Tuesday, January 03, 2006


(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.


floots said...

Thank you Finn! I've not visited Simply Wait before - though love reading Waitress Poems as you know. Thanks for your comment on my post. It does seem ironic that we are on similar themes. I enjoyed your "documentary" approach and suspect that it won't be long before a poetry take follows.

Irony number two:
My mother is in a confused and failing state of health so much of the holiday season has been spent travelling. My thoughts are with you and your family.

Perfect Virgo said...

Your descriptions of the 'nine photos' give me a clearer view than any pictorial account could Patry. Regarding your hospital visits, how terribly harsh (but typical) to pay such a heavy price for a lifetime of loyalty...

MB said...

I think maybe you have taken your photos.

Lhombre said...

Perhaps some day(if not already) these sublime descriptions of your experience will find thier way into another of your books. I was deeply touched by the panorama of "Americana" that I felt while reading your words. Especially, given the tragedy that is taking place with the 13 coal miners trapped from an explosion in West Virginia. Life, in so many versions of survival, is so precarious. I needed to be remided of that today. Thanks Paltry.

Thanks too for stopping by my web site.

Anonymous said...

Nice. I particularly like #6. Raising us out west during the Cold War, my parents were big on road trip vacations in big American cars. We visited a lot of ghost towns, none over a hundred years vacant. When you've seen as many relatively young ruins as I have, you can't help but look at something like a strip mall, a Best Buy, or a condominium complex named for something no longer there (Apple Orchard Estates, for example, or Green Forest Villas) and wonder what kind of ghosts, architectural and otherwise, we'll be leaving future family travelers to explore.

Anonymous said...

Old photos tell a lot of stories -sweet and bitter. Your visit to your husband's family connects you between the past and present history of place, time and people. Hope your father in-law is already fine.

Patry Francis said...

irina: I certainly put more thought into the images I couldn't "capture." I knew that if I didn't look well, they would be gone forever.

finn: thanks for the link to floots' wonderful poem. p.s. I'm honored that you think of me as pastry, as long as it's chocolate.

floots: I haven't been thinking in poetry much lately. Don't know why--though reading your poem might have rekindled the impulse.

Dealing with aging parents is not easy. I, too, send your family my good wishes.

p.v. One thing a word pic. does that a photograph doesn't (or at least, not blatantly) is editorialize. I'm afraid my emotional reactions to what I was looking at came through more than a neutral photograph would have allowed--which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

mb: Though I enjoy my camera or even pointing and telling my husband who is the better photographer, "Take a picture of that!" words are my usual method of capturing what I see.

lhombre: I have been feeling the sorrow of those lost miners--and their families particularly acutely today. Life is indeed precious--and vulnerable...so often we forget.
Thank you for your kind words.

Sara: Ghosts--that is exactly the word I was searching for as I tried to describe my visit to the former mining region. I felt that they were everywhere. And they were sorrowful ghosts. And my reaction to the proliferation of chains and box stores was the same of yours as well: what kind of ghosts, what kind of mark on the landscape will they leave behind? Thank you for providing me with the right word when I need it.

MB said...

Or for that matter, what kind of ghosts do they engender now? Oh. Sorry, now I'm editorializing. Suffice it to say that I, too, was taken by #6.

(Word verification this time is particularly musical:

Jonathan Wonham said...

Interesting post. You have inspired me to post a poem on my blog site about oil workers.

Swirly said...

This is a beautiful entry and I like your descriptions better than if you had taken the photographs! Thank you for sharing.

Patry Francis said...

mb: good point, and please, editorialize all you want.

Danyel: Thank you and as always, good to see you here.

Jonathan:...and a fine poem it is. Thanks for your comment.

swirly: If I had your talents, I could have taken out my sketch pad and reproduced everything I saw...

Anonymous said...

Very timely piece.

Today I found myself thinking about your name and wondering if it was Patsy that you changed to give it more flair. And then I went off on a tangent thinking about my Aunt Patsy (no longer with us).

Best wishes for your father-in-laws recovery. I found myself choked up watching the news tonight. Something about the working class salt of the earth regular people (like my own ancestors) gets to me.

liz elayne lamoreux said...

Beautiful post. The images and your words create these photographs in my head. Thank you for sharing them with us.

Patry Francis said...

Colleen: No, I was never called patsy, though I'm sure you're thinking that "patry" doesn't sound like any Brockton name you ever heard. (Glad it got you thinking about your aunt Patsy though) It's my last name that's my deep dark secret--not that it's not legitimately my name. (Got it from my first husband) But my REAL last name is something else. I spent half my life cringing when it was spoken, the other half missing it.

Liz Elayne: Thanks for taking the time to "look" at the photographs I didn't take.

leslee said...

Oh yes, you did take these nine photos. I see them very clearly. Thanks for these.

Anne Bauer said...

I went to a lecture yesterday on the alchemic reaction of using photographs with one's prose. Your blog beats the best of the examples the lecturer gave. Best wishes for healing to your father in law.

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