By Jennifer Niesslein
The light is getting progressively stranger the closer we come to peak eclipse.
It’s August, 2017, and my husband Brandon and I are driving our son, Caleb, from our house in Virginia to Oberlin Conservatory, where Caleb will attend college. The three of us are antsy in the rented minivan packed with all of Caleb’s stuff, including eight instruments, the luggage we bought him for high school graduation, and a Fiesta Ware mug he plucked from the cupboard. In twenty-four hours, he’ll no longer live at home—my wavy-haired boy, my earnest boy, my beloved boy.
“There,” I say to Brandon. “Take this exit.”
I’m the only one of us familiar with this route, and then only in a weird childhood-memory way, tunneling down through the layers of my life. The stretch of highway in western Pennsylvania leading us to Oberlin is a This Is Your Life tour for me: Uniontown, where I was born; Canonsburg, where my maternal grandparents lived; Sewickley, where my paternal grandparents lived; New Galilee, where I grew up.
I haven’t been here since I was eleven years old, a little girl studying the Pennsylvania Turnpike card in the backseat, crammed against my sisters. “Turn right, away from Beaver Falls,” I say to Brandon. We get to the stoplight where my classmate Sammy’s dad owned a bar. “Left here,” I say, as if in a dream.
There it all is—the route my bus took after my elementary school closed; the place that had the “Fill Dirt Wanted” sign; the bend in the road where we saw Charlie No-Face; the scary drop-offs that now have guard rails. And then things look unfamiliar for a stretch. “Are you sure this is the way? That’s a really long bus ride,” Brandon says.
“Just go a little farther. If I’m right, there’ll be houses, then a stop sign.” The houses—where my best friend lived, where my mom’s first New Galilee friend lived—appear. The stop sign appears. We take a left.
The partial eclipse will happen soon. We’d planned to pull over when it happened, so we could watch it through our paper and cellophane glasses.
I guide Brandon to the small driveway that leads to New Galilee Community Park. “I can’t believe you remember this,” he says. We ease the minivan to a stop near the bike rack where, long ago, my dad took a photo of my sisters and me. I look down at the dirt—a dark brown—and think: I’m finally home.
It’s a strange thing to think. I only lived in New Galilee for five years and change—ages five to eleven—but, to my mind, New Galilee was my entire childhood. The New-Agey language of woo-woo stuff leaves me cold, but I remember being five years old, sitting frog-legged near the grapevines, staring up at the clouds, and thinking that I was lucky to land here, in this family, as if there had been some cosmic lottery.
In 1977, my family—my parents, my three-year-old sister Erin, and newborn Krissy—moved into a house built in 1889, a former Presbyterian manse. It was a beautiful house. The upper panel of our front door was made of stained glass, bubbled with age. Strangers would knock and offer to buy it off the hinges. Great-Grandma Crawford—then in her seventies—came over to hang new wallpaper in the stairwell, and my mother hung white sheers in the sun room that billowed when a breeze kicked up; the girls and I listened to K-Tel records, lying on the carpet.
Our decor on Locust Street felt distinctly seventies, but the bones of the house were old; I can still feel the worn softness of the old banister’s wood under my palms, smell the dirt floor of the root cellar. We had a two-story garage in the back where Dad used the mechanic’s pit to rebuild an old car. I’d bring him iced sun tea that Mom brewed. Sometimes I’d explore the second floor, hoping to magically find old treasures—it was always just toys we’d outgrown.
New Galilee was a fire hall town—that’s where all the social events took place. The kids’ scout meetings were usually held there, and the adults organized events for themselves (dances, fun contests). Every summer, the carnival set up in the fields behind it. One time my dad won “Best Legs” at a fire hall shindig for the grown-ups. In my mind, it was just further proof of my luck. Dad had the best legs and my mom, the PTA president, was the prettiest mom of all of the girls’ moms in my class. I could be a mouthy little thing, but I knew not to lord my good fortune over the other kids, what with their mediocre-legged fathers and average mothers.
