It certainly isn’t cool, or edgy, or funny–the things people say about what it must be like to live in a church. It’s relentless.
By Kristin Kovacic
. . . Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, O Lord: they shall praise thee for ever and ever.—Psalm 83
St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
Thanksgiving 2021, and our daughter Rosalie has come home to Pittsburgh from D.C. Only the celebration, as it was last year, has been ruined by the pandemic. Our son and his partner are marooned in Brazil. My sister’s family is exposed—Delta the strain of the moment—and her hosting of the traditional family gathering scratched at the last minute.
Only we aren’t truly “home,” either. My husband and I have recently retired from teaching, downsized, and moved across town, shedding most of the worldly goods we accumulated over thirty-five years in a sagging, six-bedroom house in Pittsburgh’s East End to squeeze into a two-bedroom condo in a new development of a 100-year-old church on the South Side.
It was a challenging transition, still in progress. Among the challenges for me is the suspicion that I’ve gotten off easy and am not suffering to the degree that everyone else in the ravaged world around me seems to be. The price of the condo alone makes me feel ill, not just with buyers’ remorse, but with a nauseating awareness of the precise amount of our fortune, however hard-earned.
Furniture suitable for this compact “loft” has not yet arrived (supply chain issues being another feature of the plague), and so our little trinity hovers around the glossy quartz kitchen island, fashioned in the shape and rough location of the church’s original altar, and expresses gratitude over leftover Thai takeout and my sad side dish of squash.
We are grateful. But there is nothing to do—no family we can safely visit, no healthy diversions beyond Netflix. Black Friday dawns bright and cold, the first truly winter day. Too dispirited to shop, even online, I propose we venture out to explore our new neighborhood, starting with The Slopes.
The South Side Slopes is eponymous, a vertiginous maze of goat-path streets and stairways clinging to the steep northern face of the mountain, Mt. Washington, that forms the river valley that is Pittsburgh. The neighborhood is paradoxical—homey and surreal, ephemeral and ancient, dense with precarious three-story frame houses, anchored by sturdy brick houses of worship. The former church in which we now live, St. Matthew’s, sits at the foot of the Slopes, in the part of the South Side just as accurately called The Flats.
I do a little research and decide we’ll follow the Church Route, an itinerary created by the neighborhood association highlighting four Catholic churches—St. Adalbert’s, St. Michael’s, St. Paul’s, and St. Josaphat’s—via several of the Slopes’s sixty-eight sets of public stairways. Called “city steps” by Pittsburghers, they allow the citizens of our vertical metropolis to scale our landscape efficiently. For more than a century, city steps were the means by which steel workers on the Slopes got down to the riverside mills, children made it to school, and homemakers, like my immigrant grandmother, managed marketing and church.
As I plot the route, I notice how the saints’ names are apostrophized when we say them but are not in the buildings’ formal names. This makes sense, as the saint to whom each church is dedicated is, in fact, the parish’s patron, spiritually guarding the structure and guiding its flock. The building we now live in, the former St. Matthew Catholic Church, was marketed to us as Matthew’s Lofts, cleverly invoking and obscuring the presence of the Evangelist at once. A disciple of Christ, Matthew is the reputed author of the first Gospel, the bridge between the Old Testament’s prophecies and the New Testament’s fulfillments. He’s often depicted with a pen in his hand, an apt patron, I suppose, for my husband and me, two writers seeking serenity and shelter (and central air and off-street parking) for our last third of life.
There are an astounding number of churches and religious schools on the South Side, constructed out of the faith, homesickness, desire, and sacrifice of immigrants to this city over the last two centuries. Our new home was built by Slovaks, who christened it Kostola sv. Matúša in 1905. By 1955, the sanctuary where we lay our heads was the spiritual home of 1500 souls. Hardly any of the ecclesiatical structures on the South Side still fulfill their original purpose; most are now condos and apartments for unrooted families like ours. Every step we take is on desanctified ground.
