Community Gathering

This photo shows a New York City billboard of Ellis Island children covering the side of a building

I’m actually not sure which generations of my family were immigrants—my great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, I’d presume. There are mysteries on both sides: My maternal grandmother’s family has many gaps from her illegitimacy; my paternal grandfather’s gaps stem from his estrangement with my father.

The bottom line is most of us, as Americans, are immigrants.

What I know of my lineage: My mother’s father’s family emigrated from Danzig, now Gdansk, a then-disputed territory on the border of Germany and Poland. Because of this inconclusive geography, I don’t know if my ancestors considered themselves German or Polish, and throughout my upbringing, both heritages were mentioned. These Eastern European relatives settled outside Pittsburgh, with many descendants still there.

My father’s mother’s predecessors came from County Clare in Ireland. Growing up, I never heard her mention her Irish heritage, although some email exchanges before my first trip there revealed said county. When I asked for a specific town within County Clare, she said she didn’t know.

My mother’s mother—New York City, full stop. Her father may have been Welsh. Her mother—no one knows. Thomas and Andersen were the last names. UK? Ireland? It wasn’t discussed.

My father’s father—Italy. Where in Italy? Excellent question. Throughout the years, I heard Naples, Rome, Sicily. While studying abroad in Rome, I found a street near my apartment in Trastevere—Viale Cesare Pascarella. Good enough for me, in the absence of other concrete signposts. Rome it would be. My grandfather passed away a few years back, and I never had the opportunity to ask and find out for myself. Such is the dynamic of respecting the parental relationship and the boundaries that have been long drawn.

These origins, and many customs, have long been lost. However, two things were kept, with varying degrees of success: food and religion.

Nana’s food: My father’s mother liked to cook. She was an Irish cook, first and foremost, with a specialty for roast pork, potatoes, sheet cakes. She did adapt to her first husband’s cuisine, however, and made a decent red sauce. (Sauce was the term, never gravy.) When I think back to meals around her New Jersey table, though, adaptations of what was readily available were frequent features: small white potatoes, brimming with salt, out of a can. Red Jell-o, both cherry and strawberry, sometimes with banana or pineapple, sometimes not. (Young me preferred not.) Pickled beets and onions. So maybe not so Irish after all…

Grandpa’s food: My mother’s father gravitated toward hearty Polish dishes. Potato soup. Pork and sauerkraut. Bread and roast meats. I was at his bedside, giving him a rundown of all the food I had eaten on a trip to Poland, when he passed away. The last words he may have heard were my descriptions of pierogies, kielbasa, and piwo w sokiem.

Religion: All sides were Catholic, although at the end of their lives, most grandparents were lapsed. To my knowledge, none of their children or grandchildren are practicing. In fact, of all the grandkids, only one was confirmed. (Me.)

I don’t know why my ancestors emigrated from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland.

I don’t know if they were good, decent people.

I don’t know if they were demonized.

I don’t know if they worked hard.

I don’t know who they were.

I can only look back two or three generations, and the gaps are still vast.

And with that blank slate, I look at my new fellow Americans, coming in from all over, for a myriad of reasons, and I know—you too could be my family.

You belong here, too.

Ellis Island children billboard photo courtesy June Marie via Flickr Creative Commons

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Eternal Flames: The Spooky Ghost Town of Centralia

This photo shows a smoking pit in Centralia, Pennsylvania

In Centralia, the ground is hot to the touch. Cracks in the earth ripple outward, earthquake-like; steam rises in steady plumes, or billowing clouds. Tree trunks are charred and white, masquerading as birches to the unknowing passer-by. But there are no passersby in Centralia, a ghost town deep in Pennsylvania coal mining country. In fact, no one gives much thought to the town anymore.

The town’s tragedy seems like folklore, a Halloween tale from ages ago. And like so many folk tales, there are conflicting stories as to what actually happened. “Burning leaves,” a resident of neighboring Mount Carmel claims. “No, a garbage fire,” another counters. Of this everyone is in agreement: In 1962, a spark from the fire spread into an open seam, leading to a labyrinth of coal mines. The fire quickly took hold, supplied by the countless reserves of coal below and oxygen above. Today, more than 50 years later, the fire rages beneath the town, contained but unstoppable.

