Shawn Drury 864 Charles Street Luzerne, PA 18709 484.347.7383 green4sd@yahoo.com Memorial Day, 1992 In Pittston, Pennsylvania Memorial Day used to be one the most important days of the year. Nominally, the holiday is meant to honor all soldiers who died while serving their country. GIs who served and died during World War II were held in particular regard, particularly in Pittston and particularly in my family. Eventually those who served in Korea and Vietnam gradually received their rightful recognition, but in 1992, in Rust Belt towns like Pittston, Korea was still “The Forgotten War” and Vietnam was a topic to be broached delicately; no one needed Tom Brokaw or any other newsreader to be reminded that the soldiers and citizens of World War II were a great generation. And it was on Memorial Day of that year that my father and I assembled with my grandmother (his mother) on the eighth floor in the senior citizens’ high-rise that would ultimately be her final home. Her apartment was adequate, bland and unimaginative, and its presence in a town like Pittston was an architectural redundancy. The three of us were waiting, as was often the case, for my mother. Once she arrived, we were to go to the cemetery and watch the conclusion of Memorial Day services. My mother had no obligation to attend these annual rituals, especially since she and my father had been divorced for eight years. In hindsight, perhaps it was her continued presence, borne out of respect for her former mother-in-law, which had unintentionally turned Memorial Day into a family tradition. Like most services in the rest of the country, there would be a parade led by awkwardlydressed Boy Scouts waving miniature copies of Old Glory to a series of patriotic numbers played by the sweaty off-key marching band from the local high school. They preceded surviving


veterans, dressed to the nines, often with a limp or hitch in their step, en route to the cemetery for the culminating twenty-one-gun salute. I assumed Gram had seen this demonstration many times before, but when I asked if she was going to join us, she acted surprised that I would even propose such a thing. Her tone was unusually surly so I knew not to pursue the matter any further. When my mother arrived, I tried to intercept her at the door before she suggested my Gram join us at the cemetery, but I was too late. My mother asked her, and Gram turned away, whispering, “No. I can’t. Not today.” Gram would turn 82 in two months and she just had a pacemaker put in, so she understandably could have used her health as a reason to stay behind. Like anyone else at her age, she felt better some days more than others, yet her health seemed bound to the presence or absence of the sun on a given day. When she answered my mother’s invitation she was looking out her living room window at the dour, gray clouds in their usual spot above the Susquehanna River. She didn’t elaborate on her reasoning but I suspected her reluctance might be more emotional than physical. We needn’t be reminded that her husband died in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Neither my father nor my aunt, who is a year older than him, has any memory of him. Gram stayed behind as Mom, Dad, and I went to the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. We found a smattering of people laying fresh flowers, milling around and studying gravestones. I could overhear some of the conversations; they centered on family and friends. “Did you know Mary’s boy opened his own dental practice?” or “I saw Helen at mass yesterday. She says Phil’s not doing so good.” My Gram was born and raised in Pittston and spent her whole life there. Everyone knew her. Everyone knew that my Gram was widowed at thirty-five with two babies at home. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


The recent fortunes of Pittston had been tied to the temperament of the Susquehanna River. The river—longest in the northeastern United States—starts in upstate New York and makes a circuitous route through the eastern half of Pennsylvania before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. Most adults in Pittston in 1992 viewed the river as a Damoclean reminder of their own vulnerabilities because it had played a major role in the two most important events since the end of World War II. Even more than being a river town, Pittston was a mining town. It had achieved something close to prosperity thanks to the geological fortune of being placed above a massive Anthracite coal deposit. Anthracite was the highest rank of coal available for extraction and for decades, mining companies raided the area in search of profit. Working as a miner took a terrific toll on a man’s body, but hundreds of houses and college educations were testament to its benefits. It was deemed to be worth the risk until the winter of 1959, when on a directive from management, some miners dug too close to the Susquehanna River. A barrier was punctured and the flooded mine left 12 men dead. Mining in Pittston and the neighboring towns was effectively over. If mining was the hub of the modest economy, there was still enough other enterprise to keep many people working and within hailing distance of the American Dream. At least until June of 1972. That was when Hurricane Agnes worked its way up the East Coast and took residence over the Susquehanna River for a few days. The ensuing flooding crippled Pittston and plenty of other towns just like it along the river. The numerous jobs in factories and warehouses were almost completely washed away and unlikely to be return. When the American economy soured in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Pittstonians could be forgiven for barely noticing. As kids, we knew about the mine disaster because there was a marker near where the tragedy took place. My dad was working in radio during the flooding and he would point out high