St. Adalbert (956-987), Martyr
Having come north from balmy Washington, Rosalie is not fully armored for winter, but I insist she’ll warm up as we go. Soon it’s apparent that our body heat cannot fight the wind, which cuts our unmasked faces and penetrates our inadequate coats. My daughter, who never misses a trick, side-eyes me with mild accusation as we arrive at St. Adalbert’s, an imposing red brick Romanesque edifice near the train tracks that divide the Flats from the Slopes, dwarfing the modest workers’ houses around it like a feudal castle. Statues of apostles and of St. Adalbert himself, cast in moldering concrete, spy down upon us from looming bell towers, the Evangelists taking notes. Squinting back up at them, my two fellow pilgrims blow clouds of impatient breath. They are shivering, and though Adalbert’s is the last functioning Roman Catholic church on the South Side—a consolidation of seven ethnic parishes, including the one that harbors our still-warm beds—its massive wooden doors are locked.
I fumble in my gloves to coax some animating information from my phone–how in 1899 pious Polish mill workers laid the cornerstone in front of us, inscribed with a verse of Psalm 83, which Google translated from the Polish as the exiles who live in your house will praise you for centuries.
How fitting, I say, for a church built, like all of the holy dwellings of the South Side, by exiles–the Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Serbians, Croatians, and Slovaks —seeking refuge for the rituals of their religion and the comforts of their language. My own father, a Croatian immigrant, has told me you once could walk the streets of the South Side and not hear a single word of English.
And get this, I say, literally warming to my subject. St. Adalbert, patron saint of Poland, was the first Slavic saint, martyred in the cause of Christianizing Europe. Decapitated while baptizing Prussian pagans, his holy skull is housed in Prague cathedral, where it is displayed on major feast days.
But my frozen followers have already started up the trestle steps, taking them two at a time like gazelles, and I pant after them, pointing out the fallout shelter and church auditorium (now a condo development site), the Polska Szkoła (Polish School, now apartments), and the convent of the Felician sisters who once taught 1200 students in Polish and English against the constant rumble and coal dust from the railroad we are now crossing over.
I know it’s cold. But I start to wonder why I am the only one among us moved by this place, these rugged remnants of a one-block Polish universe, constructed brick by brick in the name of faith. None of us, it’s true, has any faith, at least in the conventional sense. My husband let his lapse, as the Catholics put it, before I met him. I received a rudimentary Presbyterian formation that didn’t take and which I scarcely remember. Together we raised our children without a church or even a notion of God.
Perhaps it’s because, unlike my husband and my daughter, I’m the child of an immigrant, a child who watched her father’s transformation, from one kind of man into another entirely, on the rare occasions when he spoke his mother tongue.
It happens that I am the descendant of two generations of immigrants to the South Side, and so my migration to this neighborhood is in fact a kind of return. My grandmother, an unwed mother, came in 1938 to enter an arranged marriage with a Croatian steelworker who worked at Jones and Laughlin, the mill that commanded the South Side riverfront. She left her six-year-old child behind in a village near Zagreb, and that child, my father, had to wait twenty years to see her again, finally coming to the South Side on his own in 1958 at the age of 27, the age my daughter is now.
While my grandmother stayed cloistered in her row house and church (St. George’s, near the crest of Mt. Washington) and in her loveless marriage, where only Croatian was spoken, my dad had to hit the ground running. Instead of mass he went to adult education classes at South Side High School (now condos), learning enough English in a year to get a job and ask an American girl on a date. He only had enough cash and savvy to take her to the fights, a Golden Gloves match at the South Side Market House. She married him anyway.
The rest, as they say, is history–my history. I was born at South Side Hospital (now University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) in 1963, just across from St. Matthew’s, and my folks, like most young people of their generation, moved over the Slopes to a greener neighborhood on the other side of the mountain. I never learned to speak Croatian because it wasn’t a language my parents shared, and my father had no time, between working and learning to navigate the subtleties of our hybrid, illogical tongue, to teach us.
