The borough of Linesville emerges from a crook in the road. Leaving Meadsville and heading due west on highway 6, and proceeding through the pale green farmland of northwest Pennsylvania, the road bends left and a town appears, suddenly and severely there.
It is a small town. A main street with a slew of local businesses, a gas station, two diners (one closed and being renovated under the stewardship of the local church); a district office for the local assemblyman: his issues are vaccine shots and guns. Linesville is old and overwhelmingly white, one of the whitest places in the country; the last Democrat to carry the county was Lyndon Johnson, and this, I’m told, had more to do with beagles than with politics. They are the sort of folks typically unconcerned with the larger country, except for a sense that God is rapidly withdrawing from it.
Not to say that they are universally hostile to out-of-towners. In summer, the population swells with seasonal workers, come to service tourists from nearby Cleveland and Pittsburg who have arrived for the county’s two warm-weather attractions: lake Conneaut with its attendant hotel, and the more peculiar Linesville Spillway, where oversized carp – drawn by the promise of plentiful thrown bread -- emerge by the thousands and in such density that the townspeople refer to it as “the place where ducks walk on fish”. By late August, the summer hands and families leave, and the year-round population – just north of a thousand souls – retire almost exclusively to the daily tasks that keep them clothed, fed, and sheltered until the tourists come again.
I pass through in early September. It is already too cold for any activity on the waterways, and so the sight of an unfamiliar car with out-of-state plates is alarming enough for the locals to take notice; doubly so when their visitor is so easily pegged as more than a mere outsider: judging from my dress and mannerisms, I am obviously urban, possibly Jewish, and probably liberal; not enough to elicit outright hostility (these are kind people, after all, open-armed like all country people seem in the popular imagination), but more than enough for open curiosity. While pouring my coffee, a hen-like waitress of indeterminate age asks what brought me to Linesville this morning.
“I slept in Meadsville last night,” I tell her and, after considering how easily I want to confirm their suspicions about me, add “I’m driving from New York back to Chicago.”
“Well, you’re halfway home,” she smiles, and its true: The Maclaine Building, sitting in the northwest corner of the town at an intersection boasting Linesvilles’ only stop light, has a sign of particular interest to travelers: One arrow, pointing east, reads “500 MILES TO NEW YORK”; another, pointing west, says “500 MILES TO CHICAGO”.
The true midpoint is about a mile west of there, but close enough and still well within the city limits. But it’s not just this geographical accident that’s brought me here, and when the waitress returns I clarify. “Half my family is buried here,” I say, “including my maternal grandparents. I’ve never been, and by the way: do you know how to get to the cemetery from here?”
The memories I have of my grandparents do not take place in Linesville, or anywhere in Pennsylvania; until their deaths some four years prior, I don’t believe they’d set foot in the Keystone State since long before my birth. But in their own ways, they both came from the small town on the Ohio border – my grandmother (Helen Dennison), raised in nearby Erie but heir to the hotel her parents owned on lake Conneaut; my grandfather (Willard “Pete” Peterson), raised in town and born – back when it was a home – in the boarded-up diner now turned over to the church. He worked summers in the Dennison hotel, and at 18 married the boss’ daughter.
When Pete joined the Army Air Corps in World War II, he was assigned to California and later the Pacific; when he went, Helen went with him, and while their lives took them to homes in several states, they only set foot in the Keystone state for a transient few years, my mother and her elder brother born in hotels and other towns for lack of a hospital in Linesville. But they wanted to return in death, and so were buried by my mother and my uncles in the graveyard with so many of my relatives.
One imagines all the trucks that must be on the highway now, packed with other corpses, crisscrossing on their final preprandial journeys.
Like Linesville itself, the eponymous cemetery appears suddenly. North from the main street, a row of postwar homes comes to an abrupt end. Then a downward slope of grass and dirt, littered with gravestones, covering bodies. I park and walk to the gravel path that leads into the graveyard; it is clear and lack of any cityscape exposes the scene to an annihilating sky, still and windless. I am not alone. A tent has been erected a hundred yards into the field and a few mourners idle under it, waiting for a body.
My family plot is farther down.
The weather – chilly but still clear, with visibility out to the horizon – is nothing like the climes I associate with Pete or Helen. By my own birth in the early 90s, they had settled in right outside Seattle on Mercer Island, and with visits there largely restricted to the holidays, I had never seen the place anything but tree-obscured and damp. When I thought of them I thought of their house, packed with relatives, over-carpeted, and always much too warm.
It snowed one year. It was the first time I had seen powder on the ground.
