The photo that adorns my masthead right now is one I took a couple of weeks ago as I was driving away from my brother Dave’s house.
That masthead shot, as I intend it to look eventually, looks like what you see above.
Eventually, I’ll figure out how to splice together my masthead and my title. Eventually.
Until I work that out, in a lot of ways, that image sums up the changes I have coming. Sometimes, I feel like I’m standing alone at some kind of drop off. Though I’m not truly alone, in a lot of ways I feel like I am as I push into this next phase of my life.
Florida turned me into the man I am and though I’ll miss the parrots and the palm trees, I need to be around my brothers and their families. Brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews who live in places that look like the photo in my masthead.
As I barrel toward 50 (50!), the importance and primacy of my family becomes more and more apparent. Florida’s always felt like a temporary place as much as I tried to make it final. Though I made some of the most important and lasting friendships of my life here, wearing shorts in February has always felt wrong for some reason. This place has always felt like borrowed time, lovely though it is.
Pennsylvania’s always loomed large over my life and my sensibilities regardless of how long I’ve lived here. When I hear a Mid-Atlantic accent or hear someone ask for a hoagie it yanks at my heart. When Publix started selling Tastycakes if felt like a personal coup. No matter how much I want to avoid it, I belong in that part of the world. I love a Wawa hoagie and don’t even talk to me if you don’t know what a Wawa is. Yeah, I get it that I’m a Yankee and I’ll own that completely. The longer I’m away from that part of the world the more I need it and it’s kind of strange. It’s not a matter of just wanting to be somewhere. I need to belong and at this stage of my life and I need to be around people who think and speak the way I do. This is something that’s caught me by surprise in the last few years. Had you told me 20 years ago that I’d move back to small town Pennsylvania I would have laughed, and laughed hard.
There was a time in my life when I couldn’t run away fast enough from the ties that bind me. Now, those same ties are what I crave more than anything.
The rolling hills and farmland of southern Pennsylvania are in my DNA. For all my running, that little fact is something I cannot avoid. I am bound to that place, absolutely bound. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it is a thing never the less. It’s also something I need to make peace with.
My first ancestors in the US settled there nearly 300 years ago. When I stand on an overlook and take in what those hills and fields look like, I’m reminded that I’m part of a human continuum. Though when my first ancestors settled there in the early 1700s they saw a landscape very different from what I see now, they gazed out over the land they tamed with their bare hands. I can’t see the place and not remember their names.
When I spent the month up in PA last July, my beloved brother Steve and I stood at the foot of our earliest ancestor’s grave one Saturday afternoon. That ancestor was already dead by the time of the American Revolution and his name was Sampson Smith. Looking down at Sampson Smith’s headstone that afternoon was what prompted this move. Though it’s true I’d been playing with this idea for years, that afternoon sealed it. The combination of seeing Sampson’s headstone as I stood there with my brother made the world shift.
When I stood there and read about the lives he and his wife lead it hit me that I needed to be a part of that. Wait a minute, I’m already a part of their story by virtue of my genes. But as I stood there I realized that my genes aren’t enough. I need to participate in my own legacy. I need to be there for my nieces and nephews and I need to show them the places where their ancestors lived, died and were buried. Everything made sense all of the sudden as I was standing there.
Lord knows I’m capable of waxing poetic, but that afternoon last summer was something I’ll carry with me forever. I wish I could summon that kind of clarity all the time but alas…
In any event, I stood there and read Sampson’s inscription and couldn’t imagine what his life, and his wife Agnes’ life, must have been like when they arrived in the Pennsylvania Colony in 1740.
Sampson supervised the construction of this church in Chestnut Level PA.
He did what I used to do for a living. I know all about the highs and lows of construction management, let me tell you. But Sampson’s project is still standing and all of min’ll be gone in 20 years. The ordeal it must have been to construct that church in the mid-1700s is something I can’t imagine.
We know that Sampson arrived in Philadelphia with two of his brothers. They separated shortly after their arrival. What must it have been like to say goodbye to your brothers and know you’d never see him again? I adore my brothers and I cannot imagine saying goodbye to them for keeps. Though our lives look different from lives back then, the human heart remains the same. Heartache is heartache and loss is loss, regardless of the time frame.
In my haste to leave when I was a young man, I know that I inflicted that sense of loss on the people who love me. It’s definitely something that irks and irritates me. I behaved pretty shabbily back then and I’ve come to the conclusion that my only recourse to make up for it is to just be back there as me, authentically.
I cannot wait to go to markets with my sisters-in-law. I cannot wait to have the whole crew over for Sunday dinners.I cannot wait to serve the pies and tarts I love to bake to them. I cannot wait to be more than a cipher to my nieces and nephews. I cannot wait to walk though the woods with my bothers. I cannot wait to become a full-fledged member of my family again. I love my family and it’s just time to reconnect with them and with my homeland.
Though it’s a pain in the ass and though all of us have lives to lead and obligations to keep; Ray, Matt, Tom, Dave and Steve, let’s make it a priority to walk through the woods and appreciate where we are and where we come from. We’re blessed to live the lives we do and we’re doubly blessed to have one another. Let’s be sure to to take advantage of it, even if we get on one another’s nerves as we do so.
Beyond all of that, I cannot wait to sink my teeth into my new job. I’m a fortunate man indeed. I have a place to call home and a large group of people who love me. What more could any man ask for?