The Big 4-2

August 31, 2020

Our 42nd wedding anniversary slipped by last week as we recovered, slowly, from five days of house painting (walls, ceiling, baseboard) and another of electrical work. We had beat ourselves up hauling most of our furniture down to the basement. We lived out of boxes while the painters were here. So it was an anniversary like no other. Like any other, you only get to 42 once.

As we start year 43, we’re at an unsettled time, putting it mildly. On anniversary morning the house phone rang. It was a recorded message from Donald Trump Jr., just for me. I didn’t stay on the line long, but he must have been following up the red, white, and blue brochure from the Virginia Republican Party we received yesterday, the one with the big picture of Don Jr.’s dad. How did Don get my number? Probably the same way he got yours.

We said “Happy Anniversary” to each other and went to Mass, but we haven’t made a big deal out of anniversaries for a while. They seem to come up when we’re preoccupied with other things. That morning a friend helped me install a new closet door. I called him after I spent two hours on it.

We were restless, distracted.  Other things are going on, the house still is full of paint dust, the electrical outlets still are uncovered, the kitchenware and most of our clothes are stashed. We’re feeling pressure to stay focused on the Move.

We talked about other anniversaries, as usual. Like most codgers, I wear listeners out with my “I remember when … .” shtick. We started off by getting married at St. Mary’s in Nashville, Tennessee’s oldest Catholic church. We recalled our 16th: we went to New York and stayed in a classy hotel along Central Park South. A while back, out of curiosity, I checked on the hotel, it’s been acquired by a chain. For our 20th the kids treated us to a Potomac dinner cruise. They arranged it as a surprise, picked us up and, in a feinting maneuver, drove us through parts of D.C. we never had seen before dropping us at the pier. Nice memory.

St. Mary’s, Nashville

For our 25th we went to Rome. That was a big deal. We explored the ruins, the museums, took a train to Florence. We got standing room tickets to the Pope’s public audience (John Paul II) and got lucky, pushed by the crowd to the front. As his official Jeep passed us, I caught his eye as he scanned the Square. I imagined him thinking: this one needs work.

After that, though, memories of big wedding anniversary events trail off. For most we exchanged cards and went to dinner or lunch. These last few days I’ve been going through withdrawal on memories of our August 2018 U.S. 66 road trip. The day before the anniversary we arrived in Las Vegas after a sweltering drive from Flagstaff, Ariz., with a stop in Sedona. That anniversary, number 40, was the turnaround point on the trip. The next day we flew home to start my 18-month sentence of cancer therapies. Last year we perked up a bit—a quick overnight trip to Richmond.

I’ve recycled those last two in this space. Chances are I’ll mention them again next year, if I’m still posting, more to the point, if I make it to 43.  Edwin Newman, the mild-mannered, brilliant grammar martinet for NBC and later PBS captured what I mean with his lighthearted, and immortal, “You know, you never know.”

We all feel that way, don’t we? Right now it’s hard to think far ahead. We’re transfixed by the prospect of a cataclysm this November. The Republicans had their convention last week, the Trump children and a battalion of grovelers and courtiers prepared the ground for a further avalanche of lies. Whether you are hoping the country returns to the rational world or continues on the current headlong slide into the Trump cesspool, you’re engaged. Everyone is engaged, but also exhausted and angry. Everyone is a pundit, no one is neutral on this one. And no one is thinking right now about what happens after election day.

It’s always fascinating, on wedding anniversaries, to resurrect memories of the Big Day. No matter the setting, elaborate or simple, rain or shine, you stood there with your about-to-be spouse and made all those promises, with absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. You never know, right? You didn’t know where you would be on anniversary One, never mind five, 10, etc. So you look back on all those years and ask yourself, how was it for her/him? What have I learned? What kind of a person was I then, who am I now?

You try to recall the things you did to mark anniversaries, depending on how many, and how sharp you are, until you land on today. And you ask yourself: if I had tried to guess on my wedding day where I’d be today, and who I am—how close was I to the truth?

This isn’t profound or complicated or just for married people. Anyone can pick a long-ago milestone and follow it to today.