One night, Dad bought an Atari set. The next day, Mom and Dad both took the day off—Mom was back to teaching by now—and we were all home. Mom was big on “mental health days” for us girls. The wood-burning stove gave off cozy heat. (Erin had gotten in trouble sometimes for melting crayons on it, but the worst I’d done is dip my finger in the pot of well water that was meant to keep the room humidified; I’d watch it sizzle on the surface, leaving mineral traces behind.) I got the hang of the joystick and eventually became really good at Space Invaders. I leaned against my parents, both cross-legged on the floor. Our nest of Niessleins reconfigured, every once in a while, as we took turns. A warm jumble.
But arriving back here in my hometown, in 2017, this is the memory that clings to me: I’m on my bike, sailing around New Galilee. I sail through the entire town. The wind tangles my hair into reddish brown-gold knots. I stand up on my pedals and glide down Washington Street until I need to pump again. For once, my sisters aren’t on the banana seat or perched on the handlebars. I’m free, I’m free, I’m free, and the whole town is mine.
It didn’t last, of course—no childhood does, even (or especially) an idyllic one. It was the early eighties, and forces beyond our control were at work. Pittsburgh had lost its steel jobs years ago, but counties like ours, on the far periphery, were now starting to feel the decline of the entire industry, with the introduction of Japanese steel and foreign-made cars.
Our elementary school closed, and the older New Galilee kids were bussed to Koppel, another small town nearby. In that first year, I don’t think any of us integrated well, either with the Koppel kids or the staff, who were so unlike our own warm elementary school teachers.
My new teacher, Mr. Martin, was one of the coldest. One afternoon, after an indoor recess, he flashed the lights and we quieted. I quieted last. I’d been teasing my friend David. I’d envied him, back in New Galilee, because he got to see his grandma every school day; she’d been our janitor. That day in Koppel, I’d called him a “fart.” Mr. Martin looked at me and slapped a wooden paddle against his hand. I found my mouthiness from home: “You can’t paddle me. My mom wrote a note.” He reddened and let it drop.
The next year, we were bussed to Beaver Falls Middle School. My dad, like a lot of other fathers, was laid off from his machinist job. In houses everywhere, brand-name foods were replaced by white bags and boxes with black lettering of what was inside. The kids at school started using “generic” as an insult.
I didn’t like Koppel or Beaver Falls, but I clung to New Galilee. Maybe everyone wants childhood to last as long as possible. Maybe I was scared by the new knowledge that a bigger world was out there, and I’d have to find my place in it.
When we left for Dad’s new job in Virginia, I walked the sidewalks one last time, memorizing the cracks. I had vivid dreams for years about our house. When I was young, and interested in things like astral projection, I wondered sometimes if the current inhabitants ever spied a spectral me late at night, my fingers light on the banister, my face glowing between the white Swiss dot curtain panels in my bedroom.
I wasn’t the only person in my family who lived there, of course. Four of us were old enough to remember what it was like: Me, Erin, Mom, and Dad. My sister Erin went back a few years ago. She brought back loose stones from the retaining wall in front of the house for each of us, but she warned me against returning. “It’s not like you remember,” she said.
It isn’t. Now, in 2017, driving through the town and past the house, I realize it fit my childhood so well because it’s a child-sized town. It takes all of ten minutes to pass through—and then only because we stop at the base of the old driveway, and a woman, mowing a lawn nearby, looks at us funny.
“Hey, stop,” I say to Brandon.
I get out, painfully aware that I don’t look small town anymore, with my cat-eye glasses and city clothes. Still, she’s friendly. Her mom, who I don’t remember, had lived in a house at the end of our driveway and died recently; she’s prepping the house to sell.
We commiserate a bit about loss. I tell her that I lived in the house up the driveway when I was a girl. She doesn’t remember us, but then again, she’d left home at that point. She gestures to the house. “Both their cars are there.”
“Oh, I don’t want to bother them.”
“From what I hear, it’s still like it was when they bought it back in the eighties. But they’re…strange. They have dogs. They don’t talk to anyone.”
From Erin’s experience—she met the owners but never went in—we suspect they’re hoarders. I’m okay with just the land and my memories.
Mom, Erin, and I have woven a collective myth of those perfect years. Mom says it was the happiest time in her life, and I believe her. She got to do what none of her foremothers could afford to: stay at home with her kids. Erin and I reminisce about the records we danced to in the sunroom and the time we scraped up the sand under the above-ground pool after Dad took it down for the season (we genuinely thought we might have made the world’s biggest sand pile). We tag each other on Facebook with sweet sentimental pictures. Any hardships stay in the shade of the golden times.