But I heard him speak Croatian. When he phoned his cousins at Easter, long-distance calls that required all of us to hush as he shouted across the ocean. When he argued with my grandmother and her difficult husband over the sarma at Christmas. And especially when he took us back to Yugoslavia, long trips my parents could barely afford, just so he could see the friends he played handball with, the aunts and uncles who took turns raising him.
Each time we went back to Zagreb, it was strange to witness his transformation. There was my father, as familiar to me as my own body, whose voice was the first sound I remember lulling me to sleep. But from that voice flowed a new pattern of notes and tones, and on his face a new set of expressions—open joy, canny delight. Even his laugh erupted more naturally, laughter pouring out of him until tears started in the corners of his eyes. It made me wonder if I’d ever truly amused him, if I’d ever really understood what he was saying.
If you’ve watched a person you love become a person you don’t know, it’s hard to put this vision into words. It’s like hearing someone’s singing voice for the first time. It’s like seeing water turn into wine. And it helps you imagine the waves of exiles here, each trying to protect the core of who they were to themselves. I’ve read how in the South Side parishes, called “language” parishes by the diocese, hundreds of workers offered up their labor, their prayers, their meager wages, and their children, to create these impenetrable walls around their mother tongue.
And like motherhood itself, it worked for a time, until their children and their children scaled the walls and fled over the hills, to the open fields of America.
St. Michael, Archangel
One hundred and forty-four steps later, we’re at St. Michael’s on Pius St, winded but still not warmed. St. Michael’s parish stretches its sooty brick length—church, rectory, parish house, school—across the middle of the Slopes like the exposed spine of a sleeping giant.
To catch my breath and stall my leggy companions, I tell them how ironic it is that this suite of buildings, the oldest on the tour, was constructed by Germans after an epidemic. Decimated by cholera in 1849, the panicked congregants of St. Michael’s prayed to St. Roch, the plague saint, to intercede on their behalf. He evidently did, which is why the parish survived to erect this colossal church, its members now folded into the flock at St. Adalbert’s, and why it still celebrates a Cholera Day mass on August 16, fulfilling a promise by the faithful of the Slopes to perpetually thank St. Roch for his intercession.
My daughter huffs her feigned interest. I consider whether my fun fact is ironic at all, given that we, too, live in a time of plague, of disease as constant and mercurial as the wind. From the stylish balconies and rooftop decks of St. Michael’s, now a condominium development with the schmaltzy name of “Angels’ Arms,” the views of downtown Pittsburgh are celestial, though for most of its history St. Michael’s muscular spire rose out of a miasma of smoke from the industry below. St. Michael is an angel himself, of course, not a human martyr, venerated by all Judeo-Christian faiths. He spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai; he battles the Devil in heaven; he leads the souls of the departed from this life and presents them to the Lord for judgment.
Which, blowing on my hands, is where I find myself. An exile from the country of work and motherhood, I have recently arrived at a kind of afterlife—life after daily lesson plans and monthly paychecks, life after my children have been raised and delivered into their own keeping. And what, I wonder, now that I have time to think about it, will be my judgment? Did I teach well? Have I been a good mother?
The woman I should ask has ducked under the arched entryway of someone’s luxury apartment and is stomping her frozen feet. I remember when she nearly died in my care. At fourteen, she became mysteriously unwell, with persistent high fevers and intermittent back pain, which for an appallingly long time neither I nor any of the doctors I took her to connected as dots. I let an orthopedist send us away without examining her because he was afraid her fever was a sign of the plague of the day, H1N1. Misreading her adolescent stoicism, I waited too long to get her admitted to the hospital, where I let a radiologist bully an infectious disease specialist out of the proper kind of biopsy, delaying her diagnosis—osteomyelitis, a bacterial infection of the spine—by precious days. Unable to stop her febrile tremors, I let her take a hot shower unaccompanied, where she promptly fainted.
