Every year, following the annual ordeal of reducing the mountain of mulch dumped in our driveway, I dutifully wash down the wheelbarrow and the shovel we roll out every spring to accomplish that task. Each time, I carefully rub a coating of oil on the shovel, least it rust during its long annual sleep. In the process of caressing it, memories of my mother flood in.

She was born in the Panther Valley in Schuylkill County, where much of the anthracite coal was mined that powered the industrial revolution in this county. Millions were made by a few from this extractive industry. To be fair, the history of the Panther Valley and of coal mining throughout NE PA is very complex and not totally a case of rich vs. poor. Still, by the time she was of age, during the depression, things had deteriorated to the point where she had to be out picking coal off the culm banks to help heat her family’s home.

She used that shovel as the exclusive tender of the coal fire in the homes where I grew up. Pop was working and she had life-long expertise in maintaining the thin, even bed that anthracite requires to burn efficiently. Inheriting it after she passed away, I have used that shovel for years, always carefully filing down the rough edges, conserving the steel and admiring the patina of the wooden handle. And with each touch I feel a strong connection to my mother.

Likewise, there is a portrait of my father on the wall of my basement workshop. It was done by a noted Lancaster artist, likely in appreciation for how he may have helped her in his estate planning role as a banker. But his true love was woodworking. It had been sitting around for years until I realized that I wanted him to look out on the wonderful space I’ve created for my own manual-arts pursuits.

Then there are the tools I inherited from him. Many of them were his grandfather’s, dating to the 19th Century. I always pause for a moment when I pick one of them up. There is something magical, some type of generational continuity, that flows from running my hands over the handle of a file or a saw, knowing that several generations have also touched that surface.

Ditto for my sister, the very first female clockmaker graduate of the fabled Bowman Technical School in Lancaster. Also a talented musician, and gay, she had to flee the Lancaster Country of the early 70’s for the acceptance of more liberal Vermont. It was there that I had to travel, in the middle of one of the coldest, snowiest winters on recent record, to sort out the leavings of her untimely, and as yet unexplained, death. I managed to reserve some tools from her clock shop, before allowing the auction people to descend, and I have the same reaction of remembrance when using one of them that I do to my great-grandfather’s things.

For someone who is at heart a scientist, that is, someone who relies on empirical evidence as the basis of existence, I’m intrigued by these emotional connections with people long gone. But there is so much to absolute reality that is not yet understood. We can sometimes feel it, but we can’t quantify it. Those true secrets lie within us, and my feelings of connection, those touchstones, simply hint at what we are yet to discover.

©2023, David B Bucher

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