And then there’s Dad. We stay with Dad and his wife Lori both on the way to Oberlin and on the way back. Their house is the halfway point. (If you’ve ever driven through the middle of nowhere and wondered who lives there, it’s Dad and Lori, to Lori’s chagrin.)
On the way back—with Caleb hugged and kissed and safely deposited in his dorm—I sit on the deck overlooking the mountains and talk with Dad about the old times. We reminisce about those years: our fishing trip to Lake Erie, the time he put me on the back of his motorcycle for a short ride, when we went to the drive-in. I tell him we stopped in New Galilee, and that I saw the house.
“I like how it was the ‘junk room’ with mice until you cleaned it out and it became my bedroom,” I tease, thinking of the bunk beds that Erin and I shared before our younger sister, Krissy, got old enough to warrant her own bed.
“That place was infested with mice. I had traps all over that house,” Dad says. “Our mortgage was about two-fifty a month, and sometimes I wondered how we were going to make that.” He worked two jobs, one as a teacher, the other as a wrestling coach, then a machinist.
I tell him we drove past the house where he built an addition one summer. “Still look good?” he asks.
“It looks great!”
He laughs. “The guy was all right, but I still had to deal with the wife. God, she was a pain in the ass.”
“The kid used to try and lord it over Erin and me: ‘Your dad’s working for my dad!’ I wondered what was wrong with her dad that he couldn’t build his own addition.”
We laugh. I pull on my newly-purchased Oberlin sweatshirt, glad I bought something to warm me in the cold mountain air. Dad puffs on a cigar. “Moving from there was the best thing that ever happened to all of us.”
I’m reluctant—so, so, reluctant—to make space for his memory alongside mine. I consider all that happened after we moved to Virginia, including the prolonged divorce that still leaves my sisters and me residually nervous when our parents have to be in the same room, even thirty years later. I give a little down-turned smile and don’t say anything else. Memories don’t have to match.
Later, though, I’ll wonder if Dad was right. He spent those years working hard, and when that hard work dried up, he wasn’t going to wait around. We had to move on for survival. And going back, I know for damn sure I wouldn’t want to live in New Galilee as an adult. Although the town hasn’t visually changed much—most everything is intact, though the population slipped from 624 in 1970 to 379 in 2010—my New Galilee only exists in my head.
You can—and I have—tie yourself in knots wondering what turns your life would have taken if one variable had been different. What if we’ve never moved? Would I have itched for someplace bigger? Would I have met Brandon? Would I have watched the sky on August 21, 2017, in the same place, with the same people, with the same strange feelings?
I stand there in the New Galilee Community Park, in that weird light, watching the moon slide across the sun, and I think of my girl-self, so grateful that I ended up in my family. In that moment, I feel certain there were other possibilities—maybe in other potential lives, in other dimensions, on other planets, with the me-not-me looking up through cellophane and paper glasses at another eclipse.
But I’m here in this park, near the dark brown dirt that says home, staring at my very real eighteen-year-old son, and my very real forty-five-year-old husband, in the same wooden shelter where I made sit-upons as a Girl Scout, and I’m looking at the metal slide that I thought was so long when I was a kid, and seeing the spinning barrel that scared me then—and I’m having a rare moment of seamlessness, the feeling that somehow Brandon and Caleb can really understand me now, seeing where I came from. I feel whole.
It’s an illusion, I’ll realize later; the next bit of this detour will have a distinct let’s-humor-Mom scent to it. But for now, I’m caught up in the magic of two celestial bodies passing close enough that they seem to almost touch. In this moment, in this green summer park, it’s the sun and the moon, but also the past and the present, the memory and the facts, the life I live now, and the one I have yet to begin, with a freshly emptied bedroom in Virginia.
Jennifer Niesslein is the editor of Full Grown People and two FGP anthologies, as well as the author of one memoir. Her essay “Before We Were Good White” was listed as Notable in The Best American Essays 2017. Her website is JenniferNiesslein.com.
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