Long-time contributing author, Josh Magill, has sent us his latest essay, titled: “Finding Family, Finding Love.” Although he has moved to another mountain range – the Rockies near Denver, he is still part of The Mountain and we celebrate his new book of poems and essays, available on Amazon and Kindle:
Finding Family, Finding Love
by Josh Magill
Mrs. Washington stood in her doorway, watching me. The thin clouds overhead cast a gray light on the small borough of Blairsville, PA. I snapped pictures of the house next door with my cell phone, knowing eventually I’d have to talk to the tiny black woman focused on my every move.
This town held significance for me. Even though most buildings were broken-down and the streets were riddled with potholes, this place felt like home. I had a sense of comfort and peace as I approached Mrs. Washington’s house on West Chestnut Street, and I could tell she did too when she opened her front door and smiled.
An hour earlier, I had wandered through the Blairsville Cemetery, which sits atop one of the many rolling hills of western Pennsylvania. The yellowed grass was beginning to turn green again, signaling the first days of Spring. A hawk examined my movements from the trees lining the edge of the cemetery, giving a single squawk if I got too close.
It wasn’t easy to focus on the many names etched into stone, but I had to find them—two people I’d never met in this life—so I could say I’d been there. So I could say they weren’t forgotten. I had no clue where to start since cemeteries aren’t set in alphabetical order. I’d tried the office, but it was closed. So I wandered, hoping to get lucky, hoping to find the two markers I’d come to see.
It turns out that my only relative who had seen the headstones I sought was gone, too. He’d even purchased one of them, but he was now more than twenty years dead. Yet, I could feel him guiding me around, showing me the many names of his long-lost friends.
Karl Conner, my maternal grandfather, was born and grew up here in this forgotten town east of Pittsburg. I could see him—with his flowing black and gray hair, his square smiling face, and his short sturdy frame—in the figures of the old men along Market Street, which runs through the center of town and leads up the hill to the cemetery. I could see him spending his two bits on something sweet at Brizzi’s Candy & Nut Shop or fishing with the boys along the banks of the Conemaugh River.
One man hobbled along Walnut Street, pushing his bike with energy he didn’t look like he had, as the gait in his walk barley kept him from falling over. His face reminded me of my grandfather and I wondered if this was my mother’s cousin—Jeff, who everyone had lost touch with and wondered if he was still alive—but I didn’t get the chance to ask as he quickly disappeared into the barber shop.
But here in the cemetery, I was alone among the stones, alone among the ancestors of this settlement, but I was at peace. I read the names—Smith, Johnston, Graff, Hodge, Snyder and, of course, Blair—all of which sent images of the Revolutionary War, the Underground Railroad, and the industrialization of the new town of “Pittsbourgh” streaming across my mind. All history I had learned about studying this place where my grandfather had called home, where he and his sister, Constance, were loved by parents that never let the Great Depression keep them down. They fought for their family and so I would fight for them, for the chance on this day to speak my thanks over the graves of those parents—my great grandparents.
My great grandmother, Helen Josephine, was a small woman, weighing just over one hundred pounds, but she was feisty, never wavering in her faith, and a mother who expected the most from her children. I can see this attribute in my mother and her three sisters—all women I respect and slightly fear letting down. My great grandfather, Thomas Benjamin, was a family man, a WWII veteran, and a policeman. He lost his own father at age 2 after a bout of pneumonia, yet he did not let life conquer him. Instead, he and his beloved wife gave everything they had for their children and grandchildren, though they never had much more than love.
When I found them I stared at the stones, thinking of my youngest son—Benjamin Karl—who we had named after my great grandfather and his own son. I cried; the tears streamed down my face for two people I had never met, but also for their son that I loved so much, a man I lost when I was just 19. I gazed past the highway off in the distance, out beyond the trees and the looming power plant, past the neighboring small towns where I saw both my past and my future. I saw pain and sorrow, depression and death, as well as, elation and smiles, fulfilled dreams and happy families. I saw that life is more than just this moment, but the connection we have to all those before us and the legacy we leave behind. I saw love.
Standing on Mrs. Washington’s porch, I calmly shared with her my name and my reason for being in Blairsville. I was on her street looking for the home my family had once lived in, the home Jeff might still live in, but I wasn’t sure of the address.
“The name sounds familiar,” Mrs. Washington said. “But I’m not sure. My mind isn’t what it used to be, you know?”
“That’s okay,” I replied. “I’ll keep looking, but I appreciate your help with trying to find my family.”
As I turned to leave, Mrs. Washington asked me to pick up a small piece of wood that had fallen into her yard next to the porch. I lifted the piece of wood to find her last name burned into one side. She told me to just set it on the porch, but it was then that I noticed the post with hooks in front of me.
“This is your family name,” I said. “I can fix this for you.”
I pushed the metal rings on the wooden sign back into the hooks on the post and bent them back into place tightly around the rings. When I lifted my hands and looked at Mrs. Washington in the doorway she gasped, her hand rising up to cover the smile stretching across her lovely face. I smiled too, knowing I had made her day.
“You’re a good young man,” she said. “I hope your find your family. You must really love them. I know they love you.”
I thanked Mrs. Washington again and headed toward my car. She waved as I drove away and it was then I knew that it had been a good day. It had been a day full of love. I had never been alone. I had been with family.
© 2014 Josh Magill
About the Author: Josh Magill is a writer, cloaked as a sales manager. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, Beyondthemargins.com, The Review Review and The Good Men Project. Magill’s short story, The Fisherman and Maddie, was featured in the 2013 spring edition of The First Line and his debut collection of short stories and essays, A Day to Remember, was published in May 2014. He is the editor of his own website, The Magill Review.
Photo of Josh Magill, courtesy of the author.