My memory of my grandfather is of him in his chair, a black recliner in the living room off-limits to everyone but him (although I manage to sneak in sometimes), turning to me as I enter the room and shouting “What’cha say, Em?”. I never knew how to respond. He was kind to me, and didn’t scare me in the way my other grandfather – blind and wild-haired – had until his death when I was seven. Years later I would find out that Pete savaged both my uncles as children, and once struck my grandmother (precipitating her departure, and eventual return only on the condition that it never happen again). He was kind to me.
I thought of my grandmother, who was quiet. Whose voice I can’t remember very well.
I thought of the last few years of their lives, when they sold the house and moved in to separate nursing homes. It was faster than expected. After Helen’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and Pete’s with Parkinson’s, they had managed to stay home for awhile, functioning as a kind of symbiotic organism, with Helen, able-bodied but forgetful, carrying out instructions from the clear-headed but chain-confined Pete. But all of a sudden, they were both much too far gone. Within a year, Helen was relocated to a hospice, the kind filled with moaning and sickly smelling air, and when we visited her, she didn’t speak, or even wake, most times. Pete went to a private house where the mostly-cogent elderly were cared for by the family there.
Once, he lost his temper. I don’t remember why, but I had never seen him mad before. I suppose he had begun to slip and didn’t know or care I was around. So he bellowed, and in my uncles eyes I saw the momentary conviction that their father, who by this point could not wipe his own ass unassisted, would somehow rise up from the chair, tall and strong as he had been the day he came home from the War, and make them sorry for thinking they could cross him.
He doesn’t get up, of course. Later that day, he gives me a Christmas present. I go back to California. He dies.
The pilgrimage to the dead and to the place of ancestry are intertwined in American myth, and walking down the gravel to the spot where my grandparents are buried, I feel the peculiar identification that comes finding one’s self in the reality of a tradition before relegated to the domain of other people. It is you, not someone else, who has lost love for the first time. It is you, not someone else, who is famous. It is you, not someone else, who has cancer, who is married, who is walking down the pathway to a grave.
It takes me a minute to find the headstone. It has only been there for a few years, and the marble is still glossy, but grass and leaves have obscured part of the nameplate. I clean it off, largely so I can tell my mother that I did.
I stand there for awhile. I smoke a cigarette and look around to see if anyone is looking, in case smoking near the dead isn’t allowed. I think of an old girlfriend who lived across the street from a cemetery in Chicago who said when lightning struck she looked across her window to the graves to make sure no one was moving. I’m distracted.
The connection, the catharsis of a clichéd carried out fails to come. I try a “Watch’ya say, Pete?”, but it comes out insincere.
I realize I don’t feel anything, not because I didn’t love my grandparents, or because I didn’t miss them, but because there was nobody to talk to here. In movies and television, we see the ritual of survivors standing over graves, checking in to half a conversation, and yet I couldn’t summon up the dissonance to even pantomime the scene. I was in a town I’d never been to, a town that bored me, and my only connection to it was scattered bodies buried in the Earth.
We have a host of rituals toward the dead, but very few in honor of the living. Even those we do have one eye cocked toward passing on. Any religious consecration is in some sense preparation for the inevitable, but even secular ceremonies are done with legacy in mind: the highest honors let you know the first line of your obituary.
I have written obituaries, written them compulsively for myself and my parents and my friends. I have made notes of moments planned for poignant recollection down the road, and I have described the heights of relationships not yet complete. The trouble is how often I have to change them when the subjects keep on living.
In some sense, it is willfully obtuse to say the dead cannot appreciate our presence. In some sense, of course, these rituals are for the living; and my compulsion for obituary writing is a particular clear case in point. Yet too often even these are hyperbolic, a departed uncle “the most intelligent man” the orphaned niece has ever met; the world “unlikely to see” another grandmother, in truth so ordinary. This is a testament to our goodness, perhaps: being kind does not make a man extraordinary.
What I know is that standing in a strange town did nothing for the living or the dead. I was more interested in the current residents than in the departed, but even this was a passing novelty. Even this was a distraction, delaying my return to Chicago, where I might spend time with the living before they too became an empty site of pilgrimage.
Linesville was a myth; but if there was some hope in it, was in the realization of my error. If there is hope in the emptiness of death, it was a recommitment to the urgency of life.
So the cliché goes, my grandparents life is in my memories of them – memories of Christmastime and the Pacific Northwest, not in some strange town. Their lives are in the memories of others, my parents, their other children. Eventually we too shall die, and nobody will visit the grave in Linesville, except as a landmark they pass over in pilgrimage to their own bodies. Helen and Pete won’t mind.
I walk back toward the road where my car is parked. On the way, I pass the funeral party again. The service hasn’t started yet, but more cars have come, and more people stand beside them, waiting for the body to arrive. I stop and watch them for a moment. They seem listless, shifting from leg to leg and looking out across the tombstones, looking down the road for the headlights of a hearse. They seem bored. Waiting for the whole thing to be over so they can pack up, leave town, and return to the business of the living.