Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rediscovering Roots

Some random thoughts regarding our recent trip:

Despite the fact that I only lived in Pennsylvania for the first fourteen years of my life and have lived in Florida pretty much for the rest of it, I discovered upon entering the small town in the Laurel highlands that my mother's people came from, that my roots run deeper than I would have believed before. I felt like I was truly home at last. After too many decades. Why did I wait so long? I don't have a good answer to that. I was busy. Life happened, I guess. But, mostly, I didn't think to go before my mother died and left a note requesting her ashes to be interred back home where she was born.

But, I did find myself strongly drawn to the Keystone State with a lift of spirits that began as we crossed the Maryland border into Central Pennsylvania heading west and the feeling intensified in Bedford County. It wasn't just the half remembered but instantly recognizable and familiar cadences of the speech of the folks living there or the houses made of field stone, soft faded pink brick, and white clapboard. It wasn't just smell and sight of the Scotch Pines or the Blue Spruce trees and the rhododendrons and mountain laurels or the way the earth went up or down but was never flat for very far. It wasn't the lightning bugs that made me smile remembering the classic American summers of long long ago. It wasn't being among folks with pale complexions and blue eyes and yellow hair just like mine. Folks who spoke of 'GW' and meant Washington not Bush. It was partly those things, yes, but it was something more.

I found the answer in the old cemetery just outside of Schellsburg as I gazed at some of the graves and headstones of my great grandparents four times over. The graves and the stories of the bones within whispered the history of my very own people: Millers and Colvins, Mortimore, Sill and Galbraith: those tough as nails Scots /Irish, English and German pioneers who had the grit to leave the familiar and the mundane and the safe behind and move into uncharted territory and make it their own. The graveyard and the church built in 1806 with its faded headstones, weather scarred, some leaning a bit to the side, has a spare, stark uncompromising, startling beauty, just like I envision the people it shelters once had.

I've always loved history. History is stories, some true, some maybe not true about people and what they do. History is about all our ancestors. I am just lucky to know a lot of the specific history about my own family. Complete with pictures, drawings, Bibles and journals and physical artifacts.

Some of Mother's people came over from Scotland and England in the 1680s to settle in the Philadelphia area and move westward with the generations, losing their identity as pacifistic Quakers, becoming gun toting Methodists and Presbyterians, fighting in the Revolution and Civil War until finally stopping at the golden triangle of Pittsburgh. My mother's parents were the last to settle in the Steel City, leaving Bedford in search of new jobs in the wake of the Great Depression. My daddy's family came over from Germany in the 1850s, the last of my folk to leave the old world for the new.

Mother's family had been joined in the Bedford area the 1700s by the German branch of the clan. When moving westward in search of new land and new experiences, they traveled the first highway through the wilderness, no doubt in the famous Conestoga wagons carrying the Pennsylvania long rifle. The highway, carved out of mountain rock, was the one ordered by the unpopular King George III of original tea party fame to move George Washington and General Braddock and their red coated soldiers west to drive the French out of western Pennsylvania. It was was the very same route Danny and I took several hundred years later. That gives me a shiver of wonder. Too travel a road walked on by my ancestors.

At Chestnut Ridge in Schellsburg, I looked at the headstone of my great great grandfather, James Hervey Miller. It read, LT in the GAR (Great Army of the Republic/Union Army), veteran of the Indian War. Nearby, the headstone of his son Major Dr. William Sill Miller, veteran of World War I and the trenches of France and Belgium. Down the hill and across the road, were ancestors who had been there so long that the lettering was rubbed off their stones. Then, I looked at the headstone of my own father, Sergeant William Harry Wayman, US Army Air Corps in WWII. And placed flowers on my mother's newly dug grave. I belonged in that place, I felt, the way I could never belong in FLorida where I am a transplanted 'daffodill', simply living from day to day. I could never put down deep roots in La Florida's sandy soil. My children would disagree, but then, they were born here.

I understand now why my father, who never wanted to stay in Florida, chose to be buried in that little Pennsylvania mountain cemetery with Mother's people, even though his family was from Pittsburgh 90 miles to the west. I could breath easier in the mountains than in the heavy jungly humidity of central Florida. I could almost see the lifeline stretching from the land to my own heart.

We drove further west to Pittsburgh the next day and with a little help from Google maps found my white clapboard and fieldstone childhood home. As I gazed upward at the Scotch Pines and Blue Spruce trees that formed a grove in the front yard and nearly blotted out the sky, I again thought about my father. He was pretty handy: he built the house's second story himself. He crafted the fieldstone wall that ran along one side of the house next to the driveway out of foundation stones from his great uncle's farmhouse. The stones of the large chimney that decorated the house front also came from Heinrich (Harry) Geib's farm. And those tall pines were the Christmas trees of my young years. I don't know who lives in the house now, but I am grateful that they chose to keep the trees: a living legacy of my dad. Like me, those trees have deep roots in the Pennsylvania soil. Time was short and I didn't get to visit my Wayman (Weimann) and Geib kin in the Mt Lebanon cemetery my dad rejected or stop by the craftsman style home my grandmother Wilhemina lived in for seventy years. Next time I'll make it a priority. For I know now what I should have known before: the literary quote is wrong. You can go home again. I did. I will.

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