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April 15, 2024

Dreamer 35

By Sand Pilarski

The country around the Tuscarora Mountain Range in Pennsylvania is what we Californians would call 'undeveloped'. Farmlands puddle on either side of the mountain's base, little farms, family farms, connected to the meandering roads by long dirt lanes. There are houses here and there, the pretentious among them even squatting on the stony side of the mountain, in tiny clearings with imported soil to pretend that they would someday grow a lawn. But amenities? Stores? Doctors? Taverns? Restaurants? At least a half hour drive to get to any of those, and an hour's drive to the nearest bus stop!

Now there is no doubt that I have become a true Californian, and used to a clement climate and accessible services and tame flatlands, a Valley Californian at that; however, I did grow up in the river bottoms winding between the ridges and I know how lousy the mountains are with copperheads and rattlesnakes and poison ivy and poison oak, not to mention the splendid manic freezes and thaws from October through April and the invaluable and omnipresent black snakes and garter snakes and skunks and possums. The Ambris family lived in town, in the county seat (a small and poor county, yes, but the center of county commerce nevertheless), and we had to keep an eye out for all those growths and creatures. With a turn of revulsion even now, I remember Dad using a stick to poke a long, fat blacksnake off the sill above the back door one summer evening. Forever after, I would look up before I went in or out of the house, praying, "Please, God, just let me get through the door without a snake dropping on me..." A thousand times worse out in the farmlands or on the mountains. What kind of crazy had I been as a child to want to live out there year round?

Our destination was right out there in the wilds. A passenger on the way to this wondrous must-see out along the Tuscarora, I was feeling a bit annoyed that every time I visited, my friends would take me off to these remote places on winding two-laners far out into the country, unable to understand that I am the flatlander Valley woman who knows only straight roads, or that I will be sweating with stress with having to drive back through those nasty curves in the dark to return to my hotel the next county up the river. Up and down, winding around a ridge overlooking farmlands, my friend Deb sped along, driving my van too fast for comfort. My right foot kept trying to press an imaginary brake pedal.

In a valley behind a lower ridge just before Tuscarora Mountain, we turned down a road to our left, between cornfields. Farmland had been taken over for a special site since my last visit here.

Against the checkered fields of wheat, and corn, and alfalfa, the grounds for the Memorial stood out starkly, a heavy, sullen green both bright like emerald and yet sodden, like a marsh. The wheat in bordering fields was blue green, the corn, the black green of August, and the alfalfa, like fountains of dark green lace in the late summer's haze. In the midst of the Memorial's over-watered green grounds rose a gray flagstone building, wide and low. The terrace in front of it was gray flagstone, and the facade was stacked flagstone fragments, with granite sills and pillars along its face and its porticoes on either side.

We drove down a little road to the right of the Memorial and got out of the van. Deb and I walked around the Memorial, read the names, tracing our fingers over the bronzed, familiar names: Wolfe, Rheiner, Kinser. Inset in the gray flagstone wall were plaques listing the honored Civil War dead and deceased Veterans of Foreign Wars. We continued our tour, along the portico, down the gray granite steps, and into the autumn woods behind the long, low building. The leaves of the trees were the oaks' shiny brown, the maples' yellow, the sugar maples' purply-red. There were still enough leaves to make a colored canopy, and so many had fallen that we had a mosaic floor as well.

A two-track vehicle path led a winding way off to the left beneath the trees, but right up a little hill in front of us was a footpath, straight, worn into the side of the hill. I had to run a little to get enough momentum to get up the path, because of the steepness, and my middle-aged heaviness. At the top of the hill, we looked down through another long terrace of gray flagstones, pillared and covered, a colonnade, at a man-made lake, behind which was a white marble structure that was the heart of the living monument.

For some reason, there were actually two white buildings, because the lake wrapped part way around the front of the white building and between the halves of the structure. A pure white bridge connected them, supported by perfect arches above the green water. Why two, I wondered? One for men and one for women? One for good and one for unloved? One for remembered and one for forgotten?

Green turf-covered hills had been incorporated into it, and flowering shrubs of high summer cascaded down the green banks, hibiscus, oleander, roses.

Children playing everywhere in the sunlight.

On the long portico, families were set up in groups, busily making things in the deep, powdery snow. I approached a young woman and asked her if she could explain what was going on. She handed me a book on the history of the place.

The book about the Memorial had a tattered cover, and some of the pictures in it were faded, but stuck between the pages were some old newspaper obituaries, torn out, clipped out, some folded neatly. When I touched them, I felt a sense of loss and sobbed a little, then asked myself why I was crying when I didn't have any dead remembered here; all my dead were still in California.

"The people come to this place to make things for the dead," the young woman explained. "The dead don't need the crafts or food or goods, you know," she went on, "but the making of the things is a prayer of well-wishing in itself. That's what is important, the intent."

A memorial, a place of remembrance. A place you take your children so that they know to remember the dead. The place you yourself go to remind yourself that you, too might one day be counted among these Long Gone, and will you want someone to remember you?

I saw brightly colored puzzles being put together in one spot. Strolling along, I smelled a savory fish cooking on a little portable grill. A family with several small children were drawing pictures with crayons. "To Grandpa -- we miss you."

No one seemed sad, in spite of the missing of persons. The general air of the place was like a community field passing time waiting for fireworks on Fourth of July.

An annoying little girl with dark hair, a white shirt and a pink skirt was talking to Deb -- I found them under a low shrubby azalea in spring bloom. The little girl was saying, You haven't seen the bramble yet? Then she tried to repronounce it bur-am-bel, to get it correctly. "No, I haven't seen that one yet," said Deb in her slow, even drawl. "Come on, let's go have a look."

I followed them, wondering if the little girl looked more like Marca with Oesha's eyes, or like Oesha, with Marca's pompous mannerisms. And was a bramble a new planting of shrubs, or a maze, or a decorative crown of thorns for the joyfully remembered dead?

Having staggered out of bed to grab my notebook, and having scribbled down the salient features of the dream, I marveled at finding such a beautiful structure in such a rustic setting, yet puzzled over the four seasons present in one place, and the intimacy of the sorrow and the joy. Creativity out of grief. All times of the year. All my seasons. And now, an urge to make something new and beautiful from all my loss.

End Book Two

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-02-07
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