My family met in Pittsburgh last weekend for our annual get-together. Usually we find a lodge somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, but that drive of a few hours has been getting too hard for my father, just about to turn 92. I drove the Subaru (Eric had to fly to England at the last minute. No, it’s not like that – he loves my family). There was construction a lot of the way and I got sucked into Scranton thinking it would be an easy place to grab a coffee, so I’d already been driving about five hours when I saw a sign saying PA WILDS where we’d rented a house two years before. I still had three hours left to drive. I was listening to a not so good book, which wasn’t helping. If it had been good I’d have been fine with driving all the way to Ohio and beyond. I switched to local station WYEP — like WFMU in Jersey, FUV coming down into Manhattan from upstate, WXPN approaching Philly or WWOZ rolling into New Orleans, radio stations are my beacons.
I met up with everybody in an Italian restaurant on a steep hill across from a hospital. That describes pretty much the entire city of Pittsburgh right there. Oh, there were drawings of Steeler football heroes on the walls— again, that doesn’t narrow it down at all. We all shouted at each other over the din of an already noisy restaurant while my dad sat looking like he was in agony and my stepmother smiled valiantly.
We all went back to the B&B that my dad was treating everyone to — a turn of the century mansion on the North Side of Pittsburgh. The place was immense and lovely, with ensuite rooms for everyone. There was a Caribbean theme and it was a little incongruous to hear reggae music pulsing from speakers tucked along the tall ceilings in the common areas. Sometimes it’s a blessing that my dad can barely hear anymore.
My sister in law Karen and I picked my daughter Hazel up at the airport. When we got back my dad and his wife had retired for the night and the whiskey bottle was out. There was a piano. There was a steel drum. There were top hats. Full use was made of all of them until the innkeeper, a very nice guy, came in to say the hats were off limits.
The place had at one time been a Knights of Columbus Lodge. My room had a closet full of these big ceremonial robes. I had weird dreams and wished I’d drunk a little more whiskey. I woke early and when I looked on my phone for a coffee place, there was a new espresso bar literally across the street.
It didn’t seem fair. At every family get-together Eric has been a good sport and suffered through my loud, relentless family singing The Old Grey Mare and making him wear a monogrammed baseball hat.To help him survive ,we usually spend hours driving little country roads into ghost towns with nothing but a Walmart and a megachurch looking for a cafe with slight Christian overtones and the lone espresso machine in the county. Here was a shockingly professional, correct place mere feet from the front door of the inn.
We all had breakfast while the reggae played and everyone went off to do activities: thrift shopping, the Phipps Conservatory, more eating and drinking. Since I’d arrived, my family had been so nice to congratulate me on my book (what – you thought you’d get away with me not mentioning this thing? It’s like a friend who just had a baby, sorry, that kid is not going away any time soon!) My dad has been asking me about the book for years: why am I writing it exactly. Isn’t music hard enough. Is he in it? Why was I writing it again? Do I mention my mother? I’d even read him an excerpt a while back and he was surprised. “Why that was nice! I even laughed, it wasn’t bad at all!” I think he imagines me settling scores that I’m too old to even remember. Anyway, I think my main goal on this trip was to keep him at bay. Yes he would get a copy all in good time. (this was around when I posted my question on social media regarding my varying options in relation to my father. The answers were all incredibly astute and helpful and I still don’t have a clue what’s the best thing to do.)
More food and beverage was consumed at a restaurant overlooking the city. Growing up, Mount Washington was the place you went for special occasions: prom night, dinner with the family, maybe a wake. The view really is one of a kind. To get there, we passed a gravel quarry and a truck depot, then drove up a hill so steep we all squealed. That’s Pittsburgh: topography. A place you feel in your shins and the pit of your stomach.
The city looked stunning. The portions were huge. My dad still looked miserable, even though we all took turns coming to sit next to him, like a summer stock version of The Godfather: “I have a sentimental weakness for my children and I spoil them, as you can see. They talk when they should listen…”
More whiskey, steel drums and piano back at the inn. It was so nice to see everybody and I felt lucky to have such a great gang that all gets along. Just wished Eric was there to have a (shhh) go at the top hat.
My older brother John moved back to Pittsburgh some years ago, and has been conducting bike tours of the city every summer through a local bicycle shop. A couple of us got up early the next morning to take his tour. I felt like a tourist in a place I partly know and barely know. We rode along one side of the Monongahela River where growing up there’d been nothing but steel mills: flames leaping in the air and smoke everywhere. My brother explained the birth of the city from Revolutionary War times and I felt myself getting choked up: mostly pride in my brother’s storytelling abilities and his passion for history, but partly a pride in the place where I grew up. The strangers on the tour were tourists, visiting the city because they thought it would be fun and interesting. It was! We crossed a bridge called the Hot Metal Bridge and rode back down the other side of the river, eventually crossing the Smithfield Street bridge, down around the Point and into downtown. This place is wonderful, I thought. Even the jail looked attractive.
Back at the B & B, we ate and drank some more. We brought takeout into the mansion for dinner and my dad seemed happier. I read a little scene from my book to everybody and managed to get through without breaking down crying. My dad had gone to bed by then. I wanted to revise the book and incorporate a love letter to Pittsburgh but maybe the only way to move forward is to lay the past to rest.
Girl To City comes out October 8.