The other day I went to my hometown, Hermitage, Pennsylvania, to put flowers on the graves of family members—my mother, my aunt, my grandparents—for Memorial Day. It is a tradition that I have followed for most of my adult life – a quiet and personal way to visit with and honor the people who were once the very center of my life.
I pulled off I-80 and up Route 18 toward Hermitage, but then turned left rather than take the main road to what has become the commercial center of the town—the Mall. Instead, I worked my way around the edge of town, past the hospital where my mother worked (and which, I discovered, is now a UPMC—University of Pittsburgh Medical Center—site), down Strawbridge Avenue where my great-grandparents lived and lent their name to a side street—Knapp Avenue—and then across the Freeway onto Smith Street, past the redbrick house where my mother was born, and, finally, a right onto Griswald Avenue where the old Golden Dawn had been and a left at the old playground (now just a neatly trimmed empty lot) to Baker Avenue, my old neighborhood.
Everything looked familiar, but different. The empty lots, where we had played basketball and football as kids, were filled in. The old houses has been updated, vinyl-sided, expanded. Several people were talking in front of the house where my Aunt Sis used to live, but I didn’t know them. A young man was just entering the front door of the Hilliard’s house, which had been completely remodeled. Up the street, Grandma Elliot’s house, which had been a two-tone green shingle house when I was a kid, was now brightly vinyl-sided in a way that showed off its old craftsman styling. Smocks Dry Cleaning, where I briefly held my first job, is still there. My house, Grandpa’s old temporary place built on the back corner of his lot, of course, was gone, replaced by a raised ranch that sits up front on middle of the lot, completely transforming the old place.
At the top of Baker Ave., I turned right onto State Street and headed toward the cemetery. This was the main highway of my childhood. I had the same sensation as on Baker Avenue: I knew where I was at all times, but nothing looked familiar. Messersmith’s market, where my mother was a clerk and where I traded in pop bottles for bottles of pop, was now a Pizza Place, the font totally remodeled. The Red Barn--which had been an Italian restaurant where my mother waitressed when I was a boy--had again morphed, this time into a Mexican Restaurant. Some of the old buildings had been totally replaced. I dropped in at Arby’s, which was in the same plaza as the store where I bought flowers for the graves and which I had helped to open in 1965. It was on the same lot but everything else was new construction.
Sitting at Arby’s, I realized that it has been more than 40 years since I lived in Hermitage. Heck, it wasn’t even called Hermitage when I lived there. It was just Hickory Township. And then it struck me: Yes, I am from there, but I am no longer of there. It is harder and harder to find connections—or even memories—there.
In a way, it is a liberating realization. It makes clear that the “rest of me” will not be found in my past, but in moving forward.