Back to Bethlehem

Tomorrow early we are off to Bethlehem. We will pack our black clothes, and pictures of Mom, and a few favorite things of hers. We will get in the car and wend our way over the mountains. We will catch the rivers, the Juniata and then the Susquehanna, and follow them. We will cross from Appalachia into lush farm country, barns like churches, stone houses. The hills will be the Blue Hills. Maybe we will see some Mennonite or Amish buggies. The horses will be well fed sleek creatures, green pastures, rich farm land and long summers filling their barns with hay.

We will drive into the other center of Bethlehem, “The Steel” as they called it there, the huge company with its outpost in our Lackawanna, its mills stretching miles down the Lehigh River. We will go from the neighborhoods of our steel workers to the neighborhoods of theirs. Our steel workers in Dunkirk filled a ward or two. Bethlehem’s filled the South Mountain. Churches, nationalities I had never heard of, Slovenian, Slovakian, Ukrainian, Windish. All come to work in the Steel. The fathers off to work early, to stay late. The mothers all home to watch the children, to cook gallons of soup, to tend the geese in the little patches of yard behind the row houses. Rye bread from the Russian bakery down the street.

Row Houses? A front yard with a porch, a back yard with a clothes line. Some vegetables. A wall shared with the neighbor. An old row house with its original plumbing, a shed off the kitchen, a door off the porch for the toilet, plumbed, not an outhouse. What a marvel! You wouldn’t see that here. The pipes would freeze.

We parked in the alley. An alley! Strange idea. Not a street. Not a road. All back yard views. Maybe a parking spot, maybe a little garage. Through a gate and a fence to the back yard. We followed the concrete walkway to the back porch. We opened the back door. Our engagement was one week old. We were coming home to Merv’s family. I was meeting Merv’s family, his brother, his sister, his niece, his parents. We walk in the door. “Hi,” they say. “Let’s go! We will miss the movie!” We hop into cars and drive across the Hill to Hill bridge to the South Side. College scene, college bars, college movies. Five minutes from the house.

After the movie, we go for hamburgers to the Talley Ho Tavern. College bar. Merv’s Dad, Merv’s brother, I can see who they are. Merv’s mother. She looks seventeen. Merv’s sister-in-law. He calls her his sister. She looks eighteen. Both beautiful. Both vivacious. Who is the Mother? Who is the sister? What is this movie and hamburgers scene, this double dating scene? I am used to Father in his place. Mother in her place. Children in their place. I know how to eat a hamburger. I know how to drink a beer. I know how to talk bar talk. But in front of my future mother-in-law? Who looks seventeen? Shell-shocked! Culture-shocked! I am mute!

I won’t be mute tomorrow. We want to get to Bethlehem early tomorrow so we can show our grandchildren around. See the old row house, and the ones that great grandparents lived in. See the steel, the University, the Hill-to Hill bridge. See the old old Moravian buildings. See the schools, the creeks, the trails. See and explain a little.