In the Fall of 2015, my sister Polly and I took advantage of a high school reunion to visit our childhood home in Jefferson County, Ohio. It was a visit, not a return; we had each concluded long since that we would never again permanently reside there. But each of us urgently needed a visit. We wanted fresh familiarity with the identities we acquired in infancy and adolescence. We supposed that critical elements of these had survived our respective diasporas and had now to be reconciled—or declared irreconcilable—with the new lives we were constructing for ourselves in retirement.
Seventy five years earlier, our parents, who had married in their mid-thirties, brought me and the expected Polly from a largely Irish-American community in Philadelphia to the coal-dusted foothills of the Appalachians. The migration covered less than 500 miles, but it vaulted across a cultural divide too wide for any of us, at least, to bridge. It started from a long-serving urban frontier of second and third generation immigrant communities whose expectations were just beginning to rise, and it landed on what would become in 1964 the opening battle ground of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty—unmixed strata of English farmers who had arrived 100 years earlier, and eastern European townspeople who had come within the past 50 years to mine the Bituminous coal of the region. The first were tee totaling Protestants; the others, mostly Catholic, built beer halls at the same time as churches. In those days, never were the twain to meet (especially in marriage).
The big steel mills along the upper Ohio River were expanding to accommodate FDR’s Lend-Lease commitments to Churchill. Like a million others, many of them Black and from the South, our father was drawn out of the Depression by the gigantic Bessemer blow-torches at Weirton and Wheeling, West Virginia, and Steubenville, Ohio. They were just giving way to open-hearth furnaces for smelting the ore brought down from the Mesabi and other ranges in the Upper Midwest.
Our mother distinguished herself and her family by bringing into the New Found Land her Temple University normal school education. She was the eldest of four siblings who had been raised by a Methodist minister widowered by tuberculosis, who was eventually called to the Frames’ church in the Roxborough/ Manyunk section of the city. There, Mary Watt McWilliams met and married Everett Earle Frame, the next youngest of five siblings who were largely raised by a mother who was widowed by heart disease when her children had just cleared adolescence. Dad succeeded, against all odds (according to the parlor stories Nana loved to tell her grandchildren) in graduating from the 8th grade.
Both parents were accomplished rhetoricians, but in separate languages. Every one of Dad’s utterances was a gross but artful violation of the 3rd Commandment. But he won excuse for his remarkable speech (what I as a close student heard of it was almost entirely clear of obscenities) by a charming public sociality and the ready employment of a resonant bass voice (for the inheritance of which I thank him) in the church choir and in the county chorale pulled together annually for a single rendition of The Messiah on Christmas Eve. Mom’s teaching skills and, we suspect, her beauty and poise made her almost instantly a keynote speaker for The Grange, the Farmer’s Institute, and several other state-wide organizations. Their linguistic differences were spoken in the same accent, and the two of them made themselves abundantly clear to each other—and to us!
The great rush to expand steel production for the approaching war sprinkled a grey curtain of dust over the sharp hills and towns up and down the Ohio River. Indeed, Steubenville—the family’s first abode in Appalachia—earned an extensive reign as the “dirtiest city in the world”. (The appellation applied only to the coal ash, not to the city’s infamy as a center of prostitution—a dimension of its reputation that made an 8-10 pm windows-shut and doors-locked drive down Water Street a rite of passage for newly-licensed male drivers.)
The grey curtain is now gone, erased by post-war economic malaise. So also has passed the urban infrastructure once covered by the dust—the “Hub” department store, where our Christmas dreams were born and, as we eventually discovered, fulfilled; the ornate theatres where we were introduced to Bambi, Abbot and Costello, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and to the first fondling searches of young love. The great downtown churches that had hosted and rotated the holiday festivals and Revival Meetings remain, inactive during the week and surrounded by block-on-block of asphalted parking lots, empty even on Sunday mornings.
We spent the four days of the reunion visiting the farms, coal fields and mining towns of our youth, and calling on the handful of folk with whom we had stayed in touch down the years. We found the farms abandoned, the coal-veins (both surface and deep-shaft) stripped out and exhausted, the towns almost entirely emptied of the progeny of their Italian, Polish, and Russian founders, and the acquaintances in most cases presenting themselves as anachronisms of a vanished epoch.
But we got the first hints of the selves that we came looking for from each other—in correcting, embellishing, sometimes disputing, our particular recollections as we hunted down the country roads that once connected the miscellaneous sites of our early maturation: Who had lived there? Had that family belonged to our church? What had caused our placement just beyond the reach of the simple, authentic hospitality of the region? What of all that moored us to those days and scenes, however far from them we had strayed over the last 50 years?
