"From Up the Crick"
by Mary Coleen (Burns) Buckley
who grew up on Back Street in Midland, Maryland
(originally published at www.midlandroots.com)
[minor editing (punctuation/ease of reading) by John McGowan]
For 51 years I have been from 'up the crick’. No matter where I have been or where I will go, I’m still “from up the crick,” and growing up there has given me something that I have never found anywhere else. Perhaps, the many years have elevated my sentiments and have enlarged my crick people. Maybe I lack the balance and repose necessary to look back, my contemporary judgment may involve some errors, but I am not an outsider, and I wish to explain stirrings and impulses which I feel but do not fully understand. Provincialism has been called deadly, but I say that it is sometimes life-giving, and with imagination and enough sympathy, I hope to delineate a constancy, a charm, a freshness, an honesty in this area that I have found in no other area, a delineation having its source, not completely in a world of concrete dates and facts, but a world of reflection and memory -- my reflection, my memory of my life ‘up the crick.”
I was born in Miner’s Hospital in Frostburg, Maryland, because there was no hospital in Midland, Maryland. Now, Frostburg is a city, quite small like all cities and towns in Western Maryland, and is situated on Route 40, the National Road, which at Grant Street in Frostburg encounters a narrow, winding road that wanders down George’s Creek, an area of sixteen miles ending in Westernport, Maryland. These sixteen miles pass through the famous George’s Creek Coal Mining Region which for one hundred and twenty-five years produced the best steam coal used in the United States, coal used by American warships that sank the Spanish fleet during the Spanish-American War. This region gets its name from a dirty, orangish, narrow stream of water, named after an Indian hunter. The crick runs parallel with the road, Route 36, and the C&P (Cumberland and Pennsylvania) Railroad tracks, and the crick valley lies between two mountain ridges, Big Savage and Dan’s, part of the Appalachians. These mountains tower one hundred feet on either side of small settlements somewhat oddly, yet familiarly, named: Midlothian, Carlos, Hard Scravel, Shaft, Klondike, Ocean, Lord, Midland, Gilmore, Knapp’s Meadow, Lonaconing, Pekin (also called Nikep), Detmold, Moscow, Barton, Caledonia, Franklin, and Westernport.
My beginnings, both emotional and physical, start in Ocean, about two miles up the road from Midland, in a gray, frame mining company home where my mother, Loretta Monahan, was born. These homes, built by the Consolidation Coal Company, were two- story wooden structures with small front porches and board walks beginning at the front gates of wooden fences and ending at the back porches. There was always an outside spigot where the miner would wash off the heavy mine dirt before he entered the home. The homes were picturesquely identical from the front-porch flower boxes to the backyard gardens, clothes lines, sheds, and apple trees. The board walks were scrubbed religiously, and many times I heard about Mrs. Blake, who not only scrubbed the board walk every Saturday, but also the pigs that she kept in the farthest part of the backyard.
Between Ocean and Midland was the Consolidation Coal Company with its massive tipple, a solitary symbol of the great heyday of the mines, the empty, rusting coal cars, the red brick powerhouse, and the road sign “Beware of Sinks,” that we took for granted because we knew that we lived our days atop the mines where our grandfathers, uncles, and cousins had dug out their livings. The coal banks that stood among our pine, dogwood, birch, and maple trees were commonplace, hardly noticed.
I grew up in Midland. My father, Francis Patrick Burns, was born there, and since most writing is some form or another of returning or looking back, this will be just that. My life was family, a long-tailed family. I had nine aunts and uncles and eleven first cousins who lived in Midland. My uncle Jim and aunt Langie -- my brother couldn’t say Aunt Agnes and somehow melded Agnes and Langhan together and came up with Langie -- lived across from us. First, they lived directly across the railroad tracks from us when we lived in the Pink House, actually painted pink, and then they lived across from us when we moved onto Back Street, directly behind them.