water marks whenever we passed them in the car. We knew about the abandoned factories and warehouses because they had an alarming tendency to catch on fire. We would watch details about the latest blaze on the local news where a harried young reporter would inform viewers the fire was deemed suspicious by authorities. Gram often chuckled on hearing the word “suspicious.” -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------My Gram’s was the only Irish family on an Italian block. There was no need for gossip since people talked—yelled—to each other from one porch to another across streets, across car roofs. The Italian women who were her neighbors fit every stereotype. They worried about their husbands, talked too loudly and never cared if you knocked on the door before you came into a house. They were always jovial and had food to spare. Their fathers, husbands and brothers were small-time wise guys who would give us kids fireworks for the 4th of July or some cash to go pick up a piece of paper or make sure my Gram’s car got fixed at the right place. They called her by name—“Cathern.” And they looked out for her. They looked out for us. It was a neighborhood. If anybody ever got roughed up it wasn’t talked about. People knew what was meant to be kept quiet and what was meant to be shared. Besides, if you were foolish enough to cross such proud, burly men, then you probably deserved a good beating. More than once I had heard that men had offered to marry her, if for no other reason than they felt she deserved a husband and her children deserved a father. The story smacked of obsequiousness, but I believed it. That’s what people did for each other around here. It was during the mid-80s, my teenage years, when my visits to Pittston had become increasingly infrequent, that I noticed changes to the neighborhood I once knew so well. People didn’t sit on their porches anymore. No kids played ball in the streets. Sunday Mass was sparsely attended. The children who were born in the town, grew up and left, except they didn’t come


back. Much of this could be attributed to a scuffling economy and, of course, people simply got old. The town was tired, weary. On the way to meet Gram that day in 1992 I took a slow drive down the street where she had lived most of her life. Superficially, the houses were still the same—they hadn’t been converted to townhouses or condominiums. I thought about stopping and saying hello to my former neighbors but that inclination vanished for fear that thy might not be there anymore. I recall thinking of the little plumes of smoke that linger after the fireworks had exploded and delighted the onlookers on the 4th of July. The clouds seem to suspend for a moment, in quiet anticipation of the next blast of color setting off in the summer sky. I wondered if they even celebrated the 4th at all. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------After stopping to chit-chat with some familiar faces—the cemetery always struck me as an odd place to catch up with friends—Mom, Dad and I gathered around my grandfather’s resting place. I was coughing and sneezing because the weather invoked March more than May. I felt as though I was trying to manufacture some poignant moment. Looking around at the hundreds of American flags by gravesites, it occurred to me that the victims of war weren’t just in the ground; they were standing next to me. The war forced my grandmother to be both father and mother. She had to make sure there was food on the table and clothes on her children’s backs. She worked fourteen-hour days in a dress factory. Besides taking my father and my aunt to church for moral guidance, she had no time to provide any kind of emotional support. I’m certain this affected my own father’s abilities as a parent. In raising his own children, anything above the bottom line was a convenience. We should work when we were able, and make sure we didn’t come home after dark, and make absolutely sure we didn’t dare come home with anything less than a “B” on our report cards. It didn’t make


