The valley was famous for people who struggle, for families that grow like stubborn plants in poor soil, garlic and fennel, bunched onions.
I remember my grandfather only at the end of his own particular struggle, how he sat at the kitchen table wheezing all morning, his breath full of whiskey and coal dust, while my grandmother seemed to grow sturdier with age, trudging the cellar steps, her arms full of laundry, indigo flakes glittering the surface of her wash water.
On Sundays my mother took me to the tiny Hungarian church, where the early morning Mass was still said in the native tongue. But my mother drew more comfort from the sonorous words in Latin. She insisted we sit close to the altar, where a statue of young St. Elizabeth, wearing the crown of a princess and offering a basket of bread to the poor, watched over us.
Just eleven years old, I cared little for the cold gray stone of statues and turned instead to the tall arched windows above me, their mosaic of color ablaze with morning sun. The colors fractured onto the pews and stretched along the blond ovals of wear on the dark wood, and I twisted again and again to gaze into the red stained-glass light that spilled through St. George’s lance where it pierced the dragon’s neck.
My mother tapped my arm, tugging my attention back to the priest on the dim altar. I knew the rumors about him, the whispers of how he prayed only for his own deliverance, prayed to be away from this poor parish in the valley, with its chipped statues and rowdy autumn grape festival.
Et cum spiritu tuo.
I knew the other rumors as well, and on our way out of church, when the priest stood shaking hands and patting children’s shoulders, I folded myself against my mother’s skirt. She blushed at my feigned shyness and said she didn’t know what had gotten into me, but he simply smiled and told her to watch her step.
Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum.
My father, who joined the church when he married my mother but rarely set foot inside of it again, agreed to pick us up after Mass, bringing with him a stony, yeasty smell of beer. When he was late, we stood in front of the church with the people who lingered, chatting and fanning themselves, reluctant to return to their ordinary day.
The old women in flowered dresses and old men in mismatched suits greeted each other in the gathering heat.
Jo reggelt! Good morning!
How are you? In Hungarian, it came out, Hodge vodge?
I could smell the cabbage and chicken paprikash in the air. There were polkas and czardas on the radio, the frisky folk music swirling like gossip in the street.
In the valley, sons traced the steps of their fathers to the mills and mines of Bethlehem Steel, and my father struggled with the shame of ruining his back early, the best he could get was sorting nails and stocking tools, ringing the register at Ed Duke’s Hardware. We ran the bottle-green DeSoto until the paint faded and bluish smoke billowed from under the hood. The gas station on the corner allowed us a little credit, and the fat insurance man came back time after time to sweat at the kitchen table, recording the loan payment in his bulging accounts book while he listened to my mother’s hard stories.
One Sunday afternoon, I played stickball in the schoolyard, swinging and shouting in the smoky August air, until everyone else went home to dinner, and I sat with my back to the brick wall, feeling the sweat dry on my skin. Just beyond the schoolyard fence, cars flashed by on Olson Avenue, families on their way home from a Sunday drive, ice cream in waffle cones melting in their laps.
I saw the parish priest strolling along the other side of the street with his breviary, reciting his Daily Office in the day’s last blast of heat. As I watched, he slowed his pace and looked up from his book toward the horizon. Still propped against the school building, I turned without thinking, and followed his gaze to where the blazing sun hung just above the rim of our valley, famous for struggle and small reward. The sun, slowly sinking toward the day’s end, beckoned me from beyond the valley’s edge. I see you, I said out loud, and stared at the horizon, shading my eyes with my hand, watching the color of the sun deepen, turn almost liquid in the haze, like light that spills through stained glass, and becomes the color pouring from the dragon’s neck, the steely hide pierced by St. George’s lance.