This move is my first memory of Leo “Toad” McNeil who always seemed to be a part of my young life. The Ort brothers owned a bakery and had two railroad cars of flour that, at that moment, they couldn’t afford to unload. Toad bought John Orts house on Back Street to enable them to unload the flour. He did so only because my father and mother agreed to move into it.
Aunt Biddie and Uncle Frozie (John) Monahan lived up on Chicken Hill. Aunt Helen and Uncle Pat Manley lived on Paradise Street, and Uncle Thomas Burns lived with our cousins, the Reillys, on Big Lane. Uncle Pat and Aunt Kate Monahan lived farther down on Back Street. I also had twenty-two aunts and uncles and forty-four first cousins who, in different stages in their lives had moved away from Midland prior to my birth. My sense of family grew in that big white frame house on Back Street. The stone walk that bordered the street, the silver-painted chain fence that enclosed the large front yard, the red brick garage walk, fenced in with white rose bushes leading to the double-car, red brick garage, the cherry tree and apple tree that canopied the back of the house, the sloping backyard that ended at an embankment of the crick, the orange-blossom bush in the bottom of the yard, the lilac and forsythia bushes on the other side, the tall cedar tree in front of the house, the four pine spreaders protecting the lattice work of the huge front porch, the cement walk that led from the front gate straight to the front porch and curved at the tall tree to lead to the back porch, the flower garden between the break in the cement walks, the wooden swing and glider covered with striped-cretonne cushions, the wicker rocking chair and ferneries -- I loved it all.
My life was also church, Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, which sat on one of the highest points in town. Church Hill began at Main Street, crossed over the cement crick bridge and the C&P Railroad tracks, and passed the white-frame Methodist Church, halfway up the hill. It then curved around the stone retaining wall until it reached the top of the hill, the macadam parking lot, the center of the complex that contained the rectory, the school, the convent, and the church, all cream-colored, green trimmed frame buildings. A circular driveway, majestically edged with tall pine trees, fronted the large, square rectory with its deep, front porch. The trees protected the rectory from the weather and from the school children because its grounds were off limits to us. The rectory, like the parish priest, was a thing set apart. I recognized its beauty and was awed by its mystery. One square building housing the first four grades sat at the back of the parking lot with only a narrow dirt road separating it from the hill of half-overgrown coal banks. Directly across the parking lot was the convent-school church complex. The convent jutting out to the side was surrounded on two sides by a pillared porch where I can still see the black and white garbed nuns silently sitting in green, latticed-back rocking chairs saying their rosaries or walking the distance of the porch intently reading their required daily “Divine Office.”
Connected to the side of the convent was the other school building with grades four through eight. These classrooms had windows on the one side that faced the coal banks, but the other sides were the convent wall and the back of the church. On these structures I built part of the strong, firm structure of my life. Particularly, the Church. My memories are as strong, as straight, as enduring, as fresh as the tall trees that surrounded St. Joseph’s, and they ring as clearly as the bells from the bell tower of the church, a connected but yet distinct part.
The crossed-topped bell tower reached one hundred feet into the valley’s sky and held three bells. The inscription on St. Joseph’s 2000-pound bell reads: “St. Joseph, deliver this church from lightning and storm.” It was donated by Reverend Don Luigi Sartori, an Italian nobleman and first pastor of the church. The inscription on the Blessed Virgin’s 1000-pound bell reads: “Holy Mary, protect and defend this church from all evil,” and St. Brigid’s bell reads, “St. Brigid, pray for your Irish people.” These bells rang out at 6 a.m., 12 Noon, and 6 p.m., signaling the time for the “Angelus,” a prayer that we said, and even Mrs. Blake was known to stop scrubbing to kneel and pray when the deep, toned bells rang. They called us to weddings, to funerals, to happiness, to sorrow. They kept teaching me over and over the things I loved and the order that I needed and savored.
