In order to give my first chapter book, Playing Hooky, more authenticity, I included pics of the "real faces and actual places" that inspired it. Photos of my mom and dad, baba and zedo, and my brother and uncle were easy to come by. All I had to do was open the dresser drawers in the spare room and wade through the thousands that have yet to be organized and most likely never will be.
But since I didn't have photos of a few of the places, I decided to return to my childhood stomping grounds to see it they still actually existed. And they did. I visited the church and school, the community center and the creek, and the bakery that has survived over 60 years in a neighborhood that's been dying for close to a quarter century.
A few weeks later, my daughter, Joy, and her family came from out-of-town for a short stay. My grandchildren, Brady and Brenna, were bored so I asked them if they'd be interested in seeing where my mom and dad were born. After stopping at the Blue Bonnet Bakery for the best-tasting donuts and mimi coffee cakes ever made in the entire world, and taking them on an abbreviated tour of the Stay Tune Distillery which was once the John Munhall Neighborhood House and driving down the path to the infamous creek where my brother nearly lost an eye, it was time for a trek up Hayes Lane, a short, curvy Ravine Street offshoot.
Strange as it may seem, although I'd spent practically all of my pre-teen years roaming Ravine Street in Munhall, PA, I'd never ventured up Hayes Lane before. During my extensive research, I applied for a copy of my mother and father's marriage license, and lo and behold I found my maternal grandparents' address with house number included. I also discovered that in the 1930's my dad's family had lived on the lane as well.
My daughter was leary about driving up the narrow road since it was perfectly clear to both of us that only one car at a time could go up or down and there wasn't much space to move aside to allow for somebody to pass. But I was so excited, she had no choice but to continue on. At the top of the hill the road came to a dead end. Brady, Brenna, and I jumped out and began searching for 1042. Joy stayed in the car in case we had to make a quick getaway.
Midway down the lane I spied the sad-looking house bearing the #1042 with bags of old Christmas decorations and tons of empty beer cans stacked high on the dilapidated front porch. With my two brave grandkids right behind me, I walked up and rang the doorbell, waited a few minutes and rang it again. Just as we were about to leave, the door opened and a scruffy, unshaven man probably around 70 stood staring me in the face. I told him my name and asked if he knew who'd lived in his house previously. He said he'd been born and raised in that house and his family had lived in it since the early thirties. I gave him our family surname and he immediately rattled off the names of my baba, zedo, mom and uncle. Then he pointed to the house three doors down and on the left. "That was their house," he said. I asked him if he knew my dad's family. He nodded and pointed up the lane where three or four lots stood empty. "Those houses burned down years ago," he said. "But I believe one of those was where your father's family lived." Naturally I was disappointed to hear that, but was eager to see where my mom, and their great-grandmother was born. The three of us raced down the hill.
For some reason, the address number on my parents' marriage license was incorrect. It should have read #1032. Even after all those years, the house of our ancestors carried itself in a stately manner. It's a two story structure built high up with a pair of steps I'm positive my zedo built with his own hands. It has a front porch that extends the width of the house, and from what I could see, a back porch, too. From the looks of it, nobody was home. I told the kids that the next time they visited we'd certainly be back and hopefully gain entrance into the place that remembers our family's history.
By this time, Joy had driven down to where we were standing. As we got in the car, Brady began telling his mother all about what we had learned. When I asked him what he thought of our historical tour, my eleven year old grandson said it was cool. However my eight year old granddaughter wasn't nearly as impressed. But that's okay because as she gets older connections with those who have gone before us will become increasingly more meaningful to her.
They have certainly become more meaningful to me. And I intend to keep searching as far back as I can go. This journey has stirred up such strong emotions in me that have both allowed me to release some of my deeply-buried anxiety and helped strengthen my bonds with the people that mean everything to me.
I advice all of you to retrace your steps back in time and connect with your own families. It is definitely worth your time.