In Hills Station, the southwestern Pennsylvania coal-mining town where I grew up, many of my neighbors spoke languages other than English. I noticed this at an early age. When I was around five years old, I asked my mother why.
“They are from ‘The Old Country,’” she replied, as if that answered the question. My father gave the same response. They didn’t give me any further information about this mysterious place. My curiosity grew as questions formed in my head. Where was the Old Country? What was the Old Country? Why did people from the Old Country use strange words and have strange accents?
All of the people identified by my parents as being from the Old Country were elderly. That must be how it got its name, I deduced. I watched my neighbors to see if I could discover more information about this foreign land.
My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Troskin, was from the Old Country. She was a stoop-shouldered, gray haired lady. A black wire fence separated her backyard from ours, but the fence did not obstruct my view. If she was outside, I could watch Mrs. Troskin from my bedroom window. On sunny afternoons in the spring, she would work in her garden. She shuffled from one row to another, pulling up weeds and checking on her vegetables. Two sunflowers stood guard over the entire yard punctuating her neat rows of green plants. She was always dressed the same—a flowered scarf tied under her chin, a cardigan sweater and a long dress. If I went outside while she was tending her garden, I would say hello to her. She would just smile and nod. I knew that Mrs. Troskin spoke a little English because she used to talk to my mother when Momma was working in her own garden. But they mostly communicated with smiles and gestures.
Mrs. Troskin spoke her Old Country language to her sons Johnny and Alex. They would nod and respond to her with similar sounding words. Alex’s daughters, Rae Ann and Loretta, who were three and five years older than I was, told me that their grandmother spoke Russian. I used to visit Rae Ann, Loretta and their mother Evelyn a lot, but I never visited Mrs. Troskin, who lived on the other side of the family duplex, the side farthest away from my house. In Hills Station, duplexes were self-contained, eight-room houses with four identical rooms on each side. Each side had a back door and a front door, but shared a wall in the middle. Some houses, especially those that had members of the same family on both sides, had a communal basement.
Even though I lived in a duplex too, my family had converted ours into a one-family dwelling.
Mrs. Troskin’s husband, along with her sons, had worked with my father in the Montour Four mine. I could barely remember Mr. Troskin, who had died when I was small. After he died, Mrs. Troskin continued to live in the house with her son Johnny. Johnny was a thin, dark haired man. He was usually friendly, but when he got drunk, he would rant and rave. Some evenings, I would hear him out in the backyard, yelling at something or someone that only he could see. I would watch him stagger around the garden until his brother or his mother convinced him to go back inside the house. He called everyone that he didn’t like a “Bolshevik.” I didn’t know what a Bolshevik was, but I assumed that it was a bad person from the Old Country.
Mr. and Mrs. Krieger lived across the street. They were from a place called Germany, another part of the Old Country. Like the Troskin’s house, the Kriegers’ duplex was a multi-generational home. Mrs. Krieger’s daughter Betty and her husband Steve lived on the other side of the duplex with their three children. I liked Mrs. Krieger a lot because she always gave me presents. Whenever she came over to visit my parents, she brought large paper bags filled with treasures. I never knew in advance what she would bring over—it could be magazines, old greeting cards and postcards, or discarded clothes, pocketbooks and shoes for dress-up. She would spend hours sitting in our living room, talking in her thick German accent. She was pale with thin red hair that faded to white near her scalp. I didn’t know how old she was, but her face was lined with wrinkles. Sometimes, she brought over German potato salad. Unlike Momma’s potato salad, it had a sour vinegary flavor. Momma’s potato salad had eggs and mayonnaise in it, but I couldn’t decipher all of the ingredients in Mrs. Krieger’s potato salad. Maybe the ingredients were an Old Country secret. At Christmas time, Mrs. Krieger bought over round tins with elaborate designs on them. They were filled with cookies and cakes that tasted strange but delicious. They had an aftertaste I couldn’t identify, which must have been another Old Country secret.
Mr. Krieger had also worked in the mine with my father and they had retired at around the same time. I was afraid of him because he always had a mean look on his square face. He never came over to visit, maybe because he didn’t speak English. In the summer, he would come outside around eight in the morning and sit on his porch all day, watching the cars and people go by. I used to sit on my porch and watch him. I wondered what he thought about as he sat in his blue and white metal chair that was identical to mine. Did he think in the Old Country language too? Sometimes Mrs. Krieger would sit with him. They would talk and argue in their language. A few years later, Mr. Krieger lost the ability to talk at all when a hole was put in his throat. Like Mr. Doc, another neighbor, he could only wheeze through a metal device.
Mrs. Krieger kept in touch with her relatives in the Old Country. I loved the old German Christmas cards that she gave me. On the front were soft, pastel pictures of rosy-cheeked children and angels or drawings of snow-covered houses. Some of them had scalloped edges or were cut out to look like lace. Even the paper smelled different from the Christmas cards I was used to. Maybe paper was made in a different way in the Old Country. I couldn’t understand the messages on the cards, but the handwriting was beautiful. The envelopes had strange looking stamps and postmarks. One summer, her grandnephew, a young, handsome guy, came to visit. Like Mr. Krieger, he only spoke German. Every morning, the two of them would sit on the porch. He even got Mr. Krieger to smile. I could not believe he came from the Old Country too. How could a young person be from the Old Country?