The real point of all this is that today is just a stopping point, a way station. We’re still, as St. Thomas says, becoming. You’re not yet the person who will stand at the pearly gates and ask to get in. Recalling a common nugget of pre-Christian wisdom, the Greek historian Heraclitus advised us, or warned us, we never step in the same river twice.

We all know these things, somehow. Maybe that’s why we’re all nervous about the election. Bottom line: regardless of our politics, we’ll all march on, happy or unhappy on January 20, 2021. Then we’ll wake up, look back in joy or regret—like on any anniversary—and get ready for next year.

Rivershore Lessons

August 24, 2020

We made it to Widewater  State Park last week, getting out the way of the paint crew. The point wasn’t to see Widewater, exactly, but a slice of Virginia—the Potomac shore—that doesn’t get much attention. The place abuts the desolate riverbank maybe 20 winding miles south of Quantico, 25 miles north of Fredericksburg. The drive is kind of a chore, off U.S. 1, then local roads into thick woods, vernal in the summer humidity. You see a few homes, then trees and fields, a CSX track cut straight through forest, a few more lonely-looking houses, more trees. I can’t remember more than two other cars in 20 miles.

As we struggle to extricate ourselves from Virginia—at this point, departure is still in our heads—I recognize, and regret, that we’ll leave without walking through and learning from the mystery and power of so many of the wild, beautiful places around us. But then, everyone moves on. Experience of any place always is incomplete, finite. Our time is finite.

Not much was going on at Widewater. Kayaking and a short hiking trail are all that’s available.  We saw exactly one person in the parking lot, a woman going for a run on the trail. We drove in, looked around, then left and headed to Fredericksburg. We checked that box, a minor one, and moved on.

The drive reminded me of my visits, years ago, to the Navy base at Dahlgren, on the river farther south. The Navy tests new shipboard deck guns there by firing them over the river, it’s that wide. Those trips, along State Road 218, took me through similar terrain, maybe with a bit more up and down. But the state’s Potomac shores don’t resonate much. Geography isolates the area, miles east of I-95. Fredericksburg, the nearest city, gets along on tourism and the retirement industry.  The miles of woodland along the east-west backroads fill up with lush, fast-growing plant life in the stifling summers, thick masses of kudzu and other vinery. The Potomac, shallow, slow-moving, murky (but semi-clean, it’s now reported), gives the region a thick jungle-like feel. Although an outsider, I get the sense that not much ever happens here.

If you head farther south beyond Dahlgren on 218 you get to Colonial Beach, another off-the-main-road, more or less seedy place where some folks go for long weekends. We spent the night in a beat-up B&B there some years ago, on a detour to somewhere else. Neglect is the word that occurred to me. A casino disguised as an old paddlewheeler sat offshore, technically in Maryland, where gambling is legal. (The Virginia-Maryland boundary is at the Virginia shoreline, so the body of the river is in Maryland.)  I hear the casino’s long gone.

Further on, you’re in the rural Northern Neck. Twenty-five years ago the bishop of Arlington, wanting to get rid of a controversial young priest, packed him away to Kilmarnock, the far southern end of the Neck, at the only parish for many miles. And I mean many miles. I heard of him again maybe two years ago, now in a mountain parish on the opposite side of the state.

Potomac Virginia leaves light footprints. Moving south from D.C., you have tourist-overrun Old Town Alexandria, now mostly famous for its real estate values. Then majestic Mount Vernon, directly across from Fort Washington, part of the capital’s Civil War defense, never needed. Next is the Army post, Fort Belvoir. Then not much for the few miles to Pohick Bay and Mason Neck parks, mainly circuitous hiking trails hard along Belmont Bay.

Down from Mason Neck, a stretch of swampy woods, the Occoquan and Featherstone “wildlife refuges” line the shore. They’re bordered by several miles of Woodbridge’s finest auto-repair shops and an Amtrak-CSX track in a neighborhood where no one wants to live. Leesylvania State Park is a nice spot, with a marina and walking trails, but as with the other river-border parks, not worth (to me) the price of admission. Then you come to Quantico, “Q-town,” the three-street afterthought with a rail station next to the Marine Corps base, the “Crossroads of the Corps.” Again, farther on, not much. Then Widewater.

