We gather to celebrate ninety years. Family members from coast to coast arrive, each bearing a contribution: sandwiches and fruit trays; potato chips and pretzels and pop; even fifty pounds of tomatoes from Marietta, Ohio.
This is my husband’s family. There are people I haven’t seen in years; people I recognize but whose names I cannot remember.
We hug one another, how are you-ing down the line of people, reintroducing our children. We admire the new babies; everyone trying to forge some connection; to claim those children as their own: He reminds me so much of Grandpa. She’s got her father’s hair.
We sit in the shade of the back porch or in the living room or around the kitchen table, trading stories, making new memories, and re-telling old ones to solidify them within the brains of the next generation.
Grandma is called upon to say grace, which she does tearfully while her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren look at their feet or stare at the ceiling and feel blessed to be loved so much by one woman. She is the matriarch: With her husband, she started this family. Her blood runs through their veins like river water or a road cutting across the Allegheny Mountains.
Grandma finishes grace and blots her eyes with a crumpled tissue. Her children kiss her and pat her back. We eat.
At 4:00 there is cake. A chocolate and vanilla cake with thick white frosting and pink and yellow flowers with light green frosting stems. There are presents and cards and more tears.
We divvy up the tomatoes into plastic grocery bags and talk about what we’ll do with them: some will eat them all week, sliced thick and heavily salted. Some will freeze them. Some will make spaghetti sauce.
The older generations talk of rising gas prices and debt ceilings and the weather. They talk about how quickly times passes and that the older they get, the faster it goes. They talk about once-upon-a-time thinking that fifty was old and then laugh at themselves. One generation down, the talk is of school and college tuitions and the demands of work and home improvements made.
Inside, they’re getting the little ones ready for bed. The children run around in Spiderman pajamas and a pink nightgown, standing at the screen and telling us, “It’s dark out. It’s time to go to bed.”
I glance at my husband. “It is time.” I tell him. “We should get out of their hair.” People begin taking their leave; saying long, reluctant goodbyes; exchanging a final hug and wishing one another safe travels.
Early the following morning, we meet my husband’s parents at Denny’s for breakfast. We’re filled in on the news we hadn’t gotten the day before: Health scares and illness and nursing homes: news which we gape at like an accident at the side of the freeway. We are saddened. Yet, we are thankful.
And then, more kisses and hugs and we take our leave. But there’s just one more stop to make: coffee.
St. Clairsville, Ohio: A man in a fedora sits at a table outside Starbucks, smoking and staring off into space. He leaps to his feet and begins doing toe touches which he continues until a man in a red shirt brings him a coffee and sits down across from him.
“What’s that guy doing?” My husband hands me a coffee.
“I have no idea.”
He shrugs and pulls onto I 70 east.
To the right, goats and a gray horse graze. There’s an Adult Mart at the top of the hill. The fog presses against the mountain tops. There are only occasional houses until we reach Speers, where they suddenly line the hills and look down into the Monongahela River.
The mountain is jagged and red: I can see where the drills and explosives tore through the rock. We pass through Donora and Fayette City. There’s a Wal-mart and a Staples and a sign land available in front of an abandoned house. My husband passes a truck hauling an old tugboat. Ancient campers are offered for sale on a grassy lot. There’s Road Work Ahead and the Relax Inn has a gigantic satellite dish upon the front yard. We pass a golf course and cross the Youghiogheny River. A steep road leads into the foothills of the Alleghenies.
There’s a house next to an above-ground pool and a smoking burn pile. Across the interstate, there’s a billboard advertising the Old General Store. There’s a truck dealership at New Stanton and you’ll find Yukon at Exit 53. There’s a field full of Queen Anne’s lace and a KOA campground and two chewed-up tires on the side of the road. Solar panels power the road signs. There’s a Cracker Barrel. A Day’s Inn. A sign for Tom Thesis: Watchmaker.
And then we hit the Turnpike.
There’s a Road Call box every mile. I see abandoned hotels and a marshland full of cattails and the bleached bones of dead trees. Gasoline is $3.77 a gallon and the Rib and Wing Festival ended last weekend. From the top of a hill, a solitary tree watches over the valley. Wild grapes strangle a wire fence. We pass Helca Road. A billboard for Phantom Fireworks. Water drips down the side of the mountain. A state trooper has pulled someone over. We pass Freeman Fall Road and Keyser Road and lush fields of corn and blank billboards. Despite the temperature, reds and browns and yellows and greens of all sorts hint at the coming of the cooler season. The woods rising into the mountains beckon. They look dark and cool and undeveloped and primitive.
