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 and give meaning to life.
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 Reilly, 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; and 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 there. I can walk the length of Main Street 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 run wild in the hills of the Allegheny Mountains. 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, a casualty of 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 the Italian numbers game, “Mora.” I remember the pride they had in me when I joined their ranks as a veteran of a foreign war. They were part of America’s greatest generation, but they’re all gone now.
A sense of place defines us and gives us our initial way of how we perceive the world. It provides the anchor, our center, which confidently launches us toward the many paths we will follow.
There is magic in that little world called 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.”
Before we leave Uniontown, I visit my godmother, Aunt Margaret. Aunt Margaret is 88 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. Once again I ask 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 leave believing that she really thinks I’m still her favorite.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor specializing in students transition to college. He is a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write him in care of the Valley Sun, P.O. Box 38, La Cañada, CA 91012.