Monday, October 09, 2006

A Sentimental Journey

"Let to-morrow take care of to-morrow, Leave things of the future to fate; What's the use to anticipate sorrow? Life's troubles come never too late."

--Lawrence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

Saturday, I was a presenter at a health care conference in Pittsburgh. That's a cross-state trip for me, so it makes for a grueling day. This time, though, I saw it as a opportunity to do something I've thinking about. I haven't been back to my home town in 12 years. Perhaps that's not terribly long, but since I'm 36, it represents a third of my life.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania lies in the Allegheny Mountains east of Pittsburgh. It a coal and steel town, whose macabre claim to fame is the famous 1889 Johnstown Flood (more on that in a future post).

After leaving the conference at 2:00 P.M., I headed east back into the mountains I had crossed that morning. My first stop was the town of St. Michael, which was the location of the hunting and fishing club where the likes of the Carnegies and Mellons vacationed. It was their private lake which emptied in 1889 and wiped out the city of Johnstown.

This town is also featured in my work in progress, The Backwards Path, and I wanted to collect pictures and video of the town to keep that part of the story well grounded.

Continuing south, I visited my old neighborhood. So strange. Part of me flickered to those lost years (like when I thought for a moment I was driving my dad's car), but most of me felt foreign on those streets. It bothered me how few details I remembered of places I drove hundreds of times. I suppose the immediacy of place crumbles no matter how hard our brains try to clutch it.

After visiting downtown, I wound up Millcreek Road to the hilltops overlooking the valley. Grandview Cemetery is located on one of those vistas, and I'll be sharing pictures from there too. But my destination was Brownstown, where my grandparents lived and my mother grew up. Here is a typical view of one of these valley towns.

My grandmother's old house was in a disturbing state of disrepair. As you can see, the shingles are rotting off. Trash is piled around, and the garage my grandfather built looks abandoned. The paved driveway is now more cracks and grass than asphalt. Very sad. You know, I still dream of this house (as I wrote in one of my very first posts.)

So what did I find on my trip to the past? Pieces of myself were scattered in the shadows, and the stranger behind the wheel needed to find them. The long, dark hours on the highway stretch on, and I often pull together the many reflections of myself when I drive in silence. But despite all that I remember, bits of strength were left behind in my rush to leave this place twelve years ago. I'm glad to have some of those pieces back again.


Kelly Parra said...

So glad you got to visit your memories, Jason! It looks like a lovely place to have grown up. =)

anne said...

It's a bit of a bitter fight between the memories we've been idealising and the reality (and/or ageing) of the places we knew. In the end, we always win: they're worth revisiting.

Anonymous said...

Wow, how beautiful. And once again you prompt my own memories.

I moved around a lot in my life, but always in the same city until this one big move that's brought me to the South. To this day, practically everywhere I go in Toronto is "where I used to live," which is funny at first and then kind of annoying for the people I'm with.

Still, there was that one house for a good chunk of childhood. Last time I went back, I walked down the side of the house to the back gate, where the sunlight was coming through in stripes the way it always did. And there was a new lock.

There was something astonishing about the idea that I would never again open that gate and play on the hot concrete slab outside our back door.

Thanks, Jason. You're always good for making a girl get weepy!

mermaid said...

'Pieces of myself were scattered in the shadows, and the stranger behind the wheel needed to find them.'

Pick up the bread crumbs. They are well worth it. You then get to leave them in various places for your children to find.

Eileen said...

I really enjoyed this post.There is something very surreal about going back.

anne frasier said...

jason, i can so relate to this as i've made a couple of trips back to my hometown over the past year and a half. most of my relatives are buried there, and when i drive around i see buildings my grandfathers built. and my grandmother! i wondered what i would do if i drove past the house they built and found it for sale. i would want to buy it, but i would also know how weird and crazy that would be. but the pull of the past is incredibly strong -- and it gets stronger the older i get. used to be i could never understand why people looked back instead of forward. i get it now. or i kind of get it.

anne frasier said...

as i've gotten older i've noticed a stronger connection to the people who are dead. as the body count increases, that pull gets more intense.

Wilf said...

How interesting - the pull of memory. I never consider myself to have a particular hometown as my father was in the RAF and we moved around alot but I have found a place I consider home even though I have no young memories bound up with it. When I go back there, it's as though I've always lived there.
Such a poignant post, Jason.

Rene said...

