Chasing Trains

In Memory of Dad …

I remember “chasing trains” with Dad when we were kids. I was too small to remember Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia, but I’ve seen photos of my brother Jeff and me wearing funny hats. I do remember visiting railroads closer to home when I was older — Strasburg Railroad and the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe.

Dad’s snapshot of Jeff and me at Cass
Dad with me and sister Chris in Jim Thorpe

Riding a steam train was exciting as a kid, but obviously for Dad too, as he never lost his childlike wonder about trains. In fact, I imagine that one of the reasons Dad wanted to work at Ted Black Advertising was its proximity to the railroad tracks used by the Lebanon Valley branch of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

As a child, I remember Dad taking me along to his office in that old house on North Fifth Street when he had to catch up on work. On one occasion when Dad was developing his photographs in the basement darkroom, I became uneasy drawing alone in the muffled quiet of the conference room — I felt some sort of presence so was sure that someone else was in the house with us! Dad then shared the story of the ghost who could be heard wandering the house late at night, watching for the Reading Railroad’s steam locomotives that no longer ran on the tracks below the house. The ghostly inhabitant that Dad reported hearing when working those late nights was consummate “railroad man” William Dechant, who worked on that railroad in the 1880s and later built that house alongside the railroad tracks. I think my Dad would have enjoyed knowing him!

A Reading Company locomotive
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Most of my genealogy research has been focused on my mother’s family. But my father was hospitalized last week and has already been moved to a hospice-like unit in the hospital, so I’m thinking a lot about his life, his passion for trains and restoring old MGs, and his family going back generations, such as the great-grandparents and other relatives that I never knew from Maine to Florida (truly an East Coast family).

Besides the anticipatory grief that I already feel, which is difficult enough, I feel like there are so many more family stories that I will never hear. I’ve been looking at old photos (to create a scrapbook), and I found a faded note written in crayon to my father (at what age I cannot recall), which reminded me how watchful and protective I felt towards my parents:

Even in the hospital room with my now 85-year-old father, I still feel myself being overly vigilant, as if I could protect him from what’s coming.

Our hospital visits aren’t all tears and worry, however. We’ve had some laughs with my sister and cousin. We reminisced, and at some point I plan to write an essay about one of my Dad’s stories.

Looking back on some happy memories …

Fun with Dad, 1970s
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Silver Bells

I’m writing Christmas cards while rewatching the film, Carol, on Netflix. It’s not a Christmas movie, but takes place around Christmas. (I’m actually not a fan of Christmas movies but do enjoy movies with that holiday as a backdrop.) While the film is a beautiful depiction of a forbidden love affair between two women in the 1950s, it speaks to me for another reason. The film has a strong sense of time and place. The younger woman works in a department store, the kind my grandmother shopped in when I was a child. In the film, the women take a trip together and stay in roadside motels along the way and in a luxury hotel in Chicago. The older woman’s white suitcases even remind me of those my mother owned, which were probably a wedding gift.

During one scene in the film, the Christmas song ‘Silver Bells’ plays on the radio. The first time I watched this scene, in the movie theater, I felt an overwhelming sense of longing for the Christmases of my childhood and missed my mother terribly. Mom made Christmas so special. I remember sitting in our living room one night just before Christmas … the room was decorated to perfection, as always. The lights were low. Candles were lit and had a pine scent (or maybe that was the tree). A Christmas album was playing. It felt so cozy and warm. I just sat there alone on the sofa and absorbed it all — the twinkling lights and the Christmas smell and the music — and I wanted time to stop. In fact, it felt like time had stopped for me. It was an idyllic moment. I felt happy.

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The expression “in the midst of life we are in death” (from a Gregorian chant that was translated into English as part of the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer) is commonly read at funerals. While we all encounter death throughout our lives, death has figured prominently in my psyche. I’ve been both obsessed with – and terrified of – death. I love Gothic fiction. I’m fascinated by spiritualism. I love old cemeteries. Halloween is my favorite holiday, which I still celebrate. My favorite television series is Six Feet Under.

I’d never really thought about why I hold such a morbid fascination with death. But through journaling and sharing stories, I discovered that I had many encounters with death when I was younger. Although this blog is devoted to my family history, I’d like to share some of my own personal history, as it connects to my family’s history and the broader history of the city and the world in which I grew up and grew into adulthood.

I was born in 1968, a year of great upheaval and violence in the United States. While my childhood felt mostly safe and secure, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in a quiet suburb where I had freedom to play and explore, I suffered from anxiety starting around age 3. I had two significant childhood dreams about death. As I got older, I became afraid of losing my parents (especially my mother), of nuclear annihilation, and of my grandmother’s increasingly dangerous urban neighborhood. When I was a teen and a social outcast in high school, I also suffered from depression, a darkness that felt comfortable.

When I was in junior high school, my best friend’s father became ill with cancer, and he died in 1982, just before my 14th birthday, which was my first exposure to the death of someone I knew. My friend took care of him in their home, as her mother had been institutionalized when she was a child, and her older sister never seemed to be around. Her father was always there in the background, ghostly pale and sick from the treatments. After her father died, I lost my best friend as well, as she went to live with her grandmother in the country. Our friendship continued of course, but it wasn’t the same.