We did learn—both in the initial urban and eventual rural dimension of our life in Appalachia—about full-blown ethnic diversity. An Italian neighbor gave a shotgun into the care of our father “until after the war”. (Dad took the gun, me and the dog in search of rabbits one day, just before he was to restore it to its owner. As was typical of his entrepreneur-ism, he knew nothing of hunting. When the dog drove the “jumped” rabbit back to us, he was too startled to fire. The gun was returned the next day, unfired, along with a full box of shells. He never again hunted, though he left me in the training of neighbors for hunting and trapping—fascinated, I think, by the fact that his farm-bred son could draw at least a thin stream of revenue from the fur-bearing residents of a world immediately at hand but so profoundly alien to him.)
I have a clear memory from my earliest days there of the sound of Italian in a Steubenville bakery. That lilting train of vowel-ending syllables hints to me of Joy and fresh-made Bread. I still revel in the chance to order an Italian red by its domain name. (Hence, have I repeated over and again wife Anne’s story of her daughter, a Choral Music major, who once tried the perfect pronunciation she had learned from Verdi and Puccini in a Florence restaurant, only to confess her one-way fluency to the waiter when he shot back his appreciation along with a flirtatious inquiry.) German was plentiful among the hills, but the war muted the public use of the language, even more than it did Italian—perhaps because most of the German inter-war emigres took up residence on the farms, whereas the Italians (as well as the Poles, Slavs and Russians) populated the cities and mining towns.
Polly, two years my junior, remembers the rented residences in Steubenville and on a farm near Richmond, Ohio, only by way of family stories and reunion visits; of our being tended by the chief engineer (then called janitor) in the furnace room of the Jefferson Union School Building while Mom instructed her charges upstairs; of our stamping across a snow-covered field in our Mother’s firm grip to be put into the care of Elizabeth and Sam Bake, who lived without car, horse or indoor plumbing on a 10 acre farm within sight of our rented farm but on a different planet of prosperity and worldly wisdom—and, as we all knew full well, on a greater one of neighborly care and love. Both Polly and I can still smell the poverty and lye-soaped cleanliness of the Bake’s tiny house, and hear the eerie moan of the little pump-organ they encouraged us to play.
The Bake’s house burned sometime after its owners had shuffled off this mortal coil, and the hulk had fallen in upon itself. Much earlier, the barn, across the creek and up the far slope, lost its usefulness to Sam’s decrepitude, and has utterly disappeared since. The house on the rented farm is still standing, abandoned and screened from the road by a forest of adolescent saplings. The barn that once stabled Dad’s team of Percherons is also gone, having yielded its weathered siding and mortised-and-trunneled oak beams no doubt to accent the “rec” rooms of the ramblers that dot the road-side fields that once produced Winter wheat or pastured Jerseys, Guernseys, Ayrshires and Holsteins.
Polly and I had been scolded by our mother for playing tag under the horses while Dad, the farrier they eventually came to trust, shod them. Our courage and his permissiveness were warranted by the horses’ docility, though Mom remained sure that one or other of us would soon be kicked into the next county. (We never were, but years later we made a frantic run to the hospital in Steubenville, by then 30 miles away, after a 1600-pound Holstein, being prompted to its stanchion by Pam, our Border Collie drover named for Mom’s most didactic sister, stepped on Polly. That Polly could cry louder and longer than seemed humanely possible is the only surviving mark of the trampling. Earlier, Mom had protected me from a potentially damaging whipping when I released an inner tube, inflated to discover (for “vulcanize-ing”) a slow leak, to a jaunty, bouncing roll to its death on a barbed-wire fence below the house. I learned that day, as did Polly, Mom and at least three townships, that “the only inner tubes to be had in 1943 were on new cars, #,@,*’s and xxx”!
The horses did light draft duty on the farm, and only on Dad’s days off from Weirton Steel—itself now as abandoned as the farms, villages and even cities it and the other mills once sustained. But the team actually seemed to revel in being put into heavy harness for the horse pull at the Jefferson County Fair each Fall. There, for a brief moment, they gave the full measure of their strength to feed their master’s competitive instinct, itself revealed in its most passionate form by his attribution of it to the horses rather than himself. Neither of his children can recall how well the team satisfied this instinct, but know that Dad transferred it automatically to the Cockshutt E-3 when, just after the war, it was acquired through the Farm Bureau to replace the horses. The principal rival of our Canadian-built tractor was our neighbor’s Farmall H; it’s Red outshined the sun, and its driver seemed to float above the drive axle, a height before our peers us boys all longed for. Both the Frame father and son wanted a tractor tall and big enough to confidently defeat the Farmall Ms that so regularly claimed the working-tractor-pull trophy at the Fair, but farming never prospered us enough for that.