My father’s friend repeats the story, then adds an update. “On Friday night, I brought two large plastic buckets full of water to the street corner and left them sit. When I went back Monday, the water had evaporated entirely, the buckets melted down to two plastic puddles.”

Long intrigued by Centralia, I decide to visit. My father, a history buff, offers to accompany me; his eagerness to see the town surpasses my own.

While it is a gray, overcast October day in central Pennsylvania, the landscape pops with color. Vibrant red and orange leaves, thick green hills, and golden hay fields bookend the road, until we approach our destination.

The first sign of trouble, a change swift and dramatic, is in Shamokin Township, as we enter the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. The highway approaches a mountain used frequently for strip mining, and the term is appropriate. The beautiful fall foliage vanishes, replaced by deep piles of raven-black coal extending the mountain’s length. Scrubby trees stand out sporadically, stubbornly surviving. A layer of coal dust covers everything, blackening rooftops, plants, cars.

Past the mountain, we continue through Kulpmont and Mount Carmel. I see perhaps five people; the air is eerily still and silent. Houses, showing no sign of inhabitants, rise at sharp ninety-degree angles from the ground; most are painted some shade of white with a thick dusting of coal residue. They stand stiffly at attention as we pass through, monotonously leading us to the hills in the distance.

We soon see a sign–CENTRALIA 4 M.–and an arrow pointing left. While the town has been removed from most state maps, a few road signs still exist. Warily, my father proceeds through the intersection. “Should be there in a few minutes,” he says quietly.

Four miles in, we see nothing but open fields, and look at each other, confused. I had expected at least an abandoned thoroughfare, or a church. I’ve heard six people still live here, but there is only one house in sight, and no sign of activity. We pause for a moment, the truck’s idling engine the only sound.

***

According to David DeKok, author of Unseen Danger, the fire officially started over Memorial Day weekend, 1962. With the holiday approaching, the Centralia Council voted to clean up the town landfill in preparation for the parade. “Cleaning” was done by setting the pit on fire.

The landfill, however, bordered one end of Centralia’s maze of mines. Before cleaning, any landfill holes leading to the mines were filled with incombustible materials; volunteer firefighters set the landfill ablaze on May 27. They let the top layer of garbage be consumed, poured water on the pit until they could no longer see any flames, then retired for the holiday weekend celebrations.

But the fire had burned much deeper than they thought. Smoke and flames were again visible on the 29th; despite repeated dousings, the fire continued. It was discovered that a huge hole at the base of the landfill, leading to a labyrinth of old mines, had not been filled. The volunteers had failed to find and close the one hole the fire needed.

***

“Is that it?” my father yells. I turn to the left and see streaming smoke rising from a hill in the distance.

The “hill” is, in actuality, the mines. As we approach, the smoke billows harder, swelling to full-cloud shapes in some areas. Now serving as twisted signposts, the smoldering fumes lead us to the former heart of the town.

We park near a sign the Department of Environmental Protection has posted: DANGER. UNDERGROUND MINE FIRE. WALKING OR DRIVING IN THIS AREA COULD RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. DANGEROUS GASES ARE PRESENT. GROUND IS PRONE TO SUDDEN COLLAPSE.

I look around. To my left is a graveyard, looking strangely clean and well attended. Puffs of smoke rise from small holes in the ground. Straight, a road leads to nowhere; it and surrounding flat gray fields are a thin lid covering the continuous fire. We pass small patches of asphalt interspersed throughout the barren fields; I realize they are former driveways, the only testaments to where houses once stood.

Smoke conceals what lies ahead; the smell of sulfur, while not overpowering, permeates the air, a constant background presence. I kneel to touch the ground. It is slightly warm.

Standing up again, I regard the sign once more, and for a brief moment, feel a rush of panic. The ground could open up and swallow me, or my father, or this truck, dropping us into a fiery inferno. We could faint from inhaling the noxious emissions. The town has been destroyed for a reason…

“Let’s check it out!” my father says, and walks up the road to nowhere, heading toward the towering smoke.

I linger, choosing instead to inspect the graveyard. I approach it cautiously, treading lightly. Contrasting the gray and desolate mines before me, the graves are pristinely maintained, with neatly cut grass and pruned trees surrounding the headstones. Some post dates as recent as 1986, well after the fire had started. Stooping to examine a gravestone, I look closer at the ground. Out of the grass, delicately, trickles finger-width streams of smoke, so fine they could be mistaken for misting dew.

