Deep in the white heart of Pennsylvania, a little town that had no dreams. Houses crushed by snow in winter, eroded by the lack of creative fire. To no other place on earth have I given greater joy on leaving.
Of course, I didn’t know that when I was a child. The memories are clear: my father’s Pontiac Star Chief convertible, the bats in the attic above my bedroom, the first day I had to climb onto a school bus and attend first grade in a brick building across the street from Saint Patrick Catholic Church. A boy was accidentally hanged in the school yard while playing Cowboys and Indians, though it didn’t happen while school was in session. I had no idea of mortality then. The tragedy didn’t register.
A day in second grade watching Al Shepherd’s lift-off, broadcast on a tiny black and white TV set. The Space Age rising while I was growing up in a region that never changed and is now the ailing heartland of an America that never got back to the moon. Today my brother and I chant aloud: “Thanks, Dad for moving us away from there…” We were still a few years from migrating to California, but the first stage of leaving that rural slough behind by a shift to Pittsburgh was a day of liberation, at least in hindsight.
The city on three rivers had cleaned up its act. No more darkness at lunchtime—when the opaque sun was trapped behind an impenetrable cloud of smoke produced by steel manufacturing. I’ve seen those pictures in books, but by the time we moved the mills were cleaner. Perhaps the toxicity was simply hidden. Both of my parents died young, my mother from cancer, my dad from a bizarre nervous disease that was never successfully diagnosed. I’m convinced their health was permanently impacted by the paper mills in the small towns where they grew up. We moved before my health was ruined.
Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Mom.
To my adolescent eyes Pittsburgh was elegant, our home on Baptist Road a noble castle made of stone. If I returned today it would be revealed as modest. That is the circumstance of memory—the old past is vast when it is new, and diminutive when it is visited in the future present—like looking through a telescope in reverse.
Yet in Pittsburgh there was little sense of natural geography—no mountains, no coastline, no sense of immensity. Three summer trips across the continent from 1963-1965 gave us all a taste. Mom and Dad sensed the radiance on the coast—Ansel Adams’s Range of Light illuminated the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion—and called to my parents.
We were rich, though not monetarily. My parents agonized over the mortgage, always paying on time. When Dad lost his electronics store downtown after the block was condemned for the construction of the US Steel building, we wandered to California and left Pennsylvania behind—aunts, uncles, cousins, my father’s mother, and family friends. We took my mother’s photo scrapbook with us. I was uncertain about that move. I had buddies and did not want to leave, but today I am still gratefully living under a Pacific sky.
When we are children our passages are not the results of our own decisions but those of our caretakers. As adults we live with the consequences of our own decisions but more often those choices are again the result of unforeseen events and losses that become opportunities. We are never in charge.
Art, in its broadest sense, is about connections, not distance.Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree