N 40˚ 18’, W 80˚ 07’
Where am I from? According to a show I once saw on the History Channel, I am from Appalachia, a word I have always had a hard time spelling. And its pronunciation has changed since I was a little girl. I still say App-pa-lay-sha, but the modern pronunciation is App-pa-la-chia, or something like that. If I use the facts relayed by that program, the boundary between Washington County and Allegheny County that was about two miles from my home was similar to the Mason-Dixon Line, separating Appalachia from the Industrial North of Pittsburgh and points East.
Whatever. I grew up in a coal mining company town, in western Pennsylvania, in Washington County, in Cecil Township. I tried to look up my hometown on Google Maps, but all I got was a satellite photo of some railroad tracks. Maybe the name is the problem. My hometown was Hills, named after some guy named Thomas Hill. But when the railroad went in at the bottom of the hill, the stop was called Hills Station. But the post office was Lawrence, PA 15055. The local coal mine was Montour Four.
About nine years ago, after reading an essay about my hometown in a workshop during my MFA residency in Los Angeles, another student made a remark about what he called my experiences growing up poor in a coal mining camp. I could feel the invisible hackles start to rise. I crossed my arms across my chest and rolled my eyes – the international black girl symbol for “no you did not just say that.” I quickly set him straight in a manner that would have made John L. Lewis proud. Yes, I grew up in a company house, but it was an eight-room house and my parents owned it. My father drove a Cadillac, which he paid cash for, trading one in for a new model every few years. We didn’t have sidewalks, but we had indoor plumbing, gas heat, and electricity. My mother hung her laundry outside because we had a big yard and it made the clothes smell like sunshine. I may have gone to a two-room schoolhouse for the first three grades of elementary school, but Mrs. Morrison and Mrs. Spillman were the best teachers a child could have. I was a spoiled only child who never wanted for the necessities of life. Sure, I didn’t get every Barbie or even every book I wanted, but I got most of them. After my unplanned tirade, he apologized. He was from West Virginia; he should have known better.
There is the problem. No one who didn’t grow up in the area knows anything about western Pennsylvania. Even in 2012, I’m still educating people on the difference between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. (No, they are not near each other. Didn’t you have geography in grammar school? Get a map.) And Heaven forbid if I have to explain about the West Virginia panhandle. (It involves hand gestures.) The Cecil Township web site only has a photo of the Township municipal building. I think they should add some photos; maybe hire a good photojournalist who can capture the spirit of the place. They could ask for donations of pictures chronicling parades, picnics, carnivals, and other local events. I don’t know about the rest of its current and former residents, but for me, Hills was a wonderful place to grow up. It took many years of reflection to come to that realization, but I’m glad that I did.
So I will tag this essay accordingly. I will spend the rest of my years writing about the town that made me the person I am today. I will wax romantic and poetic about my memories of decades gone by. Because I didn’t grow up on a tiny black spot on a Pennsylvania map. I grew up in a great town, among great people, in an area that deserves to be recognized. That’s where I am from. Put that on your map.