I know we’ll depart this neighborhood eventually, after 33-plus years, having spent most of our non-working days, weeks, and months missing the unique stories that surround us. I don’t know much of it, but history surely was made in these near-empty rivershore places. Colonial troops tramped through those forests in 1781 en route to Yorktown to defeat British General Cornwallis, ensuring the new nation would be born. In early 1862 Union General George McClellan reluctantly sailed his Army of the Potomac downriver to Fort Monroe for the Peninsula campaign, eventually a humiliating failure. Lincoln fired him soon thereafter.

That’s the famous, or relatively famous history, the big-war history. I know that if we poked around a bit more, we’d stumble on unique stories of ordinary folks, not generals or even colonels, who lived productive lives here, but now are forgotten. I think about that as I recall stories of another Virginia culture, the mountain people of the Shenandoahs, who worked small subsistence farms and mines until they were pushed off their property in the early 1930s, when the feds established the National Park. No one thinks about them any more.

So appreciation and regret are colliding for us: the spruce-up of the house comes along with a blank slate, the future somewhere else. The plan now is to persevere, to figure these things out, without being distracted by the perversions of government we read about every day, which become more bizarre every day. The Democrats assure us things will be OK in November, when Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Xi Jinping lose their guy in the White House, along with the sniveling criminals and moral gnomes who work for him.

That would play well in these parts. It’s still a crapshoot. Today, setting aside all that, we’re counting the blessings we see around us while seeking the stories around us, hoping to learn from those stories lessons that will endure, here or anywhere.

National Road

August 17, 2020

We left downtown Pittsburgh after a quick trip to deliver furniture to our daughter Laura, who moved there a few months ago. Our idea was to get out of Pennsylvania without retransiting the 100-plus miles of the PA turnpike, which we’ve done beaucoup times. We headed west instead of east on I-376 out of downtown, across the Monongahela River, which flows into the Allegheny at the city’s Point State Park to form the mighty Ohio.

Before we left I got to Mass at the cathedral with a small gathering of other nervous mask wearers.  I did notice mask use at around 50 percent in the city. UPitt students arriving for the new semester mostly went without.

We made some bad turns but then settled onto U.S. 51, also called Saw Mill Run, for a slow slog through the Pittsburgh’s gritty underside: the minor-league mills, machine shops, auto dealerships, auto and truck service centers, and truckstops that line the twisting four-lane highway. We passed through Dormont, Lakewood, West Mifflin, Jefferson Hills, other places, before seeing the sign for Clairton, site of a plant within U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley works, the largest coke-making facility in the country. The highway gave us good views of Ronnie’s Tire Service, Overbrook Tire Yard, Sunny Side Auto, Pittsburgh Auto Depot, and Boulevard Motor Mart, among others, as we battled sluggish traffic. Somewhere on this stretch the van hit 100,000 miles.

We had traveled this way or a similar way in the opposite direction years ago, following someone’s friendly suggestion for avoiding the monotonous, toll-heavy turnpike, which allows you to shoot across the state in good time but forces you to maneuver among eighteen-wheelers, lots of them. Sandy still reminds me the route stretched the trip to over seven hours but—funny—I don’t remember it as so bad.

I wasn’t seeing familiar sights along 51—that last trip was a dozen years ago—but southwestern Pennsylvania isn’t going to change much. Then too, the road always looks different in the opposite direction. If either of us thought we’d sail through suburbs into pristine farm country, we both were wrong. Highway 51 is a business route, Pennsylvania is a business state, and the western end of it is all business. This wedge of the state, squeezed between Pittsburgh, Wheeling, W.Va., and the smaller city of Uniontown, aptly named, is organized to help people make a hard living at a time when business isn’t so great.

We learned that Uniontown, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, was established July 4, 1776. The city once was a major iron and steel center, and is the site of a bloody fight between coal miners and armed guards during the miners’ strike of 1894. Eventually the polluting, metals-intensive industries that dominated the region contracted and mostly faded away.

We crossed the Monongahela again at Elizabeth and passed through Webster, Perryopolis, Star Junction, and Flatwoods, all behind us within minutes. North of Uniontown, we started to see flashes of corn and pasture.