Traffic picks up. We lose the local NPR station and all we can coax from the radio is country music or classical or oldies. We pass the exit for the Living Treasures Animal Park and the Hidden Valley Resort. Steam rises from a vent in the ground near an entrance ramp. There are blue flowers and yellow flowers whose names I do not know. A garage is built of cinderblock. Our ears begin popping as we ascend. There’s a house with an American flag. An overpass is being constructed over the Turnpike. A sign painted on a barn tells us to Drink Milk.
We stop for gas in Somerset. In the lot there’s a white van with Indiana plates. Written in yellow on the back windows are the words: Honk if you love Jesus. Inside a red Camry, a beaded seat waits to massage the driver’s back and legs. A woman and her mother walk their dachshund who wears a pink harness. A man with a straw hat walks towards a rig with two green tractors. The door to the sleeping compartment of a truck is flung open. The driver sleeps inside.
We head back onto the turnpike and pass six windmills in a field and three towels hanging upon a clothesline before entering the Allegheny Mountain tunnel. The radio cuts out completely. The walls inside are tiled and here and there are patches of missing tiles behind which I can see brick and cement. Two long rows of lights shine down upon us. Every so many feet there are emergency exit doors and fire extinguishers. And we emerge on the other side, blinking at the brilliance of the day. On this side of the tunnel, the road doesn’t cut into the mountain. It looks as if someone picked up the road and shook it out like a rug before letting it come to rest again, curving to the contours of the mountain rather than cutting through it.
We enter the Chesapeake Bay watershed and just after Somerset, we pass the stairs leading from the Turnpike and up the side of the hill to St. John’s Church.
I look outside, past the billboards; up the dark mountain roads and into the valleys and realize all that I do not know. I would like to know the names of the flowers and the trees that grow roadside. I would like to know something of the tiny towns through which we pass. I would like know the story of the red barn beside the road. The meaning behind the tires piled upon the rusted metal shed. I want to know how the Juniata River got its name.
A car from Ohio has a rod across the back from which hang pressed shirts and pants. The Hampton Inn informs me that We love having you here indoor pool. The Quality Inn offers in-room coffee at Breezewood and another sign says Got Gas? We do! (Rooms and Food Too).
We pass Wooden Bridge Creek, Fortune Teller Creek, Fort Littletown. A woman picks tomatoes from her garden and kindling is stacked against a metal shed. A hazard sign flashes, but its message is covered in black. Mesh covers the side of the mountain to prevent falling rock from landing upon the cars. We pass Ten Mile Run and the crumbling foundation of a building and Three Square Hollow Road. To the right, a red reflecting ball serves as head for a stick figure made of logs. There’s a car junkyard where acres of cars in various states of disrepair wait for nothing. God’s Truth is Word. Read. Pray. Obey. Round bales of straw are wrapped in white plastic. Coal: Increasingly Green and always Red, White and Blue. Motel 6 has a pool, extended cable, and WiFi. Purple boxes attract emerald ash borers. Another billboard features a teenage girl with pigtails. She holds a dog and grins with blackened teeth. Puppy Mills are Pennsylvania’s Disgrace. On an aluminum shed there’s a McCain Palin poster and a sign on a barn tells me to Repent. Confess your sins. God will abundantly pardon.
We make a final stop and I realize that I have passed this way—on the periphery of lives—dozens of times without really stopping and looking. These tiny dots upon a map taken together make up a state I barely know in the same way that the people we’ve just left make up a family about which I know only the barest of bones. I’d like to pull off somewhere and explore. I’d like to look behind the pretty faces of Starbucks and Roy Rodgers and Cinnabun. I’d like to spend time with my husband’s family and come to know them better.
But we have Important Things to attend to at home, so we order a Starbucks and return to the car. It’s time to move on.
And as we descend the mountain, the radio stations sharpen and we talk about restarting the mail and what time we can pick up the dog and who’s going to run to the store for milk and eggs. And at the BP station, we see that gas is $3.94 a gallon.