June 30, 2000

Today was the day for my sister and me to make our annual pilgrimage to our parents’ gravesite in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. We’ve done this every year since 1994, seven months after our mother’s death. Lynn was going on nine then, and my niece and nephew were eleven and fourteen. For several years we took the kids with us, although it was something of an ordeal for them. After a brief moment of respect, they’d spend the rest of the time sitting in my sister’s van acting (and being) bored. The last four or five times, my sister and I have gone alone.

Mahanoy City is not a city at all, but a borough in the coal hills of Schuylkill County a little more than an hour north of Harrisburg. It’s an hour north now, of course. Before the construction of I-81, when my sister and I were our kids’ ages and we made this trek with my mother, the trip was considerably longer, over two-lane state roads that meandered an extra forty miles through picturesque territory I was too young to appreciate. (“And the car had no air conditioning, and your grandmother smoked, and there was no radio,” goes the “well when I was your age” speech to the young-uns.)

Mahanoy City is known as the birthplace of cable television, an invention of appliance salesman John Walson who erected an antenna on top of one of the mountains to gather signals from Philadelphia and distribute them to people in the valley who had no reason to buy a television if there was nothing but static to watch. In the glory days of Pennsylvania’s coal industry, the town’s population topped 20,000. Few people were rich except the mine owners and their top managers, but most were solid middle class folks who got by well if they managed carefully and were very thrifty. Now only about 5000 people live there, the economy is depressed, and an air of shabby gentility hangs over Centre Street.

The town itself is like a bowl, the sides of which rise up to a green plateau at the foot of the coal hills. A dozen cemeteries dot the rim, each established by a particular ethnic religious congregation. Ludwig and Rose Dwyer Yakimoff are in St. Canicus Cemetery, for the Irish.

When we arrived this morning, there was more activity up on the hill than I have seen in a long time. Something called “Fabcon,” a factory-like building, is under construction just off the exit for Route 54. The miniature golf attraction at the corner where you turn to go the state park area had several cars parked outside. And we had to stop for traffic before we turned in at the cemetery gate.

The Dwyer/Yakimoff site is half way down the hill to the edge of the woods. My sister parked in the lane that leads to the storage shed, and we unloaded the flowers she’d brought. I tease my sister about this, call her “Rosie Stewart,” but I like the way she puts a little beauty in a place that is well kept enough but, like the town, a little shabby.

She brings potting soil, gardening gloves and a trowel, water in a clear jug, and pots of petunias and geraniums, this time some Dusty Miller. She cleans out the stuff from last year that has died back, and installs the new. It will thrive in the moisture and light of summer, wither when the year does, and be ready for renewal when the wheel turns once more.

Down at the bottom of the hill, where recent rains had left visible puddles, a new grave was being dug. The truck was marked “Fegley Cemetery Specialists,” and I watched for a while as a man operated a shiny new digging machine and a woman helped direct his work, placing a metal frame and marking the perimeter of the area to be excavated, going in now and then with a shovel for some detail work.

I walked down the hill and talked to her for a while. She’s about my age, and she and her husband have developed grave digging as their only line of work now. “We dig in thirty cemeteries,” she told me. They are busy every day, year round. Before I left I’d given her my card and gotten her name. Thus does a writer build a network of consultants who have information you just can’t get from books.

When my sister was finished with her planting, we walked around to the other plots we always visit – our great-grandparents, my mother’s sister and her husband whose children are the cousins we grew up with, some distant cousins with musical Gaelic names like Kieran and Maeve. And I visit the gravesite of a girl (not a family member) who died the year I was born, her First Communion picture affixed to the stone above her name, the stone that may be primarily responsible for my fascination with cemeteries. Her mother died this past March. Grass has begun to grow on her mound, but there were fresh arrangements in pots set down for her and her husband and the little girl. A child who survived, my sister thought, with some satisfaction that there is someone left to remember.

As we were getting ready to leave I noticed that the Fegleys had finished with one plot and had moved a little closer to my parents’ spot to dig again. We drove into town for sodas and gas, and I bought a newspaper, but I didn’t open it until this evening.

I looked on the obituary page for the funerals the Fegleys had been digging for and discovered, to my utter astonishment, that the site they were preparing as we left was for Margaret Flaherty, 97, my mother’s cousin.

I’m going back up tomorrow.