The four of us, the horses, and Teddy (the rented-farm dog), made a two township transmigration in the Spring of 1944 (the year I started school) to a “bought” farm near East Springfield. For all of us, except the dog, the acquisition marked a bright new day; Teddy went “home” at least a half dozen times before he made his peace with the new place. To the rest of us, and especially Dad, the special feature of the new place was that it was “ours” (although it was known to us and our neighbors for the whole of our tenure as “the Beresford Place”—for the family who homesteaded it and from whom we acquired it). For Dad, and for many years therefore for me, land ownership was the necessary condition of real independence—from the shame of personal failure symbolized for males in America by unemployment; from the menacing spectre of abject poverty and homelessness. At a deeper level, ownership of the farm—and, even more, successful operation of it—damped a smoldering fear of his own suspected incompetence (a divination concerning his feelings that I later made from my own).
At the very least, this great hunger for independence symptomized a profound alienation from the society and culture of the Appalachian foothills. He clearly felt unwelcome there. I think he also walked in the shade of his beautiful and gifted spouse, deeply determined to free her children from the rusticity of Appalachia.
In any case, he took up farming without knowing very much about it. Hence, he sought and followed virtually every suggestion of the Agricultural Extension Service—rotation cropping and contour farming; the trading of home-grown wheat and oats for corn (and the construction of a “diversion ditch”, still visible but largely overgrown) to reduce top-soil erosion; the purchase of a used 30-foot, topless silo to ferment green corn for a 12-milker dairy herd whose pedigrees were kept “pure” by the earliest practice of artificial insemination; vacuum-driven milking machines and muzzle-activated watering reservoirs. He also talked a third-generation farmer on the other side of town into buying the first combine in the country—a heavily used (and therefore constantly “down”) International Harvester with a three-and-a-half foot cut. Nevertheless, it commenced the revolution in that part of the world that ended great harvest tradition of The Threshing Party, and left the big Huber machines to rust away in forgotten corners their owners’ barnyards.
Such investments were given too little time to mature. To produce ready cash for family needs, Dad hired out as school-bus driver for the system in which our mother taught. He hauled his own children and 30 or so others within 20-miles of the 3-room school house that saw us through nine grades and three teachers—all without indoor plumbing. The school-yard Catalpa trees remain, complete with pods; all else is gone.
Dad died of a heart attack at the age of 47, 10 years after moving us to the new farm. It happened while we were grinding feed at the end of what had been for him a hard day supervising construction of a new “milking barn”. (Today, the barn, quite decrepit but still plumb, is the only outbuilding remaining of the half-dozen that once graced the place. I “made” the varsity basketball team in my sophomore year by means of practice beneath a “hoop” made by the East Springfield Blacksmith and mounted in the “mow” of the “new” barn.)
Luckily, Mom and Dad had taken the advice of the Steubenville banker who lent them the money for the farm and bought life insurance in the amount of the mortgage. Through her grief, my mother listened and firmly rejected her 15-year-old son’s petition that she keep the farm for his eventual management. It was never her cup of tea. Any stint in the fields extended her chronic Hay Fever to Asthma. Polly and I inherited the same proclivity, and remember sitting with her over a tub of steaming water among the corn-meal “mush” crocks in the basement, our bibs smeared with Vicks VaPo Rub.
After a couple of buyers defaulted, the farm settled into the hands of James Peters. He and his wife live in a “new” one-story house where the quarter mile lane crosses onto the Beresford land. The house in which we were raised is abandoned, the orchard gone, and the arable acreage of the quarter-section reduced by at least as much as Dad, the Percherons, and the rest of us had added. Peters told me that oil pumped from “fracking” wells on adjacent farms will soon make its way across the Beresford Place for a fraction of that received by those who are just now selling their farms’ mineral rights. The oil will be borne away by a pipe that will deliver it to a power plant in Carrollton, the seat of the more prosperous county to the West where Mom served the last decade of her teaching career. She commuted there from a rented apartment in the upper stories of a funeral home in Amsterdam, a town 10 miles still farther inland from the mill.
