Tuesday, January 03, 2006
NINE PICTURES I DIDN'T TAKE
(Slovak miners and their families on the porch in the Depression)
When we planned a holiday visit to my husband's family in an old mining town in Pennsylvania, the first thing I packed was the camera. In all my visits there, I had never tried to document the combination of history and majestic, but blighted beauty the area contains. This time would be different. And it was--though not in the way I'd planned. When we arrived, we found my father-in-law seriously ill and in need of hospitalization.
Thus, instead of days filled with leisurely hikes and nights defined by rich ethnic meals, we spent our days trundling back and forth to the hospital. First the local hosptial, called simply "Miner's" where everyone seemed to know my husband's family, and then the larger more well-equipped facility an hour away in Bethlehem. Instead of my mother-in-law's celebrated pierogi, we grabbed quick bites to eat in diners or in the hospital cafeteria.
And so my record, once again, is of photographs not taken. But seen. Remembered. Stored up:
1. A sign at the base of the depleted mountain that reads "Our only goal is to mine more coal."
2. The streets of this fully occupied former mining village, empty at mid-day. Though the weather was unseasonably warm, and nearly every house decorated elaborately, there was no one walking a dog, no children playing in the streets, no women yelling to each other from the front porches ofthe tightly clustered homes.
3. An old junk yard along the highway, containing thousands of crushed vehicles (all American, it seems. Almost no one drives Japanese or German cars here.) And at the entrance, a solitary yellow wreck exalted on a pole like a totem while the mountains rise in the background.
4. The Blue Mountains in Palmerton, where a zinc plant turned the area into a superfund site and left the mountains eerily stripped of life.
5. The long abandoned zinc plant, rusted and glowing when the sun sets dramatically over the ruin.
6. The familiar "box stores" that line the highway as we approach the city, the stores, the restaurants that have turned the place into something exactly like home. Exactly like every place else. I can't help wondering if someday they will be as empty and abandoned as the zinc plant.
7. The stately mansions that line the streets that lead to the hospital in Bethlehem. Though most of them are now used as office buildings or bed and breakfasts, I wonder who ever occupied such castle-like homes. The steel magnates perhaps? Later, we drive into the heart of town where the crowded duplexes remind me of worker homes elsewhere in the coal towns.
8. The brick Main Street near with its fascinating little shops, and historic ambiance where we stopped at "Granny McCarthy's tea shop" for a cup of tea and a scone, and listen to the last remains of Christmas Carols in the streets.
9. My father-in-law, one of the strongest men I've ever known, sitting up in bed, giving orders and joking just like he always did while the doctors frown over X-rays and ultra sounds that reflect 50 years of smoking and working in the mines. "I'll be all right," he says winking away the dark prognosis. And somehow, I believe he will.