Sometimes when I contemplate my past I feel resonant with that well-worn phrase... "And I alone am left to tell the tale. Call me Ishmael."
The despair and isolation of the verse (Is it concerning Job? Anyone know and want to tell me?) is not literally true, but sure seems that way when I consider my hometown: Youngstown, Ohio. The steel industry that was our economy went into a steep decline in the 1970's and Youngstown went with it. Now, the valleys that once teemed with red flaring Bessemer converters, shunt trains and roller mills are silent. Piles of rubble sit where thousands of men worked. The bars where they drank are shuttered or turned into crack houses and the city's only growth industry seems to be prison-building.
My mother lives there still, in an assisted living facility. We gave up the family home 3 years back when neither of my parents was able to maintain it. None of us kids (I have a sister and brother) wanted it, so it sold. Cheaply, because of Youngstown's depressed real estate market.
It was sad to lose the place, but even sadder was what had happened over the past 20 years to the woods and fields where I learned and played. Bought by a farmer, they were timbered off and arable sections plowed under. Gone the fragrant rooting sassafras, my aging orchards rich with morels, the sprawling black swamp where I taught myself how to ice skate.
Two years before my parents sold, the farmer began leasing his land to an oil exploration company. Wells popped up all over - if you know anything about the effects of "Fracting" - the currently in-vogue technique for extracting oil from sandstone formations - on water tables, you know it was good my parents left when they did.
Their neighborhood was also no longer safe. In her 80's, my mother got mugged in her driveway by a man who followed her home from church. The young man who bought their house - a police officer - came home not long ago to find his place ransacked.
But I go on about Home too long. A story is about characters. Here's what happened to some of mine:
Archie Singham and my cousin Nancy broke up long ago. He was sort-of famous by then - a well-reputed leftist scholar - but probably ill with the cancer that killed him a few years later.
Their children, Roy and Shanti, have done well in this world. Roy created a company called Thoughtworks and spends most of his time flying around the world managing it. Shanti is a tenured professor of history.
Nancy's brother David became a physicist and worked with Bill Moog to create the mini-moog synthesizer in the 1970's. Now he owns an optical equipment company and was responsible for inventing the glaucoma tester that uses a puff of air. One of his daughters is an oil exploration chemist, and his son was the Benjamin Luce who outed New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson for stacking an alternative energy conference with industry flunkies, thus derailing Richardson's presidential bid.
All my aunts and uncles have passed on, and my father died in December 2007. We threw him a great sendoff for him: a funeral in my mother's church but with speeches by everyone from born-again Christians to Trotskyists, Peaceniks and members of the NAACP. We closed it singing Solidarity Forever.
Today I stir my batters with tools from my mother's kitchen. I visit her and Youngstown as often as I can, and put my childhood into every loaf of bread I bake.
The cakes and cookies too.
Today I'm trying out a new idea in that latter-most treat (cookies). These will be butterscotch shortbread cookies with a trace of Amaranth.
I'll post the recipe if it works. :)