The list of my sins goes on, and it loops in my brain even now when I struggle to sleep. Though she ultimately recovered, the invisible infection consumed a disk in her spine before the germ and the antibiotic to stop it were identified. How she contracted it remains a mystery. My daughter’s gait has a slight hitch, now, likely only noticeable to her mother walking behind her.
I am a mother walking in the knowledge that she failed to protect her child. As we slog on, up the St. Michael Street steps and towards the Monastery Street steps, I ruminate about that crisis, remembering how I wished for a god or intercessory I believed in so I could send up a prayer and release my fears. Lord, I hungered to say, preserve her. At the darkest time, while she languished before our very eyes, a panic seized me so entirely I felt I’d disappeared. Still, she suffered, and I was unable to relieve her suffering.
It is a temptation of the afterlife, this odd period of reaping and reflection after so many years of headlong sowing, to forgive myself. There may not be a soul on earth, including the lovely, healthy woman loping ahead of me, who would say I didn’t try my best. But something hard in me resists the platitudes of work and love, just as I have always resisted the pieties of religion. A strength in me wants to bear the weight of my failings. It feels like the closest thing I’ve got to wisdom, acknowledging that I conducted myself imperfectly; I may have done real harm.
My late mother-in-law, who raised five children, was prone to ruminating in this way as long as I knew her, during thirty-five years of her afterlife as a mother. A devout Catholic, she used to say she thought God should give every mother a “disposable child,” one to practice on and learn from, before she went about the terrifyingly consequential work of bringing new humans into the world. It was a metaphor, not a fantasy. She never really thought through how you’d “dispose” of this practice child. But now that she has passed and I have arrived at the precise age she was when I first met her, I understand where she was coming from—this place I stand now, evaluating the fruits of my labor and taking my own measure as a mother.
The only time I set foot in a South Side church before I lived in one was when I was asked to eulogize my grandmother, further up the hill we’re perched on, at St. George’s in 1999. At the time my son was just six, the age my father was when she’d placed a coin in his little palm and sent him to the movies, then vanished to America, instantly orphaning him and leaving him in the care of relatives. Once I became a mother, this story I’d heard many times shocked me anew. How could she? I mean, literally, how could you move your body away from your child and keep going?
My father was my grandmother’s disposable child. She bore two more children with her new husband, and they raised those daughters here on the South Side while my father bounced among strained households in war-ravaged Yugoslavia. That day at St. George’s, where she spent many hours on her knees, the business at hand was to deliver my grandmother to her final judgment, and I did not want to condemn her, nor to lie in church about who she really was, so I stammered through some vague remarks. But judge her I did, secretly. Likely her faith had by then granted her absolution in confession, but from the altar of new motherhood, I felt justified in castigating the mother she was in 1938.
But from where I stand now, long roads of decisions spool behind me, too, bringing me to just this shaky step. I consider how intimately my grandmother knew her trespasses, her own and those committed against her. The identity of my father’s father was a mystery she took to her grave—a stranger passing through her rural village. I think about the deep well of fear she plunged into, crossing the Atlantic with another strange man and with the sound of her child, confused and in distress, alive in her. I have been in that well.
St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775), Founder of the Passionist Order
Here, at the top of Mt. Washington, is where we are at last taken in. St. Paul of the Cross Church, the worship center of an active monastery of Passionist Fathers, is open. We take quiet steps into the gleaming, empty sanctuary, looking up at the gilded Corinthian columns supporting the church’s brightly lit, arched firmament. On the earthly plane shine lustrous marble floors and plaques dedicated to donors for the building’s recent renovation. Most of the money came in the form of a miraculous intercession by a Pittsburgh-area contractor who answered the prayers of the abbot and his dwindling band of brothers with enough material and labor to forestall closing the monastery and selling the property for (what else?) condominiums.
