For the sake of convenience, I usually tell people my parents were from Pittsburgh. But really, they were from a tiny hamlet called Denbo, about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh. To put a finer point on it, my mom grew up in a company town, and the patch of row houses took its name from the local coalmine—Vesta 6. Her dad worked in that mine. The company owned their home, and they shopped in a company store and paid with company-issued scrip.
I remember our family visits when I was a kid as exotic—driving in from Illinois, the serpentine roads through the hills and valleys were like a roller coaster. We stayed in the house my dad grew up in, very near the Monongahela River. My uncle George lived there, and sometimes there would be an open fire roast of multiple chickens on a spit, as well as a lamb. It’s the first time I ever ate lamb, wouldn’t have touched it before then. But that lamb was different.
George always kept an ancient family tractor operable, and he had a trailer that he’d transformed from a defunct truck. He’d hitch that makeshift trailer up and take me, my sister and our cousins on a twilight ride along the river and then to the entrance of an abandoned strip mine. It was spooky in a Ray Bradbury way. There’d be talk of the old days, when my dad and his brothers swam in the river, sometimes hitching onto barges for a ride. It was impossible to comprehend, but kind of electrifying.
We only went every few years, but the whole place seemed never to change. It was like going back in time.
Of course, everything does change.
I was reminded of that this past weekend when I made a sojourn to western Pennsylvania.
I hadn’t been to the cemetery at St. George’s Serbian church in nearly 25 years, when we buried my father there. Saturday I drove in around 11:00 a.m., somehow managing not to get lost. As I approached, the memory of my dad’s funeral day began materializing. It’s a beautiful drive, really, and then all of the sudden these enormous cooling towers from a power plant come into view. The church and cemetery are very nearly in the towers’ shadows.
That’s the kind of imagery that sticks with you.
It’s a very small church, and the cemetery is unassuming. No tombstones, just markers. Nearly a third of them also had a medallion indicating the deceased was a veteran.
I was utterly alone on a sun-soaked day. As I walked the grounds, the number of markers with names ending in ovich kept fooling me. But it being a Serbian cemetery, well… .
Then I saw a cluster, and there he was—with his veteran’s marker. And I remembered his funeral, the flag-draped coffin graveside, and the paunchy troop from the American Legion playing taps and firing their rifles in salute. And just bawling. Twenty-five years later, it was as clear as day.
I spent my time with memories of my dad—and uncle George and Aunt Bert and her husband Uncle Hunch, one of the all-time characters of all-time characters, who are buried steps away. And then I headed to Bert and Hunch’s daughter’s house.
Cousin Linda lives in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill surrounded by woods in Brownsville, Pa. I was treated to scrumptious homemade stuffed cabbage and fried chicken and pogacha, traditional Serbian bread. And to conversation with Linda, her husband Rich, and my cousin Johnny—Linda’s brother. We caught up on children, grandchildren, cousins, family dramas, and the cacophony of cicadas that had only recently subsided at their house. And it was wonderful.
From there, it was back to my hotel in Pittsburgh for a nap and then a trip to PNC Park, home of the Pirates, who hosted the Dodgers that night. Decades ago I’d gone to Three Rivers Stadium with another uncle and cousins and seen the great Roberto Clemente play. Clemente played the game with a kind of artistic grace, and with flair. He has remained an all-time favorite.
The new stadium is splendid, the best baseball park I’ve been to—and the Pirates won in convincing fashion, with Andrew McCutchen hitting two homers. I had a kielbasa.
I spent Sunday walking downtown Pittsburgh, where a whole lot of construction is going on in some blocks, with other blocks and grand old buildings still suffering by comparison.
I felt a little empty all day, which I sort of expected. It’s a lot to reconcile. All those people and times gone. Poof.
But still somehow more vividly alive than ever.
It’s a mystery for which I’m grateful.