From 1986 to 1988, death came closer to home, while major world events dominated the news. When I was a senior in high school, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt even more distant from my classmates and friends, who talked about parties and boyfriends, so I withdrew further. In the same year, two tragedies were seared into our collective memory – the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986, shortly after my 18th birthday, and the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, shortly before my sister’s 15th birthday.

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Hungarian ancestry

I am continuing my online genealogy research sporadically. I recently discovered a new branch of our family tree. My 2nd great-grandfather on my mother’s German side of the family, Paul Schneidenwind, married a woman of Hungarian descent, Julia Straubhauer, whose Hungarian ancestors (Straubhaar) came from Bács-Bodrog County in Hungary. They hailed from the villages of Futog/Futak and Prigrevica, which are now part of Serbia thanks to those many border changes over the centuries.

So, I have more ancestors from the Austro-Hungarian Empire than I knew just a few weeks ago, as my Polish great-grandparents (also on my mother’s side) lived in the Austrian Partition of Poland until the 1890s. Before Austria-Hungary existed, my 4th great-grandfather lived through the Revolutions of 1848. Now I’m even more curious about European history of the 18th and 19th centuries.


One of my favorite films is Gosford Park by the late director Robert Altman. The film is set in England in 1932, between the wars. In that film, actor Jeremy Northam plays the real-life Ivor Novello, and Novello’s 1922 song, The Land of Might-Have-Been, beautifully performed by Northam, perfectly captured the nostalgia and longing that I often feel but cannot always place (“love grows never old nor tired”). That song may refer to the collective loss of so many during World War I, but it feels timeless.

It may be obvious that one of my favorite time periods is the 1920s and 1930s. So it’s not surprising that one of my favorite novels is Atonement by Ian McEwan — the first part of the book, which is also set in England, takes place in 1935. [Spoiler alert] I loved the ending of the book, when the protagonist, Briony, returns to her childhood home, which is now a hotel, for a family reunion. I loved that ending because of my own desire to connect with my past, my family’s past (including my grandmother’s youth in the 20s and 30s), and my hometown. It was emotionally satisfying to read.

The longing for home, my longing for the past (not just the personal or familial but the larger historical past) and a certain idealized way of life, are common themes in my life, and my memoir may focus more on the idea of home — what home means to me and what it meant to my late mother and grandmother. My grandmother’s home was one of the most significant places of my childhood, and I’ve already started delving into its history.

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My Wedding

In October 2018, Manavendra and I were married in Reading, Pennsylvania. Our ceremony was held at the Reading Public Museum, and the reception followed at Stirling Guest Hotel. The museum was a meaningful location for me, as my parents had their wedding photos taken in the gardens outside the museum in April 1967. Unfortunately, it rained on my wedding day, so we could not recreate their romantic stroll in Trudy’s Garden 50+ years later, and of course I was saddened that my late mother could not be present on my wedding day. Nevertheless, it was a joyful and memorable occasion. Having the wedding in my hometown was the right decision!

My parents in 1967, strolling through the gardens of the Museum:MomDad19670415WeddingWalkRPM

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Polish-Americans in Reading, PA

I remember my maternal grandmother telling me about growing up in a Polish neighborhood in her hometown of Reading, PA. I recall hearing about a Polish festival and participants (including my mother?) dancing the polka. What was it like to be part of such a community?

I read a bit about the Polish immigrant population in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, so I knew about their existence in Pennsylvania (aside from my own family of course). However, I wanted to learn all I could about Reading’s Polish-American community, but until now, I hadn’t found any information …

A reference in an annotated bibliography (The Peoples of Pennsylvania) finally provided some historical evidence of a Polish-American community in Reading in the early 20th century, although I do not know its size. A newspaper was published for that community, starting in 1909, named Gazeta Readingska:

Both the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the State Library of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg have this newspaper, so research trips to access their collections are planned for sometime in 2019 (and who knows what else I’d find?). The newspaper may be in Polish, but I still want to see it!

Kolanko or Kolansko or Kolano

In 2017, I hit a brick wall when trying to trace the Polish ancestry of my maternal great-grandmother (Agata Kolanko). I have her parents’ names and birthplace, but not much else. However, thanks to FamilySearch, I found passenger tickets for ships bound for America for a Kolansko and a Kolano in the early 20th century. Both were from Austrian Poland, as was my great-grandmother, and since the names are similar, they may have been related.

The ticket from 1903 belonging to Josef Kolansko:

Josef Kolansko_Austria-Polish_1903 copy

The ticket from 1912 belonging to Stanislaw Kolano (Kalano?):

Stanislaw Kalano Kolano ship ticket 1912 copy

A great find! Both arrived in the port of Philadelphia, as my great-grandmother had in 1899. (I enjoy the Philly connection, as I lived there after college and through grad school, and I still feel some emotional ties to that city.)

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