Thoughts From Dr. Joe by Dr. Joe Puglia
It’s the story that ties us to a place; the countless memories of family, friends, church, community, and school.
But at center stage, the geography of our past is always interwoven with a human connection. It’s people who give life to our stories.
Stories are built over time and their meaning is a product of duration touched by the human hand. That’s how we develop a sense of place; living life, making memories and building relationships. Our quest to find a sense of place is the essence of the higher forms of literature.
I love listening to the stories of my friends who grew up in La Cañada. This is especially true of my buddies Mike Rilley, Bill Decker and Mark Durkin. Those guys must have been a kick in the pants. The things they did running the streets of this town! Hearing their laughter and watching the nostalgia through their eyes tells me that they are rich in experience. When we gather at each other’s homes, I watch as our children play and realize that their stories and their connections to home are slowly beginning to ferment. What they are doing is much more than play. Play is a conduit for life’s experiences, life’s experiences are the memories that help us connect to home, and home is where our story begins.
I hope that as our children grow older, they will say countless times, “Do you remember when?” Then they, too, will be rich.
As I write these words, I’m sitting on a bench in front of the Cadillac Bar in a small coal town in Western Pennsylvania, Uniontown. I was born here. I can walk the length of Main Street and tie my shoes and light a cigar in less than two minutes. Searching for better horizons, my family moved to New York City when I was weeks old. We found those horizons; but left behind aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Summers and holidays I’d find my way back to Uniontown and would run wild and raise hell in the hills of the Allegheny Mountains, finding myself and making connections. I grew up in New York City but my sense of family will always be Uniontown.
The Cadillac Bar is now boarded shut and soon will fall casualty to progress. Its windows are cracked and dirty and its interior is overtaken by two decades of dust but I can still taste my first shot of whiskey. I was 12 years old. I can still see my uncles playing “Mora,” an Italian numbers game. Uno, duo, tre! I remember the pride they had in me when I joined their ranks as a Veteran of a Foreign War. These men were from the greatest generation who had served in WWll and saved the world when they were young.
A sense of place defines us and gives us our initial perception of the world. It provides the anchor, our center that confidently launches us toward the many paths we will follow. It’s part of our heritage and we are richer for it. There is magic in that little world we call home. It’s a mystical circle that surrounds us and gives us all that we have. As humans we define ourselves primarily by the relationships that we find there. Our most prevailing challenges seem to be our limited identification to place and our profound disconnect to a place. Wendell Berry said, “You can’t know who you are till you know where you are from?”
Edward Hale’s classic story, “The Man Without a Country,” tells the tragic tale of Philip Nolan, and what could happen when one is deprived of a sense of place. Falsely accused of sedition shortly after the American Revolution, he was banished to sea for the rest of his life. He endured this fate of isolation by the holding fast to the myriad of memories that were part of his personal heritage.
Before we left Uniontown, I again visited my godmother, Aunt Margaret. Aunt Margaret is 84 and suffers from Alzheimer’s. Her few remaining memories are the Italian songs she would sing with my mother. She’s my only aunt remaining. And once again I asked her that timeless question, “Aunt Margaret, who’s your favorite nephew? After a few prompts, I see her looking at me and not through me and then she says, “Why, you are, Joe?” I left her that morning believing that she really thinks that I’m still her favorite.