Helen Swanson was a tough cookie.
She (my grandmother) and my mother did everything together for most of my mother’s childhood as Regina was an only child. Many times were good and exciting like shopping in the big city and taking the train to San Francisco to visit the adoring Aunts. There were many times when their relationship was tried as well. Helen could be stubborn and overbearing…and if you look for a definition of passive aggressive, it states: Helen Swanson McQuarrie. She and I were often at odds as I went through school and growing up. She didn’t like how I dressed, and she hated that I wanted to stack the cups in the cupboard. Stacking cups warranted a smack on the cheek for me, even. But she was terribly strong. I would call her fierce. She survived the Depression, made her own way as a secretary in Washington D.C between World Wars, and showed me every day that you don’t find your way in this world – you make it.
Helen grew up in Allegheny country. The far north of Pennsylvania in what is now the Allegheny National Forest. The thriving metropolis of Mt. Jewett (current population is about 910). But she was a city girl at heart, and like nearly all of her siblings before her, she left for the city life right after graduating high school. Few of that Swanson family stayed in the area. My mother came with Helen to visit the few relatives in the area when she was small, in about 1952, but that was the only trip ever made. Helen left small town life for adventure.
This year my mother and I decided to start a tradition of a trip with just the two of us each year. And to set of this annual event, we came back to where so many of our stories really began…Mt. Jewett. I had never even seen a picture of this place until a few weeks ago. Grandma Helen didn’t speak of it much – I didn’t even know this is where she grew up until I was about 10 or 12. But I can tell you that as soon as I got here I realized: I KNOW this place. I know it like I’ve always been here. And it knows me….we fit like cogs.
While we have been here, we have found headstones, snapped photos, and eaten the best chicken salad on the planet. I have been flooded with memories of Helen, and as I drive or walk through Mt, Jewett, I picture her as a girl in the same places: stopping for ice cream, running to school, making the trek to the Mt. Nebo Lutheran Church. I see her full of her future; not the woman I knew after dementia took it’s toll, but the young girl full of big city dreams. I see her blond hair bobbing as she skipped up the walk to the farm house. I hear her giggle with her school mates.
Visiting this town, for reasons outlined later, has moved me beyond words. It has given me more than I could have asked, without asking for anything in return. This town has taken my roots, and made them strong. This town has given me a home, even without an address.