to wait for a future visit.