Well, my hometown is about 8 miles away but it has been the center of a housing boom. Sometimes I will be gone for a month or so and drive through. I feel disconnected, even the schools I attended have changed. Oddly enough, the town I live in now has changed very little from my years as a kid. I feel more connected here than I do in my home town.

Anonymous said...

Saw your post on Dana's blog. I alway have the urge to go back to my old stomping grounds. It has changed, but the memories are still there.

Jaye Wells said...

This year I went back to a city I lived in for almost five years. I drove down my street--the house we lived in when my son was born. It was odd. I felt as if the person that lived there was not me. Like that time was imagined.

Anonymous said...

Kelly, the area where I grew up is a bit younger and more suburban than these areas. ** It's funny how you take the mountains for granted when you live there.

Anne, that's an interesting point. There's always that rub between when we remember (imperfectly) and the reality as time passes.

Bekbek, I wonder how old you were when you moved. I moved from Johnstown to Buffalo when I was 7, then back to Johnstown when I was 13. The move at 13 was far more traumatic than the first. ** You're right. It is very strange to be closed out of your prior life. Part of you feels like you can walk up to the door and demand to be let in. ** You're always good for making a girl get weepy! That's the nicest thing anyone said to me in quite a while. Thank you! :)

Anonymous said...

Mermaid, I didn't realize their worth until this weekend. ** Very true. I wonder how my children will view this old, tired town in years to come.

Eileen, thanks, my friend. :)

Anne, the mark of your family runs deep on that ground. I suppose we can never remove the soul of our people from those places. Selling one of those building would be a violation. Yet, no matter how powerful the feelings, their imprint is wholly invisible to the strangers who might live there. For that reason, I would understand your desire to buy those places, to keep them safe.

Anne, I haven't experience the body count effect yet, but I've thought about it. Someone once asked, what is the worst way to die? The answer given to him: "last."

Anonymous said...

Addy, since you moved around often, do you ever feel uncertain of your past? Like the memories are muddy and indistinct?

Rene, there must be a certain sadness when those once familiar surroundings are destroyed. It's hard to reorient to period of time without being able to immerse yourself in the same surroundings.

Steve, thanks so much for visiting! I've gotten away from offering new folks a drink, but maybe I should start again. Can I get you anything? ** As for your urge to return to your stomping grounds, do you find that it restores a focus? A direction?

Jaye, I felt as if the person that lived there was not me. Like that time was imagined. That's the interaction which I found so strange. Most of me felt entirely disconnected. Just like you're saying--another person lived there. Yet, little memories and experiences kept poking through. I left feeling like those crossover moments were important. They were something I needed to remember.

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Jason,
I think I identified with your last paragraph most of all. Going back into the past through closed doors, is often a bit of a surreal experience for me. So many old memories with a library of stories come to tickle the heart while old ghosts hover.
I think you wrote this post in a hardy, masculine form with a view to practicalities but on reading closely, it was your grandmother's house which sort of pulled you back into a tender self-reflection that you simply were unable to resist.
You could sketch out a lovely longer piece out of this slice of sentiment that has so much potential.
Also Jason, I'm excited about The Backwards Path.
How are you getting on with your novel?
I'm writing one too.
But I think when you say, The Man In The Clock, you've certainly got off to a great start. I's such an intriguing and mind-boggling phrase. Wonderful!

anne frasier said...

i have dreams about 2 house i've lived in. one is my grandmother's house in iowa. i think i might still have the skeleton key to the back door, and sometimes i dream i use it to go inside even though other people live there. same thing with a house i lived in about 10 years ago -- for 20 years. i'm slinking around the house, hoping the owners don't come home, and i notice things that are changed and unchanged. i usually always end up getting caught.

Bernita said...

Those dreams and scenes, places and faces, invade my sleep too...

Marie said...

Looks like a nice place to live.

Anonymous said...

Susan, I think you wrote this post in a hardy, masculine form with a view to practicalities but on reading closely, it was your grandmother's house which sort of pulled you back into a tender self-reflection that you simply were unable to resist. You are very perceptive, my friend.

Thanks for asking about The Backwards Path. :) I finished the first draft a while ago, and I have been working on the first revision. It's been a painful process, because my writing style has changed quite a bit since I wrote the first half. I'm nearing the point where the writing is newer and should go more quickly.

How is your own novel coming?

Anonymous said...

Anne, that must be such a powerful dream! I can almost feel the anxiety in the clash of needing to be in the house again against knowing it's utterly wrong.

Bernita, I wonder why our brains choose to focus on the obscure things they do. I wonder why I dream about a house I slept in maybe two dozen times, at best, and not houses I lived in for years.