The heated air radiates within us, restoring everyone’s mood. But what we see as we go deeper, treading softly past newly burnished bas reliefs of the Stations of the Cross, is suffering—the progression of Christ’s Passion (passio = suffering in Latin), culminating in a 50-ton marble altar screen on which a monumental Jesus perishes. Standing at the foot of the Cross—where we find ourselves now—and meditating on Christ crucified, is the central tenet and practice of the Passionists, a contemplative-penitent order whose founder, Paulo Franceso Danei, taught his followers to venerate Jesus’s suffering, calling it “a precious balm which sweetens all our pains.” It is said that Paul, a legendary preacher, formed his devotion to suffering at his mother’s knee, as she read to him from the Lives of the Saints.
One of my failings as a parent was an inability to convey even the simplest understanding of religious faith to my children. When my daughter was four years old, I worried that while we weren’t raising our children in a church, we did celebrate the big Christian holidays, and that while they knew that Christmas was the occasion of a baby named Jesus’s birth, we had not clued them in to the end of the story: his death and resurrection at Easter. Though my husband and I could not imagine childhood without the biannual delights of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I was anxious for the period of fantasy and bald-faced lying to be over, so we could celebrate holidays truthfully, all of us in on the rituals and charades. In the meantime, it made no sense that Christmas was about the birth of a child and Easter was about, well, rabbits, as far as they knew. So I purchased an age-appropriate picture book, The Easter Story by Carol Heyer, marketed as a straightforward introduction to the Biblical story, with fine art color illustrations.
In The Easter Story, Heyer never shows the face of the Savior, using perspective cleverly to focus instead on his hands, as he heals the sick and turns over the cashboxes of the moneylenders in the Temple and breaks bread at the Last Supper. The crucifixion itself is described but not depicted, and the text artfully leaves out the gory details—Pilate let the soldiers take Jesus away, and the soldiers put him on a cross. While the soldiers waited for him to die, Jesus’s friends gathered around the cross, trying to comfort each other.
I appreciated the effort this author made to deliver the Passion mildly, without the violence and pain. And I attempted to tell it that way, in the soothing storytelling voice I learned from my own mother, the one that channels the ocean of the wide world into one gentle stream of language that makes the marvelous real, the frightening safe, the strange comical, the familiar new. But my daughter was having none of it.
Put him on a cross? What does that mean?
Having never sat in a church, she did not have this image at hand. I found myself, it occurred to me, too late, having to convey literally what churches do figuratively. In a functioning Catholic church, you don’t have to picture Christ on the Cross; they picture him for you, as he is here in all his gruesome glory at St. Paul’s: crown of thorns, emaciated torso, feet pinned primly together with one crude stake.
With the beautiful book in my lap, I outlined for my child the simple shape of a cross, its deathly, purposeful design becoming clearer—one arm here, one arm there. I imagined all crosses from then on—tic-tac-toe, telephone poles—glowing with foul intent for her. Then I had to explain how they affixed him to this device, trying not to mention nails, and my storytelling voice petered out to a whisper.
Why didn’t anybody help him?
For a faithful mother, this question is where you drive the lesson of the story home. You might say, as a Catholic parenting website suggests and which St. Paul of the Cross passionately encouraged: He put up with the punishment because he loves us.
But I didn’t believe that, and I didn’t want her to believe it. That this horrific death was for her. By that time, I had told her all kinds of stories I didn’t believe a word of, of bunnies who wore jackets sewn by their mothers, of bears floating to the treetops on party balloons, but I realized all at once that this story was different. I was afraid that even if I said, “some people believe” that Jesus died for them, that it was an act of love, it might change her in a way I didn’t want her to be changed.
While I was stumbling around with my answer, she turned the page, which featured the hands of a resurrected Jesus caressing the downcast head of Mary Magdalene. But one of his hands, hands familiar to us from every scene in the book, had a bright, deep gash on the back of it.
I closed the book. I said, I’m not liking this story very much and I think we should read another one. To which she readily agreed, sensing, I suppose, my suffering.
