Recently I lamented to my Friend’s Facebook feed that I missed family holidays. My dear Aunt Linda, living in Maryland, saw that post and contacted me over Messenger. She wanted my address for something. Days later a package arrived – breathing fresh life into childhood memories of holidays.
She sent me my Grandmother Rose’s electric knife. That knife gnashed its dual-blades in her kitchen for every holiday I had growing up. That sound basically equating with holiday get togethers.
Let me take a step or two back for a moment. Growing up, we traveled from Millcreek, PA (a suburb of Erie) to Oil City, PA. Where my parents grew up and where their original homes were – about a three minute drive from each other – on either side of a valley. We would visit my Father’s side of the family first and celebrate with his relatives. After the meal and visiting, we would go to my Mother’s side for another meal, visiting with traveled family, and at the end of the day or the next morning return home.
Invariably we’d visit The Assumption Church – whether it was a holiday or not. It was a small church, but always well attended by older and wise and friendly neighbors. Cute, by no means fancy, but wholesome and genuine. I’ll never forget the vocalist who was quite old and wasn’t afraid to belt the songs out with vigor. I loved her passion, even if it made us chuckle a tiny bit.
It was a magical place that we pretended to not like that much, but secretly we loved every minute of it. We’d see how proud our Babcia and Dziadzia (Grandmother and Grandfather) were of us, and they would introduce us to their friends and people they knew.
I remember distinctly how in the summers the church could be a sauna with the humidity and the heat. We would sit up front on the left side of the pews so that we could enjoy any small breeze that wafted through an open door on that side. I remember looking through that door, across the vacant back parking lot, and next to the old train bridge with all of it’s steel girder complexity – Oil Creek running towards town.
The water was pretty shallow in most places, but on a hot summer standing in a pew looking at the sun glisten off it’s surface – it brought some relief. I loved moments like that.
Over the years, our family scattered in various directions – and Oil City started to suffer economically. The small and wholesome town vibe turned to confusion and decay. Many moved out and those that stayed suffered. The Pennsylvania woods didn’t stop stunning with its beauty. But it slowly changed into a small town with decreasing possibilities. When my grandparents finally succumbed to years of wonderful living, Oil City ceased to be a destination any longer. There wasn’t anyone to visit there anymore. All of those magical places we visited in our youth, the forests, the restaurants, Hasson Heights park, etc. sat and waited patently for our return. Which never came.
During Thanksgivings, my two first cousins Ben and Matt and I would find some place out near Pithole, a rock quarry, or some other little magical spot – so that we could plink cans and bottles. We’d make a run downtown to purchase a brick or two of .22 longs. I’d bring my rifle sometimes, and we always had Dziadzia’s ancient rifle that only took shorts. I can’t remember where we got those – unless they were from an old stash of them. That ancient rifle was a laser gun, and in Matt’s hands – even more precise.
All of that – gone. So now with it being close to Thanksgiving, I started to reminisce. The electric knife. Memories of family. And I thought about The Assumption again. My parents flew to Erie for my Father’s 80th birthday last year. I flew to Pittsburgh from Boston and drove up for it. I drove through Franklin to Oil City and visited The Calvary Cemetery where I have oodles of family. The most serene location on earth it would seem. I drove all over Oil City and went by Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was in dilapidated shape – a very sad sight to see. I had heard over the years how they had difficulty in getting a priest there as there were not enough patrons to make it sensible to have a full-time priest there any longer.
Anyway, I read news that the church was to be taken down. Reduced to memories that we were lucky enough to have with us. A friend sent me a photo of the church today, and its no longer standing. It’s gone. I am saddened. It puts another stamp on the fate of that beautiful town.
As I age, my body feels the effects of time. But my mind so far feels the same as when I was young, walking through the pillowy Pennsylvania woods, seeking out running water, hunting and feeling tied to a natural force that seemed to multiply through everyone living the small town life.
Enjoying the simple pleasures. Having people on porches waving to everyone that drove by. Being happy to have see that my Babcia and Dziadzia always had a gallon of coffee brewed and ready for the people who would stop by for an hour and sit on the side porch and chat about everything. The gentle laughs and smiles. The hum of cars as they made their way up and down Plummer Street. It was a home away from home. In fact – in some ways it was home. More family and friends hung out there than anywhere else.
The sound of oil rigs nestled deep in the woods was reassuring. The summer sunsets yielding to ice cream in the small kitchen before getting to bed. The smell of coal from the furnace deliveries long ago while mowing the grass full of chiggers. The sour smell of smashed crab apples from the huge tree next to the house. Hearing how Oil City has the best water in the world… your grandfather driving with a jug of it in the trunk. The attic full of archery equipment and archery trophies. The antlers. The saved archery targets.
Native-American connections everywhere. The significance of conservation and hunting.
The smells of petroleum in the garage and from certain neighborhoods. Slate roofs. The desire for simple things – for uncomplicated living. Driving to see loved ones – calling our Canadian family crazy because they always did it and would return the same day… and they still do. Strength provided by our ancestral roots.
I miss the beauty and lushness of the state of Pennsylvania. I miss walking through the soothing waters of Walnut Creek. I miss the smells of my grandmother’s kitchens. I miss the hours of talking with relatives. Watching Lawrence Welk shows with my Babcia. Listening to KDKA on the big console under the painting of the ocean while the Pirates were on TV – and falling into a context nap. Sitting on the big hot-air register with a blanket over me during the winter. Just soaking up all of that wholesome life. A seemingly simpler life.
I miss those days and that time dearly. But the fact that I can currently recall so many of them is indeed a gift. It’s always important to make new ones – and our children will hopefully look back when we’re gone and have these kinds of feelings and pleasant memories too.
I can only hope.