A journal of travels

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July 20th, 2009 · No Comments · Looking Homewards, Time and Place

Novelist Margaret Murray evokes a well-known place, envisioned in memory, in this excerpt from her upcoming novel, Dreamers.

I had my own dream and it began in Pittsburgh, the city where I was born and grew up.

What was it like to grow up then? Rivers and hills surrounded me.  Hills were everywhere, hills were Pittsburgh, hills and rivers and bridges crossing them, and the great green trees bowing beneath the haze of summer sunlight, the cobwebs and mazes of bare branched trees in winter, fronting a backdrop of smog and flames from the steel mills, still operating in the ’50s and ’60s. Pittsburgh housed all the neighborhoods of Europe, the Near East and Russia in miniature, one nationality predominant on each hill and each hollow, and you could find your own country from any one of 56 bridges.

When I ran beneath the old elm and maple trees of Schenley Park and Frick Park, I heard in the branches and fluttering leaves deep and sonorous echoes of pure joy, like the piano concertos of Brahms, or Wagner. Music ran along the roots of the trees, not so majestic or exciting as Beethoven, whom my father loved, but more like slow-burning Mahler. As for me, second generation Irish-American, I ran ignorant and free, madly, wildly over the grass. Magic happened here under the trees, the magic of good and evil. The good I could feel in the pull and spring of my legs, my outstretched arms, as I ran. The evil was very old and long before my time, lurking in the black holes in the hills where coal mines had been, but were now scars like dried blisters of deep sores boarded up, blighting forever the hillsides on both sides of the Allegheny Mountains.

My father loved Pittsburgh more than he loved me. He knew its history when it was Fort Duquesne and George Washington came here as a surveyor in the French and Indian War. He could describe the vagaries of Greek and Roman architecture on all the public buildings, columns and colonnades copied from Europe and paid for by steel barons. Dad knew about the rise of the steel mills, fights with the union workers, and, naturally, the ins and outs of the Irish politics. When he drove me places, he could point out where the Irish neighborhoods began and merged with the Italian, where the Polish ghettos by the river crossed the Lithuanian neighborhoods along the railroad tracks, and the Episcopalian bankers lived at pseudo-English estates in Sewickley and the North Hills. As he drove me along the rivers, he talked about where the robber baron millionaires of the 19th century, Carnegie and Mellon, lived and died. Before the French and Indian War and George Washington. Oh, he knew the rivers all right with their Indian names marking the time before the white men, the Monongahela cutting out the South Side and the Allegheny the North, both flowing into the Ohio at the Point. Dad knew the water high points and low, when the rivers flooded, how many barges went up and down in one year, and all the years since he was born in 1912 in Midland, a river town, too.

Yes, Dad knew all about Pittsburgh, but he never knew about me.

©Margaret Murray, 2009. Used with permission.  Margaret Murray is the author of the novel, Sundagger.net (WriteWords Press, 2008). This selection is from Murray’s upcoming novel, Dreamers, due in 2010.  She lives in Northern California.

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