We skirted the city, heading west for a few miles to find U.S. 40 east, a stretch of which once was called the National Road, National Turnpike, or Cumberland Pike, and is said to be the country’s first major improved road. Between 1811 and 1837 it was carved from wilderness to link the Potomac and Ohio Rivers. The Road supported industrial growth and eased travel through Pennsylvania and Ohio. Eastbound, it rises and falls through rugged, mostly empty country. This is one of those corners of the Keystone State where you see Confederate flags and faded “Trump-Pence” signs and bumper stickers left over from 2016. They probably still reflect local thinking.

We drove to Titusville in the state’s far northwest in October of that year for the Oil Creek 100-mile run. Trump banners hung from every barn and fence in every town, village, and hamlet north of Bedford. I guessed the cows were voting Republican. The political handicappers who never understood what happened on Election Day should have driven my route. Folks wanted a take-charge guy and swallowed the hype. Now, in these quiet places, covid-19 is in charge.

We stopped for lunch at a flag-draped outdoor barbeque joint next to the Stone House Inn near Chalk Hill, a clearing in the forest. The beers are $2, the brisket sandwiches $14. Hank Williams classics blared from the sound system. Nobody wore masks. We got hot dogs and hit the road. Five miles further on we passed the Fort Necessity National Battlefield, site of a small engagement that some historians say started the French and Indian War.

I looked it up: in early 1754 Virginia’s governor sent 21-year-old Col. George Washington here, then the western end of the Virginia colony, with a small force of British soldiers and Virginia militia. They built the fort to block incursions by French traders.  In July 600 French troops attacked, Washington surrendered. The French burned the fort. War broke out two years later.

We stayed on the National Road through Flat Rock and crossed Youghiogheny River Lake, amazed at the rows of boats tied up in this (to us) inconspicuous place. Then it was up another mountain, then down, and we were at I-68. The interstate follows the National Road to what was the Road’s eastern terminus at Cumberland, Md., an Allegheny factory town that would fit nicely in either Pennsylvania or West Virginia.

Rural highways are rural highways, in Virginia, Pennsylvania, anywhere. Setting out, you want to feel the energy of the country in folks at work as they confront hardship, then the tranquility and vastness of mountains and forests. Along the highways, in the congested and the quiet places, life pushes forward. We got a sense of the crisis, but also of hope and courage.

Interstate 68 threads the narrow strip of western Maryland. Traffic picks up then slows. At Hancock we jumped on I-70 toward Frederick. The usual turn then is onto I-270 down to the Capital Beltway into Virginia. Instead, I swung onto I-81 at Hagerstown and coasted the 30 or so miles to I-66. The pale Massanuttens, smoky-blue in the late sun, rise suddenly to seize the Virginia horizon from Front Royal across to Strasberg and beyond. Almost home.


August 10, 2020

As we looked for things to do while stranded at home this spring, Sandy found under a pile of papers the kit she had purchased from, one of the companies that will research your family tree. She stays close in touch with family members in the old hometown, or home county. Family ties are big for her.

She bought the kit two years ago then forgot about it. I guess it doesn’t matter when you get around to researching your dead relatives. Nothing’s going to change for them.

You’ve seen the ads on TV. You send in a saliva sample. In six to eight weeks the company gives you a report on your national origins. You get on the internet, enter family names, and you get more names. You can pursue it further if you’re interested. I guess it’s fun if you find you’re related to the Rockefellers or Mellons or Great Britain’s Windsors. They didn’t show up for Sandy, though. Her report was close to what she expected: English, Irish, and Scottish, but then also an odd dose of Swedish (Who in heck was Sven?).

Some family trees, I’m sure, are fascinating, populated with great saints or sinners, governors, business titans, movie stars. We all come from families who came from all over. Americans trace their ancestry to every continent. I’ve read that some revelations can be awkward, say, if you find your parents aren’t really your parents, or you’re related to the Lindbergh baby kidnapper. Still, somebody’s great-great-great-etc. came over on the Mayflower.