sense that he was so demanding and dissatisfied. He was my football coach when I played in the Midget Leagues. In one game I scored five touchdowns yet on the drive home, he didn’t congratulate me or tell me how proud he was; instead, he told me how as the quarterback I should never miss an open receiver. He brought up a play where I threw the ball over my receiver’s head and it cost us a touchdown. We won by about forty points. How much was enough for him? I resented him and rebelled against him for years. Now, as we stood over his father, I finally realized that it would never be enough and that wasn’t his fault. My father knew how to set rules, follow them and be a provider. He couldn’t understand what else could ever be needed. He was doing the best he could in the only way he knew how. I looked down at the grave and saw my grandfather’s name, Patrick F. Drury, PFC carved in stone; a man whom I had only seen pictures of, who was almost an abstraction. I wondered what my life would be like if that mortar shell hadn’t exploded in front of him on some beach on an island in the Far East. What was he like? Was he quiet and unassuming, or was he gregarious and outgoing? I wondered if he would take me fishing or tell me about all the old ballplayers, like Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. He could bring color to a world I had only seen in black and white. I began to miss someone I had never met. Afterwards, I returned to the thought I always had about my grandmother and that day when the knock on the door came and a stranger in a Marines uniform told her that her husband was gone. She witnessed more in her life than I could ever conceive in mine, although I doubt she thought about it much since she wasn’t very circumspect. So, I mined her for information. We talked over and over about her first radio or her first television (a Victrola). We talked about John F. Kennedy, whom she loved, if for no other reason than because he was Irish-Catholic like her. For the same reason she loved to watch Notre Dame football on television. We talked about the


Civil Rights Movement. We talked about man landing on the moon. We never talked about World War II. We talked about what she did for fun when she was a young girl. Sometimes she had trouble describing her feelings at a given time or place. Of the Kennedy assassination, I asked her where she was and how she felt. Then, I asked her what she thought about all the talk of a conspiracy, and she replied, “What difference does it make? He’s gone and it doesn’t matter who killed him. What matters is that he’s gone and that’s it.” My sister would become frustrated with my grandmother and admonish her for being close-minded about issues of the day. What she didn’t understand is that my grandmother came from a different world and a different time, when things were done a certain way and that was it. There was no reason to do things different, whether it was brushing your hair or applying makeup. It was fine for millions of others and would be fine for her. She had seen enough upheaval for one lifetime and like, the town she lived in, had grown weary of it. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------At the cemetery we looked at the names and dates on other gravestones. Occasionally, my Dad would recognize a name and say he knew that person’s son or nephew. We waited an awful long time for the parade, until in a piecemeal fashion, we learned that it had already come through and we had missed it. With that, my father drove back to my grandmother’s apartment to pick her up because my mother and I were going to meet them for dinner in separate cars. My mother had to work and I would take Gram home in my car. Once seated, it took us a while to get our food and my father got upset. He was either still agitated from having missed the parade or for the simple sin of being late for anything. For a second, I thought we might get up and leave. He was on the verge of causing a scene until he


came to his senses, as he always did, out of deference to Gram. After dinner, my mother went to work, and my father went home. I drove Gram home and on the way back we passed the cemetery where my grandfather lay. Gram asked me to stop the car. My grandfather’s grave was in the near corner of the cemetery and was close to the road. My Gram got out of the car and walked over towards the grave. Rain trickled off the clear cap she pulled over her head. She didn’t bother to open the umbrella she carried with her. I stayed in the car. She didn’t go through the main entrance like the others had done several hours earlier. My grandmother and grandfather were separated by the fence that divided the cemetery from the road. It had been nearly fifty years since my Grampa had died. They were kept apart by a chain-link fence and time. We knew about his absence but she felt it. She stood there and I looked away. I didn’t want to watch her or what she did because I would have felt like an intruder. The intervening years washed away and they were Catherine and Patrick, young lovers with a new family a new house and the world in front of them. After a minute or so, she came back to the car. She tugged her clear plastic rain cap again and the water drops bounced off while the ones on her cheeks remained. I asked if she was all right. Barely audible she said, “I’m fine,” and she stared straight ahead as we drove away. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Now Catherine is gone, too. And although I have many memories of her, the one that keeps coming back is that day when I saw her pain and her humanity all at once, something that she had kept hidden for so long. On that day she became more than just a history book or an economic statistic, she became Cathern to me—she became a person. One afternoon, not long before her own passing, I visited my grandmother and taperecorded our conversation. We talked about our family, small as it is, and the world, big as it is,


like we always did. I listen to those tapes now, not to remind me of her or to try to understand her better. I listen to them so I can know what dignity sounds like.