At the foot of the Cross I consider what, failing this simplest of tasks, I also failed to convey to my children, what principles of human understanding? Empathy, humility, gratitude? These are the guiding stars of the Passionists, the take-home philosophy of most Christian churches. What did I choose when I chose to extend the exile of my family from the house of the Lord, so far that we could no longer even decipher its language of signs and symbols?
And what business do I have, dwelling in such a house? Archly inviting my dinner guests to six o’clock mass? The unspeakable agony of the Passion is getting to me, or maybe I’m just a little too hot, but suddenly I’m the one who wants to split, and I pull my daughter away from the altar and towards the side aisle and exit.
Where we are arrested by a brilliant white figure, a young woman carved in blinding white porcelain, writhing on her back atop a marble tomb. The stone figure, ghostly and corporeal, has one arm raised in the air, palm facing us, as if to warn us away.
It looks like she’s being raped, Rosalie says, and I stifle my startled laugh to shush her. There’s no plaque or sign to tell us what we’re seeing, or even who donated the money for the tomb–or is it a shrine? Ruing again my own ignorance of religious iconography, I bluff. It’s probably Mary Magdalene or the Blessed Mother herself, I reassure her, grieving at the foot of the Cross.
St. Maria Goretti (1890-1902), Martyr
Three-hundred winding steps down, through the spiraling bones of invasive vines and the tidy hopes of the frosted kitchen gardens of the tenacious denizens of the Slopes, we’re back on Pius Street, where we pause. Here, at the top of the 18th Street steps, we have a decision to make: turn right towards the last church on the tour, St. Josaphat’s (now being developed as apartments and a “Wellness Marketplace,” whatever that is), or descend this last cascade straight back down to St. Matthew’s, whose graceful green steeple we spy beneath us. One of the recurring benefits of living in a church is that you always have a compass to guide you home.
Though I want to see the church of St. Josaphat, martyr (1580-1623), hacked to death in the cause of reunifying Polish Catholics with the Roman rite church, my traveling companions have had enough. So I make a deal: listen to the remarkable story of St. Maria Goretti, glowing urgently in my palm, and we can skip St. Joe’s and go back to our own damned church for lunch.
You know where this is going. Maria Goretti, claimed by the Passionists as a saint of their own order, is the tormented woman we just saw in St. Paul’s. Only she wasn’t a woman at all. At eleven years old, the youngest canonized saint of the Catholic Church achieved her martyrdom by, as my daughter correctly surmised, fending off a rapist and dying at his hands.
In an impoverished Italian village in 1902, Maria Goretti was left at home to watch her two younger siblings while her widowed mother went out into the fields to thresh fava beans. Alessandro Serenelli, a twenty-year-old neighbor with whom Maria’s family shared a house, took advantage of Maria’s vulnerable position to attempt, not for the first time, to violate her. With her right arm, the one we saw raised in St. Paul’s, she successfully repelled him, which enraged Serenelli, who stabbed her fourteen times with an ice pick, then returned to his side of the house to nap. The cries of her neglected baby sister brought her mother from the fields, and Maria was taken to the hospital, where she lingered long enough to be anointed by the local Passionist priest and to famously forgive Alessandro with her dying breath: “I want him to be with me in heaven.”
Alessandro went to prison unremorseful, but after years in solitary confinement he had a dream in which Maria appeared to him, offering fourteen white lilies—one for each of the wounds he inflicted upon her. This vision triggered his conversion and is considered Maria Goretti’s first miracle. Upon his release from prison, Serenelli testified repeatedly to the “purity” of Maria in the wildly popular and urgent case for her canonization as a patroness of chastity and forgiveness.