Not mine. I’ve never looked very far back. I think most of my people arrived in the New York City area sometime in the mid- to late-1800s, most likely with the influx of Irish after the potato famine.  They pretty much stayed around there until my parents’ generation. People who grow up in or around New York consider the rest of the country an alien world, another planet. When I was three my parents moved from Manhattan to the New Jersey suburbs. After my father passed, my mother purchased an empty lot in the Bronx so she could own a piece of New York. In the early Sixties an uncle and aunt on my mother’s side shocked everyone when they pulled up stakes after their wedding and moved to California. My uncle is still out there.


The lives of families and how they’re remembered in genealogy don’t tell whole stories, but they hint at them. The lyrical Southern writer Peter Taylor’s In the Tennessee Country tells an evocative, painful story of three generations of a well-off Memphis family paralyzed by conflict over an elderly parent’s decline. Taylor isn’t unique. Libraries have been written about the power of family ties.

Family trees are linked to and actually help create the nation’s history. Sandy’s dad’s ancestors settled in southern middle Tennessee in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, after transiting the Carolinas and the Appalachians with thousands of other Irish-Scotch immigrants. They farmed and worked at small businesses. They built and ran the railroads that transported farm products for export to generate revenue for the Confederacy, and food and supplies for the rebel armies.

Some in Sandy’s family say her great-great-great grandfather on her mom’s side owned slaves. Her maternal grandfather was born in Mississippi, her maternal grandmother in Tennessee. They settled in Franklin County, Tenn., where Sandy’s mother was born in 1928. During the Depression she, like thousands of other rural Southern kids, quit school to pick cotton. Her parents had three other girls and two boys. They moved to California with the boys. The girls stayed in Tennessee and got married. Eventually the grandparents returned, and today are buried in Cowan in Franklin County, Sandy’s hometown.


With most family trees, the branches can get hazy a few generations back. The courthouse where the records are kept burns down, the family members who paid attention to such things die young or move away and sever ties. People go through hard times. Feuds break out, people nurse grudges, sometimes for decades. Couples get divorced, families break up. Children sometimes are abandoned, sometimes run away and disappear. Folks get in trouble with the law, their stories are hushed up. Families, whether poor, middle class, or affluent, experience heartbreak and grief.

We pursue family connections, or some of us do, for a simple reason. We’re getting older. We want our legacy, our place in history, humble though it may be. We know that we, our spouses, friends, contemporaries, are receding into what our grandkids will think of as the past: first the recent past, when memories still are fresh and the photos still sharp then, as time rolls on, the first outlines of history. We will become what our parents and grandparents and those who came before them are to us right now.


I skim through the old family albums of frayed black-and-white photos and smile at the clothing and hairstyles. We browse through our parents’ wedding album and admire the gents in their suits, bright silk ties and fedoras, the women in their long dresses and stylish hats.

Farther back, the photos become grainier; the expressions and poses more serious, more formal, as the subjects thought of picture-taking as, well, a contribution to history. And that is what it was. Today, kids wave around their cellphones taking pictures of restaurant meals and “posting” them to Instagram.

Let’s hope someone is keeping track of the lineages that will help our kids and grandkids, and their kids and grandkids, to place us in the family tree, to connect us to their own lives, their own experiences and histories. And maybe someday they’ll browse through today’s digitized images of us, smiling next to the Christmas tree, on the beach, at Thanksgiving with the family. The youngest will squint at the photos and ask, “Who’s that?” just as we did. We hope they’ll want to know something about us. It was fun to place names with faces. Maybe it will be for those who come after us.

Landfill Lessons

August 3, 2020

Five young guys came by the house last week and relieved us of a sofabed that had sat in the living room for at least 20 years. They tied it precariously to the back of a beat-up pickup truck for a trip up I-95 to Alexandria. We let them have it for free, but I worried about it bouncing out on the interstate. When the driver thanked me he impulsively extended his hand to shake mine. I bumped his elbow. He grinned.

Getting rid of the sofabed is a strange relief.  We also sold our entire dining room set to some antique dealers, the kitchen table and chairs to somebody else, and gave away two small sofas.

We’re not slowing down. The days, hot as blazes this past month, are flying by. On Wednesday I put a second coat of paint on my former office in the basement. We stacked boxes of books and old photos in the toolshed. We’re waiting for a couple more painting estimates. Then the fun begins, as we try to stage the remaining furniture.

