Road Trip

March 15, 1999

My road trip Friday was both enjoyable and productive. I visited my friend Katherine, but it was colder and windier than I had anticipated, and I’d forgotten my hat and gloves, so I didn’t stay long.

Katherine's Grave

This picture of Katherine might help my readers understand why my visit Friday was brief. As you can see, Katherine is not in a position to invite me in and give me some hot tea. I took the picture on a sunny day last summer, and the glare on the stone makes the information about Kate a little hard to read. She was born in September of 1848 and died in November of 1929. Not quite visible in the picture is the adjoining headstone for her husband George. George was born in 1837 and died in 1899.

Kate Whitmoyer is buried in Hain’s Cemetery in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, a village 10 miles west of Reading, which is 65 miles from Harrisburg. The Hain’s property adjoins that of a Jesuit novitiate that has a lay spiritual center where I am a frequent guest. I discovered Katherine’s gravesite in March of 1983 while on retreat there.

I was 36 and had quite recently decided to marry a man who was ten years older than I. His first marriage had lasted twenty years, and what I was doing in Hain’s Cemetery that day was math. I wanted my own twenty years, and I was looking at gravestones, figuring out differences in ages and calculating how long a particular widow had had to soldier on alone.

At first it was the near-100 year synchronicity in our birthdates that attracted me. But when I stepped back I found something else. In a row in front of Katherine and George were the headstones for four of their children — Solomon, 18; Mary, 12; Harvey, 3; and Eddie, 1 — who had died, one each week, in August of 1885. Both the mother and the fiction writer in me responded, and I began a project now in its sixteenth year to learn the history of 19th century Pennsylvania domestic life in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

I visit Berks County often. I know a dozen ways to get there. I’m on a first-name basis with the superintendents of two cemeteries, the librarians of two historical societies and a college, as well as the staff in the office of the Registrar of Wills at the courthouse. I know more about the lives of Katherine and George Whitmoyer than I do about those of my own grandparents.

William McCormick, a Reading newspaperman who is considered the father of the modern municipal playground movement, was born in Harrisburg. I helped edit his letters home from college, and wound up on the cover of a regional history magazine telling about it. Two young women from Harrisburg died in a carriage/train accident at the Wernersville crossing a hundred years ago this August. An article about that is in development.

I have more to learn about and say about Berks County. Now that I know I’m out of the funk that gripped me for a year, and the weather is improving, I expect I’ll be saying it soon.