I Visit Distant Relatives
This one takes some explaining, at least as to explain how, the day before Thanksgiving, I was trespassing with my brother on a farmer’s land outside the town of West Sunbury, PA, near the town of Slippery Rock.
First off, my sister is taking two classes at Slippery Rock, which was not only my father’s college but also his birthplace. The building that he was born in, a low structure on a small hill overlooking the road, is still standing. Also still standing is the building just up the hill from it where he grew up, and when a small child, had his picture taken in a goat cart. That picture, along with one of my sister, aunt, and uncle in their military uniforms, and a faded color shot of the entire Grubb clan at my grandparent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary (I was what, 14? at the time) are hanging in my family room.
I digress. So my father was born, raised and college educated at Slippery Rock, and now his daughter is taking classes there and his grandaughter is doing daycare. My sister invited me up to see the monument and have lunch. My father is class of 1952, and through his efforts, teaming up funding from his class, and those of 51 and 53, arranged for a monument to Slippery Rock's Vets (who made up much of those three years of schools, including my dad). The monument consists of a bronze plaque on a chunk of local stone, with a brick plaza in front of it a trio of flags, right in front of the Alumni Center. Pretty much my father’s concept, though they brought in a professional designer who added some lighting and pair of Flintstone-style benches and collected the check. The incription reads:
In gratitude to
the alumni of
Slippery Rock University
who served their
country so valiantly.
This memorial is a tribute to
those ROCK alumni who
answered the call of duty.
And in smaller type:
by the classes of
1951, 1952, and 1953
And in smaller type still:
Zane Melxner ‘49, Robert Bidwell ‘51, John Grubb ‘52, Ron Becket ‘53, William Bearry ‘56, Robert Watson ‘70, Michael Saraka ‘89 (M), Eric Holmes, ‘93, Leo Gelbel 95 (they missed a apostrophe here), Tom Perry ‘02.
So I went up to Slippery Rock to view the monument and have lunch. The folks passed on the chance (Dad is little grumpy at the designer about those benches), but my brother Scott expressed an interest. Scott claims small interest in family history, but he’s searching the web for contacts for my mom (the family geneologist) and his ability to read German is particularly helpful given our Swiss-Germanic roots. Indeed, the depth of his knowledge on the road (going into depth about one ancestor, J.R.Black (my Grandmother’s line) and his history in the Civil War), impresses me.
For me, I have sense of direction, another Grubb heritage. We found the old graves of Gideon (Great great grandfather) and Peter (his father) in separate cemetaries. Indeed, the entire area outside of Slippery Rock, about an hour north of Pittsburgh, is littered with Grubbs, Aikens, and Blacks, standing sentinel beneath their tombstones.
Now, Western Pennsylvania in November is a grey, dreery landscape. There is greenery on the ground still in a lot of places from a warm spell, but the trees are denuded of cover, the air cool, and the clouds low and grey for the brief days. Traveling through the area, through identical vales and similar hamlets, is a bit soul-wearing and exhausting.
So at last we got to the homestead of Peter Grubb (Primeaval patronomic ancestor - Not Heinrich, the first over from Switzerland, but the first in these parts). It was granted to Peter after the revolutionary war and now sold and resold into other hands. We hallowed the houses on the property but got no answer, and ended up driving back into the woods along a one-lane road. The foundations were on the far side of stream, across from land the current family is developing for housing. The woods itself has overgrown the area, leaving little but a squarish hole with a few blocks covered with bits of snow that still clinging to the shade. If you didn't know what you were looking at, you wouldn't know what was there.
Here is my family (a good chunk of them, my father's line), tucked within a twenty-mile area of Western PA, beneath these low grey skies and empty trees. I've only visited during Thanksgiving break, but it always gives me the feeling of the Land of the Dead - barren, empty, and dark. I have fled west, like the man who married Gideon’s wife after he passed on, leaving her behind to buried, with her second name (Erikson) next to Gideon and Daughter Melvira.
And here is my youngest sibling, the sister taking classes at Slippery Rock. She has moved from the South Hills of Pittsburgh where we grew up, and gone to Cranberry, which is on the southern edge of this region. Into the region of ghosts that is my family history.