I follow the “road to nowhere” to the summit of the mine hill, feeling as if I have reached a volcano’s peak. Smoke pours forth from all directions, concentrated over several large gashes slicing one side of the mine pit. Trees lie on their sides, charred, white, roots dried and shriveled. The ground is crumbly, a mix of dirt, ash, cracked asphalt, and rock. I cannot see my father; like fog, the gases can sit and linger, limiting visibility to only a few feet, or move rapidly, depending on the ferocity of the flames below and wind above.

Unlike a volcano ready to erupt, however, there is no roar of sound, just the quiet rustling of light breezes pushing the smoke along. I proceed, watching where I step, looking around on all sides. I can see healthy-looking hills far away in the distance, their brilliance obscured by the smoggy, gray air. The landscape is black in its many shades, punctured with shocks of plants and debris colored white and ash, the former lush hillside now withering, scorched beyond repair. I head toward some tall reeds and grasses ahead that have mysteriously retained a look of normalcy. Up close, they seem a bit starved for water, but no more shriveled than plants in any other dry region. Hearing a puff-puff-puff, I step back, and see three short bursts of smoke among the reeds, much like an old steam engine, or train whistle.

And then my father is there, stepping from behind a patch of blistered trees and toasted hillside. His eyes are excited, a mixture of horror and wonder at the spectacle before us.

“Look,” he gestures to a small hole not five feet away from where I stand. Clear gases ripple slowly from the opening, blurrying the landscape beyond. “Like heat from a grill,” he notes. I go over and warm my hands.

On our descent to the car, I notice that patches of litter are everywhere — beer cans, old t-shirts, food wrappers. Most debris looks old, long untouched — but could they be prematurely damaged, being aged by the fierce underground heat? I note the amount of litter and wonder — clearly the town, however obscure and dangerous, does not lack visitors. Are they occasional or frequent? As if in response, we see several people through the distant haze; we wave in acknowledgment.

We are further intrigued when we reach the truck. We’ve started a line of cars — two sedans, another pickup, and a van are behind us. Are they tourists? Former residents coming back? Geologists? I attempt to speak with someone, but they are all out of sight, disappeared into the mist. I have not seen one state trooper to keep foolish visitors away; no barricades. Anyone who wishes to tempt fate may do so.

***

By the early 1980s, the fire had raged for more than 20 years. Remedies to stop it (excavating the entire coal supply, deterring its track, and flushing out the pit) were proposed and abandoned, mainly from lack of funds. The fire, still ferocious, began to emit toxic gas levels in inhabitable amounts, affecting the health of Centralia residents. Centralians frequently exhibited toxic inhalation symptoms; several nearly died.

Basement walls became hot to the touch; gases accumulated in homes at levels so high no amount of ventilation could dissipate their lethal concentrations.

And then the ground began to open up. One boy, playing in his grandmother’s yard, was nearly swallowed when the earth fell in at his feet; neighbors came to his rescue. Cars began to crack asphalt when proceeding down a street. Holes pocked the alleys, some spontaneously opening.

Ultimately, with no guarantee of stopping the fire, all plans to save Centralia were forsaken. By 1986, the majority of families had left.

Today, the town’s roads, mines, and fields remain, but its community has vanished. The Commonwealth had most homes demolished; the few structures remaining are in poor shape. In September 2002, the U.S. Postal Service decided to discontinue the town’s zip code, in conjunction with the post office closing five years earlier. As of 2003, zip code 17927 ceased to exist.

As for the mines, the plentiful coal below Centralia continues to supply the 50+ year old fire. Scientists, examining the nature of anthracite, available coal reserves, and the mines’ layout, have projected the fire could burn for a thousand more years.

Photo courtesy Sue via Flickr Creative Commons

This story was first published on DivineCaroline.com.

Sneak Peek: What I’ve Been Working On

About this time last year, my uncle approached me. He had been working on a graphic novel based on his mother’s life, and he had writer’s block.

Would you help me write it? he asked.

I thought about it. It’s a difficult story, one that would be painful to research and write. I knew it would be upsetting, both for me to work on and for others to read.