The church, an A-framed building with a stained-glass circle above the door of the main entrance, had a wide center aisle and narrow side aisles with pews between. Each family rented its own pew, $6.00 per year, and ours was Number 24 on the left-center aisle. The main altar rested in an arched, recessed area, and on the wall above the recess was a stained-glass circle larger than, but identical to, the one at the front entrance. Marble angels knelt on either side of the top level of the marble altar, guarding the center tabernacle. The Blessed Virgin’s altar was to the left and St. Joseph’s altar was to the right. The golden sanctuary lamp dropped by a golden chain from the ceiling to the center of the sanctuary, burning constantly to remind us of the mysterious truth of the Divine Presence, and an ornate, white communion rail separated the sanctuary from the body of the church.
Here, in this church, I learned that I was never alone. I was baptized here, my godparents and cousins, Leon Langhan and Elizabeth Monahan, took me to church to be christened Mary Elizabeth by Reverend John J. Brennan. Father, looking at the small baby, said, “You’re not going to put that long name on that wee baby, now are you?” And he proceeded to name me Mary Colleen, a gesture prompted more by his love for Ireland than his concern for my size. I made my first confession here, not without incident. My brother Cyril walked me to church where Sister Atala, the first and second grade teacher, met us and one by one sent us into the confessional.
Father Brennan had died in February of that year, and Father Luke R. Stephens, from the Capuchin monastery in Cumberland, Maryland, was serving as interim pastor, until the Archbishop appointed a new pastor. The Capuchins were a source of wonder to us with their beards, cowls, and brown robes belted with the three-knotted cords. After I went to confession, I walked to the middle of the marble altar rail to kneel to say my penance. Then I remembered! I hurried to Sister Atala to tell her that I had made a bad confession and had to go back. She didn’t question me, just agreed. I went outside to tell Cyril to wait, and as I did, Father Luke walked out the church door. I walked over to him and told him. He said that he could “undo the sin there”. So, I said, “I forgot to tell you that I had a fight with Rose Marie Stakem”. He went through the motions of absolution and I went home, sainted and relieved. By the way, Rose Marie’s brother Jimmy became a Capuchin.
I made my First Communion and was confirmed at St. Joseph’s. I was married at St. Joseph’s. My children were baptized there, and my parents were buried from there. A very positive part of my life was St. Joseph’s and what I gained there: its tremendous laughter and peace, has fortified me again and again in my attitude toward the world. [It] has brought me to the certainty that the love of people and God promises nothing but that love.
My life was also the community [and] everybody in it because there were only about 1,000 of us: Scots, Irish, Welsh, English, and a handful of Hungarians. Italians lived in Frostburg and Westernport, but we were midway. Midland was in between them and [we] didn’t really know them. Everybody I knew was white, and everybody I knew spoke English.
As a matter of fact, practically everybody I knew did the same thing on the same day of the week. Monday was always wash day. Daddy’s white shirt collars and cuffs soaked in a bleach solution in a white, porcelain basin on the cellar floor. I often helped to fill the washer with hot water, holding the rubber hose deep within the washer, while Mother shaved off the Octagon or Eels[sic, Fels] Naphtha bar of soap into the washer. Then, I filled the two rinse tubs with cold water. The process was long and tedious, but the best part was threading the wet clothes through the wringer, being careful not to get them too close to the edges nor letting them curl around the wringer. Otherwise, it meant backing up the wringer and wasting time. While one load washed, Mother put the rinsed-and-wrung load on the clothes line. When a line was full, I jabbed the line with the grooved end of the wooden clothes pole and pushed the wet clothes as high in the air as the line would allow. Mother and I folded the dried clothes on the kitchen table, then dampened those to be ironed and rolled them like jelly-rolls. I believe that Mother ironed everything but socks and kitchen rugs. The dampened clothes stayed in the oval wicker clothes basket until ironing day.
Tuesday was ironing day. I was allowed to iron handkerchiefs, pajamas, tea towels and pillow cases, but the intricate shirts, flowered and plaid linen table cloths, cotton blouses, and dresses belonged to Mother. A wooden clothes rack fanned out above the kitchen radiator and Daddy’s shirts were carefully slipped through the long arms of the rack until they dried, looking like half-dressed, but well-dressed, scarecrows. The ironed clothes were carefully taken up the back stairway, laid on the bed in neat piles and later placed neatly in dresser and bureau drawers.
Wednesdays and Thursdays were free, do-as-you--please days, although there was always something to do, particularly during spring and summer. Grass had to be cut, flowers and vegetables planted, gardens weeded, windows washed, porches scrubbed. Mothers of large families baked two days each week, and some opted to clean upstairs on Thursday and downstairs on Friday.
Friday was cleaning day. Mother always threw open the windows to let the fresh air in and then began her routine. First, she cleaned my brother’s bedroom in the back of the house, the room that always got that cool summer breeze down the hollow. Cyril’s room had the door to the attic, just a small structure built out over the back, porch roof. Cyril’s brown suede marble bag hung from a nail in one of the rafters. Next, my parents’ bedroom and then mine, and finally, the bathrooms were cleaned. Mother dusted her way down the open front stairway, and then the enclosed back stairway. The downstairs rooms were dusted and vacuumed after all the throw rugs had been taken to the back porch and snapped in the wind. The kitchen was left until last. Mother scrubbed the linoleum, placed rag rugs over the linoleum, and newspapers over the rag rugs. I never could understand this last move but that never bothered Mother. She kept on doing it. If the weather were warm, Mother scrubbed the walks and porches, scrubbed them with hot soapy water and a broom and then hosed them. I loved to do this especially in my bare feet.
Saturday was baking day: homemade bread and rolls, chocolate, coconut, and lemon pies, lemon sponge cake, cinnamon buns. My Daddy’s favorite was devil’s food cake with thin, made-from-scratch, caramel icing. Saturday was also confession day. We took our baths in the early afternoon, put on our better clothes and trekked up Church Hill for our session with the Confessor who knocked the nonsense out of our souls. Like a trip to the dentist’s office, no matter how bad I felt going in the confessional, I felt better coming out. Besides, our parents never asked us whether we needed to go or not. They just assumed that we did.
Sunday was church day. Masses were at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and the rest of the day was a quiet, stay-at-home day, unless the family decided to go for a ride in our Studebaker. Daddy always bought Studebakers. If we stopped at a restaurant, Mother always ordered turkey, and, without fail, told the waitress that she had a disease and could eat only white meat. I never considered it lying because if Mother had a disease, she had a disease, and I had better believe it. If we stayed at home, the Sunday dinner was roast beef, Saturday’s baked bread, and Uncle P. C. Greene.
Uncle P. C. was a jeweler, not in competition with Cartier or Tiffany, but, nevertheless, a jeweler. Across the front window of his small jewelry store in Lonaconing was a sign that read P C — and a six-inch slash of green paint. He just happened to drop by every Sunday always wearing a high, stiff white collar, a black suit, probably the only one he owned. As soon as he arrived and settled himself, he’d take out his gold pocket watch, check the time, and insist that I play “Over the Waves” on the upright, Kingsbury, cherry piano. Every Sunday I told Uncle P. C. (my mother’s uncle not mine) that I didn’t know this selection so he listened to some other piece. I hated this Sunday ritual, but he lured me on with a promise of a diamond ring for my eighteenth birthday and a larger one each following year. I did get one diamond, but it was so small that I would have had to live hundreds of years before anybody would have noticed. He was an uninvited Sunday-after-Sunday supper guest, but he was family, and I can still catch a glimpse of this old man who sat quiet, smiling, almost uncommunicative, within the shadow of my mother who could say without hesitation, “Oh, hell’s fire, here comes Uncle Pete,” and then meet him at the door with tenderness and sadness.
~ Continue ~