We’ll keep giving things away or taking them to the landfill.  You can take anything. Kids find it fun. About a year ago when our daughter and two grandsons were visiting, I proposed we visit a nearby park, with a quick stop at the landfill. I had a vanload of stuff to dump. She wasn’t enthusiastic. But we went.

You wave to the attendant. You back into position to open your trunk just above the bins. The older boy got out with me and helped me pitch the trash. He enjoyed it, we both did.

Looking at the near-empty house has a calming effect. Why is that? It simplifies the logistics of moving, but means also we’ll have to buy more on the destination end, still undetermined. But if it feels so good now, why didn’t we do it years ago?

It’s complicated. Maybe we had other things on our minds, health care, bills, car trips. Maybe we didn’t care. I think we made up things to avoid facing our inertia. Of course the answer is that we were engaged in great and wonderful things: world travel, executive staff meetings, other critical projects of vital importance to humanity!

That’s what I tell Sandy and others. It’s fun to see yourself as important when you’re not.  But moving creates the struggle to—to what? To complete the chores, remembering that’s what they are—chores. Then to keep our focus on the world in all its strangeness, chaos, and tragedy, as we watch the virus casualties soar and meanwhile confront the complicated questions of our lives. After many years I encountered again the English novelist Graham Greene, the on-again/off-again “Catholic” novelist, so he’s called in undergraduate English classes. Apart from his rationalizations about faith as he vectored between fidelity and infidelity, he asks the same question as St. Thomas Aquinas about the significance of human action in forming belief in God and the message of Christ. He probes and then probes more deeply the nature of love, sin, repentance.

Greene came to mind through his work, but also because he’s cited in Eric Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which tells the story of Churchill’s first year as prime minister, 1940-41, the year of the Blitz. Greene, who had just published his bestseller, The Power and the Glory, worked as an air-raid warden in Bloomsbury in London’s West End. In his journal he reported on the devastation of the German attacks, writing, after a night raid on April 16, 1941, that “one had ceased to believe in the possibility of surviving the night.”

Greene’s work, in all its tortured moral ambiguity, wrenches our perspective away from chores. Larson, writing history, takes us to darker places. He quotes extensively from the diary of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels and his wife poisoned their six children as the Soviet army entered Berlin. But we can look still deeper than Goebbels’ evil life and its end.

Goebbels’ wife Magda had a son from a previous marriage, Harald, who served in the German air force, the Luftwaffe. He was captured and sent to a POW camp, then released in 1947. His father, Gunther Quandt, was a captain of industry whose companies used slave labor to produce weapons and other equipment for the German army. After the war he was detained briefly by the allies, but avoided prosecution and rebuilt his businesses. When he died his sons Harald and Herbert inherited his companies. Harald died in a plane crash in 1967. He and his wife had five daughters, who inherited the businesses, including shares of Daimler-Benz and BMW. Their families now are among the wealthiest in Germany.

For years the Quandts refused to discuss the source of the family’s wealth. A German media company produced a documentary, “The Silence of the Quandts” complete with family members’ evasions. You can watch it, with subtitles, on YouTube. After its release the family funded a study of the Quandt businesses that revealed the Nazi connections.


We can back away from that nightmarish story. I wonder how I even got there. From the lessons it teaches, maybe not. I went back to Greene and his unsettling questions as we thought about our reasons for attempting to move during the pandemic, which seems to have no end. We read it’s now spreading north again, abetted by a civil war over masks in southern states and pseudo-mystical medical falsehoods spreading even more quickly.

There’s all that, unfolding before us while we’re packing, donating, and hauling junk to the landfill. Tragedy is playing out before our eyes, but then so is goodness. I get that same vague charge of satisfaction when I dump stuff as when we said goodbye to the sofabed. We are bringing our long-cluttered house to life, doing good things, positive things, in the small world we can control. The place looks almost empty.

Moving has turned us into small thinkers, preoccupied with trivia. I try to recall why I saved some of the things we’re now parting with. Really, it doesn’t matter. We’re walking away, starting a new life someplace quieter, we hope. At this point, quiet is good. We don’t need things. We need the example of those Londoners, who, Graham Greene reports, overcame evil in ‘40-‘41, then the example of those covid-19 victims, right now.