I used to walk with my parents up to Georgetown Road, the main street of town, to visit the Hills Tavern. Tom McVerry owned the tavern. Tom was a big-cheeked, red-faced man with a perpetual smile. He talked about a place called Ireland, which I assumed was yet another part of the Old Country. Tom didn’t have a strong accent like my other neighbors, but sometimes he lapsed into a lilting tone of voice that sounded like the leprechauns that I saw in cartoons on television. I always felt lucky when I went into Tom’s place. He always gave me free candy and peanuts and let me sit on a barstool. St. Patrick’s Day was a special day at Hills Tavern. Tom would sing Irish songs, tell jokes and even give everyone a free round. Because he was popular with all of the miners and retirees, Hills Tavern was always busy.
Next to Hills Tavern was Babe’s Bar, owned by the Carlini family. Mrs. Carlini or one of her daughters ran the bar during the day, because her son Babe also ran the post office. Babe’s Bar was small, dark and smelled like polished wood and liquor. With her gray hair in a bun, round wire glasses, and long dresses, Mrs. Carlini was everyone’s mother. She treated all of her customers as if they were her bambinos, dispensing mother advice and unqualified love. Her openness and pleasant demeanor reminded me of Momma.
Mrs. Carlini and my mother were good friends. Sometimes when we went to Babe’s, she would take Momma and me to her house behind the bar. The house was filled with smells too; good smells like tomato sauce and spices. She fed us pasta heaped with sauce and meat. At Easter time, she gave me Italian candy that came in little blue boxes illustrated with Biblical scenes. She taught me some Italian words, half of which were swear words. When my mother wasn’t looking, she showed me hand gestures that could be used when words were not enough. I never tried to memorize them, because she warned me not to use them. I guessed that they were a visual form of the swear words.
I liked Babe a lot, too. He didn’t have an accent, but he was kind and friendly. He was quieter than his mother, with a soft voice. Everyone in town considered him a confidant. Babe would nod in empathy while a customer poured out his problems between sips of Iron City Beer. The Carlinis were a very influential family in town. They owned Carlini’s Grove, a small wooded area in the back of town where the annual Fireman’s Picnic was held. They always gave money to St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, and Babe was a member of the Knights of Columbus. I always thought he would have made a great priest, because of his love of people and his involvement with the church.
I wanted to visit Italy, the part of the Old Country where Mrs. Carlini came from. A lot of my neighbors were from Italy, so I figured that Italy must be a popular part of the Old Country. I attended St. Elizabeth’s, and I knew that Rome was in Italy and the Vatican was in Rome. If the Pope lived there, Italy must be a very important place. My Bible had photographs of the beautiful artwork and sculptures that graced St. Peter’s Basilica. I wondered if Mrs. Carlini had ever been to Rome.
Near St. Elizabeth’s was a light tan brick building called the SNPJ Club. I didn’t know what SNPJ stood for, but I knew that it had something to do with the Old Country. Most of the people who went there were called Slovaks or Polish or Hungarian. I didn’t know much about that part of the Old Country, except that the polka was a popular dance and foods such as pierogies and kielbasa came from that area. Older women wore flowered scarves called babushkas. Babushka was a funny word that rolled around your mouth and lips when you said it. It was one of my favorite words, even better than the swear words Mrs. Carlini taught me. The SNPJ Club could be rented by anyone for parties and wedding receptions because it had a large ballroom. My parents used to go to polka dances there when they were younger. I wondered if my mother wore a babushka? The club was also where the adults in town went to vote.
So what did I know about the Old Country? People from the Old Country spoke a different language, like German or Russian or Polish. Most people from the Old Country were old, but not everyone who lived there was elderly. Also, I figured that only white people came from the Old Country. My parents came from Down South, as were all of the other older black people in town. I had been Down South on vacation, so I knew where it was located. I still had no idea where the Old Country was. When I pressed my parents for more information, they said that it was “across the water,” but I didn’t know what that meant. What water were they referring to—Chartiers Creek, the Monongahela River, or Lake Erie?
When I got older and started school, I learned in geography class that the Old Country was actually the continent of Europe, which was made up of many countries. On the globe, the countries of Italy, Poland, Ireland and Czechoslovakia looked tiny compared to the United States. Only Russia looked bigger, but in history class I learned that Russia was a bad place. It was the early sixties, and Russia was our enemy. Was Mrs. Spillman referring to the “Bolsheviks” that my neighbor Johnny hated so much?
In history class, I also learned about coal mining in western Pennsylvania. Around the turn of the twentieth century, coal was discovered in Cecil Township, of which Hills Station was a part. That discovery caused miners from many countries to move into the area with their families. I gained a new respect for my neighbors. Many of them had faced untold hardships in their native countries—famine, tyranny, or maybe even persecution. They had left behind their families and friends, never to see most of them again. I wondered what Germany and Italy had been like when Mrs. Krieger and Mrs. Carlini were little girls. How had Mrs. Carlini and Tom McVerry started their businesses?
I never found out the answers to those questions. When I was a little girl, questions like that would have been considered being nosy and inappropriate for a child to ask a grown-up. By the time that I was an adult, my Old Country neighbors were long gone. Many of them took their stories to their graves.
The mysterious, exotic Old Country is no more. But it is still with me. Blue candy boxes make me think about Mrs. Carlini and Babe’s Bar. Vintage magazines bring to mind the old issues of Look and Life that Mrs. Krieger gave to me. A flowered headscarf on an elderly lady will remind me of Mrs. Troskin and every neighbor who wore a babushka. On St. Patrick’s Day, I think of Tom McVerry singing his Irish songs. Growing up in Hills Station, the Old Country was as close as the house next door.
Beatrice M. Hogg is a coal miner’s daughter from Western Pennsylvania. She has resided in northern California since 1988. She has a MFA in creative writing, with an emphasis in creative nonfiction, from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in the Sacramento Bee, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and several anthologies. She can be reached at HoggPen57@yahoo.com or via her blog, www.marvellaland.wordpress.org.