Marie, it's a very melancholy place. After the coal and steel industries fizzled, caring for the aging population became the leading industry. When those people are gone, I'm not sure what will be left.

Anonymous said...

I'm originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. When I get back, I'm kind of happy I know longer live there. Too hectic of a pace for me. However I do miss going to the A's games.

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Jason,
Thanks you so much for your encouraging comments on my entry today, which I've only just read.
Really appreciate it as it helps me to see my work from different perspectives.
Also, thanks for asking about my novel.
I too, went through a similiar metarmophosis as you, Jason.
I started off by writing literary fiction - which bordered on the romantic - similiar to what you read today.
I completed a fair bit.
But then recently discovered my flair for satire and comedy, which I didn't seem to own before. And I find it really easy now to write comic fiction - still in a subtle literary vein. But one, that may hopefully bring on the laughs.
The thing is my writing style evolved and changed as well.
And I wonder what genre I should submit to a publisher...a genre that would probably define my reputation and which I'd have to use a pen name if I then attempted a different genre. This if I get published the mainstream way which is my dream.
So I have this problem at the moment.
Romance and comedy in literary fiction - 2 lovable children tugging at my skirt for an equal amount of attention. Which to choose? Still haven't decided.


Atyllah said...

So great to take your journey with you, expecially visiting through your eyes and memories a place I don't even know. And isn't it amazing how we are bound by our memories, finding ourselves in places that we sometimes only half recall.

Melissa Marsh said...

What a beautiful little town. I really need to get back to my hometown, too. Even though I could never live there again, I still get homesick for it. I hope to take a few days off in the near future and make the trip.

fringes said...

Jason, thanks for sharing this. Our childhood memories pull so strongly in different directions. You brought back a few for me today.

Serena Joy said...

I saw a link to here on Steve's blog and had to pop over for a visit. I'm so glad I did. This is such a beautifully written reminiscence. Childhood memories so often become distorted and exaggerated in our minds as we age -- but some memories never change.

emeraldcite said...

Man, the Blue Hill Tunnel. Reminds me of the weekend drives home from grad school to visit my fiancee at the time (who is now my wife).

I used to take the Turnpike from one end of the state (around Philly) and drive all the way up to Altoona.

Those pictures bring back memories.

Anonymous said...

Steve, yeah, it's often better just to have a quick visit. I don't want to move back either.

Susan, it sounds like your voice is growing towards the romantic and comedy side. I think merging that with a literary flair would be a great way to straddle between a couple different groups of readers!

Atyllah, I'm very happy with the response this post has received. I was bit worried that it was too focused on a place no one has a context for. I do think the pictures helped.

Melissa, I do hope you're able to go!

Fringes, those memories are great place to get back to the basics, to remind us who we were before life really piled on.

Serena, thanks so much for the visit!! My childhood memories are split between two different places, and each has a unique feel for me. Sometimes it feels like, in a small way, I was two different people.

Emeraldcite, those tunnels are such a huge part of the trip experience! Philly to Altoona--I can definitely relate. :D Glad I could stir up some of those memories.

Wilf said...

Jason, I have distinct memories of people in my past but not places and that is fine. I have no attachment to one place in the past but I do have strong feelings about the sort of landscape I like now - hilly and woolly is best for me and when it's combined with my husband's lovely family, well it's practically heaven.

Anonymous said...

Addy, thank you for those insights. You've helped me understand a different kind of memory.

Bev said...

Ah Jason, I do believe this is why they say "you can't go home again"

Anonymous said...


I was 3 when we moved to the house, 8 when my dad moved out, 10 when I moved out to my dad's, 13 or so when the house was rented out, and maybe 16 when it was sold, and I went to help empty it of our last memories of the place.

I guess I was kinda "set up" to think of it as maybe always being there for me, since it came and went in my life several times. My mom and Paul lived in the same neighborhood for many years, so I still got off at the same bus stop, bought milk at the same store, when visiting.

But now it seems so distant, like it wasn't even real. Like I as a child was a character in a movie I've seen a few times, and now can't even remember the title.

This is part of why people who grew up in small towns (the size of that neighborhood), and who as adults still spend time with friends they knew as children, astonish me so. I have very few connections in my life that have lasted more than a few years. My life in Georgia has already been a longer period than that of any single school I attended, most homes or apartments I've lived in, and most friends I've had.

Next year, I'm turning 40! And I'm starting to realize that maybe it's time to not feel like I'm just transient. :)