But it’s also a good story, one with all the big themes: Love, marriage, family, regret. Freedom of choices and social expectations. Religion and morality. Kindness and cruelty.

I’m in, I said.

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We knew we wouldn’t be able to find answers to everything we wanted to cover. We’d need to fill in some gaps.

So we decided to fictionalize–keep the core of the story intact, while changing names, places, and details as needed.

We got started in earnest in January 2016, and took three months to research, interview other family members, plot out a timeline. In March, we had a title. In April, we created an outline. I wrote from April through August, and we revised collaboratively along the way.

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Here’s the potential jacket copy:

For most of his life, Rick’s mother shared nothing about her childhood. While she never spoke of her years before marriage and motherhood, her frequent depressive episodes, use of corporal punishment, and erratic behavior betrayed a foundation of abuse, neglect, and vulnerability. Like his many siblings, Rick attempted to connect with his mother any way she’d allow, and resigned that he’d never learn about her past.

But unexpectedly, in the summer of Rick’s 30th year, Pat asked him to serve as her executor, and traveled to spend a weekend at his home to complete the paperwork. During that visit, she poured out her memories, never heard before—or ever again afterward.  

Stony Road is a story of lineage: the mysteries of our parents, and the desire to understand the forces that shaped them (and, by extension, us). It’s a story of regret and acceptance, resignation and survival. And—despite appearances—it’s a love story, the maddening, persistent, confounding love that only comes with blood and family.  

In September, Rick started the artwork.

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More to come…

All images copyright Rick Stromoski

New, Yet Familiar

This photo shows a baby hand gripping an adult's index and middle fingers

*Dusting off some old stories…the following is a family essay from 2012.

My niece is just about four months old, the newest member of our family and the first of her generation. My sister, her mother, has been sending daily photos, and we’ve all tracked her growth via our smartphones. Day by day, slowly but surely, a personality has started to emerge – playful and goofy, determined and opinionated, sweet and curious. We assign her these traits from these still images, and the occasional brief video, quick glances of how she interacts with her parents, toys, and dog. We see her intense concentration as she studies a new toy, a look of delighted recognition as she snuggles with her father. Inevitably, the comparisons begin, text messages exchanged in response to a particularly evocative photo:

“She looks like you here!”

“This one is a dead ringer for Grandpa!”

“Doesn’t she resemble Mom in this one?”

It makes sense, in a way – she is a reflection of all who came before her, made up of the same genetic material that shaped all of us. Her furrowed brow in one snapshot brings my father to mind, her wide eyes in another are a direct translation of her own father’s. I find myself wondering, too, if there are countless expressions and details that may be mirror images of those we never met – in-laws I’m not acquainted with, but also lost generations. Does she look like my ancestors who fled Gdansk? Or perhaps those who came from Naples? These are details we can’t quite assign, but still may be expressed – and now will be attributed to her directly. I like the idea of a trait, long dormant or diluted, now suddenly rearing back to life through her.

We look for patterns and the familiar with all we encounter, even (maybe especially) with a new baby, the physical collection of all we were and the aspirational determinant of what we are to come. These initial details get her story started, and help us explain the origins of what we can see – so far.

At the same time that we play this game of genetic Memory, matching her details to those we recall from others before, I find myself eagerly anticipating when she begins to assert the traits that are wholly hers without question, the qualities that are uniquely her very own and of her choosing. Maybe she’ll be a gifted athlete, unlike her aunts and grandparents. Perhaps she’ll be artistically inclined, like her parents, but in a medium neither has tried. Or, and most likely, she’ll surprise us all with an interest that none of us anticipate – something wildly off our radar.

I expect this assertion will happen sooner rather than later. I’m reminded of my cousin, now in her twenties; she was such a memorable toddler that her young malapropisms and nicknames have been cemented in the family lexicon (e.g., “all bodies” for “everybody”, “can’t want it” for “no, thanks”). It was her unique worldview, and our delight in her presence, that shaped us, in a way, and how we communicated then and still.

I feel this mix of evocation and anticipation with each daily photograph, with each visit with my niece. It’s a privilege to get to know her, this unique little individual who will also show me and my extended family so much of, and about, ourselves. It is staggering to meet an infant and realize that we will be profoundly important to each other, for a lifetime to come.

Photo courtesy Frank Guido via Flickr Creative Commons