Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Knowing Things

Brother Steve was here from New Jersey (remember the PA state motto: "At Least It's Not New Jersey!"), and we explored some family history just to the north in Perry County. We went to an abandoned cemetery up a hillside road, closed in 1937, where William Rice and many other 19th century Rices are buried. William built a stone mill around 1840 for the Bull family, beside Raccoon Creek, about 2 miles away in the village of Donnallys Mills (no one remembers where this name came from, but the Donnallys, Rices and Bulls are all comfortably resting together in the old cemetery). We revisited the derelict mill, now sadly used for junk storage by the current owner and quite overgrown. It has more bees and wasps buzzing around in irritation than any one place should. Old William is also credited with selecting the name for the county in honor of Oliver Hazard Perry, serving on a committee for its organization. The gravestones tell the sad tale of many of his children dying very young; they were born, surprisingly, in his wife's 40s and 50s. A thick file rests in the archives of the Perry County Historical Society about the family (while perusing it to verify some stories told by our grandfather, we found they were all true and documented), so these things will be remembered, if there is no fire or tornado.

Memories of things which have little consequence or resonance are not written down, but carried on by us while living; I think about how they evaporate when each of us frail vessels passes on. My grandparents had old friends, the Harlings, who had a summer house in Donnallys Mills (and a brick rowhouse in Harrisburg for the rest of the year); when I was young I perceived them as very old, but they probably weren't. They had a very long, peaceful and narrow back yard at the summer house, its most memorable feature being an apple tree upon which had been grafted three different types of apples. Their black Dodge was always put away in the garage. We arrived in Grandad's grey-and-cream four-door 1956 Desoto Firedome, a car so huge inside you could sleep two in the back quite easily. We enjoyed iced tea under the back yard trees, watched the songbirds and butterflies busy about their tasks, and I really did enjoy hearing their stories and memories. He always had a WWI-era "V" nickel for me. Everything was sure, slow and deliberate. People who drive black Dodges don't tend to be hyperactive types.

Their house is still there, unchanged. When I was older and didn't visit much, being busy with school and work, I heard that Mr. Harling had succumbed to dementia and committed suicide with a revolver, lost in paranoia. As a widow, Mrs. Harling showed a surprisingly lively side, buying a black and yellow Dodge Royal, the top model, and driving around unnecessarily. Good for her. The Harlings were childless, left little mark on the world, and there is no one left who remembers them except for Steve and I.

Where Raccoon Creek passes under Twin Ponds Road a few yards from this house, there stands a sycamore tree that my grandfather remembered from his boyhood. It's still there and pretty healthy looking; it gives me hope. We come and then go; may something simple and good remain.


  1. Were you able to find the treasures in the woods?

  2. All turned out well -- Steve had thought the markers had disappeared, from viewing an aerial photo; we actually found them all in a different section than we thought they were in! He took photos of all of them and is going to have one toppled monument restored (WE sure couldn't lift it!). Fortunately, there is no trash or vandalism.