That canonization occurred on June 24, 1950, in front of an unprecedented audience of 500,000 in St. Peter’s Square, the first rock-star canonization. Living long enough to witness both Maria’s martyrdom and her ascension to sainthood were Alessandro himself and Maria’s mother, Assunta–a mother, if there ever was one, who failed to protect her child, yet who ultimately forgave and befriended her daughter’s killer. My own grandmother may have lit a candle to the doomed girl in her spotless South Side kitchen and watched her glorification on television.
God, I’m glad you never took us to church, says my daughter, shuddering, and, at last, impressed.
I could take some satisfaction in this. There’s an interior scorecard in every parent, I suspect, that draws us to scour our children’s adult selves for points. But I don’t feel vindicated in my decision not to raise my daughter in a religion, or even largely responsible for the earnest, ethical woman she has in fact become. Trained in diplomacy, she’s building a career as a public servant. Though I heartily approve of her path, every step she’s taken away from me since the time she could walk has been her own idea. It may be the only miracle I believe in, that my children formed themselves in their own images, in spite of my flawed care. It makes me think about my own father and what a wonder he must have seemed when he appeared to his mother after twenty years of exile, fully grown, as good and gentle a man who ever walked the earth.
Skipping stairs down to our own little church, following my own tiny tribe, I continue to wonder about the interior weather of those who truly live in the bosom of the Mother Church, not simply inhabit her buildings. In just one day’s excursion, I’ve felt both the heat of the Passion and the chill of a theology that values women for their purity and forgives men for, well, everything. I think about my own grandmother, who endured a censured motherhood and a miserable but sanctified marriage. I also think about my mother-in-law, who found courage in praying the Rosary, enough to muscle through decades of marital and maternal doubt. It must be complicated to navigate, this faith, this labyrinth of comfort and shame, of hope and dread, of soothing ritual and troubling mortification. Though promised very specific heavenly rewards, you might have a hard time picturing the earthly life you truly deserve.
It certainly isn’t cool, or edgy, or funny–the things people say about what it must be like to live in a church. It’s relentless, is what I come to, finally, passing my key fob over the remote-control door lock. Relentless—this wind, this need for shelter, this hunger for direction, this desire for benediction. Have I done good? Have I worked well? How much happiness do I deserve? I may be asking these questions here in my sliver of a South Side sanctuary, coolly minimalist and stripped of its sacred adornments, for all the rest of my days.
Given her profession and the nature of her own seeking, my daughter may extend her exile even farther, like her brother has in Brazil. Both of my children may forgo not just their motherland but motherhood or fatherhood entirely. In my darker hours, I wonder if there’s any place on the diseased planet they have inherited that looks to them like a promised land.
Perhaps this is a natural cycle. Waves of departure and arrival may be the most permanent feature of the American landscape, especially Pittsburgh’s. Its industrial age, which drew the immigrants from eastern Europe from whom I have doubly descended, was a century-long tide that has long receded. The newest wave brings swells of professionals from every part of the world to our research universities and healthcare conglomerates, exiles who are remaking the landscape to suit their needs and desires. My own unscientific research on the subject reveals that wine fridges, stainless steel oven hoods, and granite countertops are the icons of their faith.
But what do I know? Here in my last third of life, there’s still so much to figure out, and I write in the only faith I possess, which is that it’s worthwhile to wonder. I don’t know if I’ll ever come full circle to become, like my grandmother, a grandmother on the South Side of Pittsburgh. I don’t know if I’ve earned even one of the tender mercies arrayed before me now—my daughter’s cheeks flushing over a cup of steaming soup, my husband fiddling with the fancy new thermostat—all of us at home, at last and for the moment, agreeably trembling from our exertions. But I accept them as such, as blessings. I shall praise them forever.
Kristin Kovacic is author of the essay collection, History of My Breath, and the poetry chapbook House of Women, and she is editor of the anthology, Birth: A Literary Companion.She has taught English and creative writing at the Pittsburgh High School for the Performing Arts and Winchester Thurston School, as well as in the graduate writing programs of Chatham and Carlow universities. She lives on the South Side of Pittsburgh.