The move from the farm to Amsterdam meant leaving the East Springfield Methodist Church. It had been the almost exclusive reserve of our social life while on the farm, and the altar of our hope and ambition. It’s pulpit was regularly supplied by Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, which annually sent missionary choral quartets into the Appalachian outback; although we were made to learn piano (me) or the Baritone Horn (Polly, with our father doing his best to keep up with her high talent on a battered instrument he found at an estate sale), the seminarians’ Spirituals captivated us and became the core of our individual repertoires. We taught them to our own children, and sang them during car trips and after meetings of the Grange or the Farmers’ Institute. They formed the bridge over which Mountain Music entered the sophisticated world our Eastern and educated mother had given us, initially through the “Hi-Fi” of our Webcore “record changer”. From there, the musical stream widened into the folk music of Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Josh White and Johnnie Cash. But it all began with hymns—and the interesting ones were saved for the Revival Meetings; we weren’t allowed to get that worked up on Sunday mornings!
There was another church in East Springfield, but the two congregations had almost nothing to do with each other—on Sundays and any other day, for that matter. We did see a member or two of that church at the twice annual revival meetings in town or at the Hollow Rock Camp Ground down on the River—where once the baby-sitting-Bakes had to explain to our parents the glee Polly and I were showing when we were found speaking (nay, shouting) at each other “in tongues”, and punctuating each delivery of babel with a fistful of straw thrown up from the tent floor. Even though we were each “saved” at least once each year at such meetings, and always at first feared and then reveled in the catharsis of confessing our shortcomings to the pastor, or, quite often, his wife (who prayed “hands on” with those answering the altar call) we were never thought as close to God as we were that night at Hollow Rock.
It is important to mention that the shortcomings that so pleased the pastors and their wives were simple disappointments to our father; he exacted fresh confession of them on the occasion of any negligence entailing waste, but he never forgave us them. Their confession, indeed, seemed to deepen his own sadness and sharpen his anger.
The funeral home, where his “viewing” was convened and on the second floor of which we lived after leaving the farm, is today nearly the only sound and attractive building left standing in Amsterdam. The miscellany of stores, restaurants and milkshake parlors, which witnessed the great bulk of Polly’s and my adolescent crises and triumphs, are gone, their places taken by vacant lots. Mom, who lived in full possession of her wits into her 98th year, is buried above the town in a carefully groomed cemetery whose earliest residents arrived on the site in 1840.
Oil via “fracking” has kept up the roads, but the society has all but collapsed. The churches are hanging on by a thread, nine out of ten of the gathering places of our youth are gone. The school system has been attached to a larger one closer to the river (in fact, the one in which Mom first taught), and Steubenville, the destination of our movie and dinner dates, has been bypassed by a freeway to Pittsburgh. The oil is drilled by itinerant teams and pumps automatically through complex plumbing networks to distant points of consumption, leaving fresh scars on land only partially healed from the days of “strip” coal mining.
But in the midst of all that decrepitude, we encountered new life among Polly’s classmates at the Reunion. The gathering occurred a mile from the Beresford Farm in a de-commissioned church building which had hosted any meeting not exclusive to either of the two East Springfield congregations—Grange, Farm Bureau, ecumenical Vacation Bible Schools, the Halloween Party, the Oyster Stew dinners of a farm federation whose lectern was often graced by our mother, etc. A few of those attending the reunion flew in from elsewhere, and gave themselves away by their relatively tasteful dress but confirmed their roots by the quick, wise-cracking humour that neither Polly nor I were ever able to master.
Polly’s “accomplishments” and mine were hailed by her friends in resounding silence—and greeted with pride by the two of our teachers in attendance, and the best of Mom’s friends. Margie Gregg, the 97-year-old widow of Mom’s superintendent, herself the director of the church choir in which my father and I were singing when my voice changed, lives very actively in the midst of the Amsterdam wasteland. Cicely Worthington, the 89 year old physically disabled teacher of literature whom I tutored to win her technologically-assisted driver’s license in exchange for the beautiful worlds she opened to me with the help of Shakespeare, John Donne, and the like, lives equally engaged in Carrollton. We capitalized on the opportunity to tell them both what their instruction had meant to us—and learned, in return, that they live in the penumbra of their mutual friendship with each other and with Mom. Neither of us can go home again to Jefferson County. But only there, in interaction with each other and with them, could either of us, ever again, find ourselves.
We encountered many other memories (often with names and date blank) during the reunion visit—at every turn in the road, in every conversation with a school-mate, during each visit to a lost or forgotten home. What does their recurrence (or partial recurrence) mean? Do we announce them to demonstrate our acuity? To mark the critical elements that went into the construction of identity? To blaze the trail we took on the way in to avoid getting lost on the way out? Perhaps to mark certain detours and claims as “cold” or “worked out”—so as to save energy for better questions and richer explorations later? Whatever the answer, our nature seems to require a record of the journey, whether faithful or accidental, noteworthy or anonymous, fruitful of learning and growth or wasteful.
And that brings into sudden view a fitting epitaph to our visit: Our mother’s observation that “regret is a sin!”