The Hills are Alive, essay by Anna Lea Jancewicz

Yeah, every­body has a dead grand­moth­er sto­ry. They’re not sexy and nobody’s buy­ing. But this sto­ry is mine, and it’s not so much about the woman as it is about the place. I’m from a lit­tle coal town, McAdoo, in North­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia. A place where peo­ple still use clothes­lines, and it has noth­ing to do with being green. A place where wed­dings and fam­i­ly reunions mean at least a fist fight, and maybe one of Aunt Vera’s boys piss­ing in somebody’s car to teach them a les­son. A place where it’s hard to say whose sin will draw the nas­ti­est whis­pers, the cousin who’s sus­pect­ed of covert abor­tions, or the cousin who had the gall to earn a PhD. A place where aunts will still rec­om­mend spik­ing a baby’s bot­tle with Karo syrup, and stare slack jawed when you reveal that all of your chil­dren made it through infan­cy with­out ever touch­ing lips to a rub­ber nip­ple. A place where a cousin can snarl about all the ille­gal Puer­to Ricans and not under­stand why you burst into laugh­ter and shake your head. A place where uncles cap­ture snakes from inside hous­es in paper gro­cery sacks, where a black bear might just amble out of the strip­pins, where great-grand­fa­thers sit with Phillies base­ball games on their tran­sis­tor radios eat­ing toma­to and oleo sand­wich­es before they die of black lung and are buried in their Knights of Colum­bus uni­forms, swords by their sides. A place where Grannies yell at kids in words that are not Eng­lish, and the onion domes of Byzan­tine church­es rise once-resplen­dent in once-gold­en paint above streets crammed with clap­board hous­es and Amer­i­can flags. 

Because this is Appalachia, but this isn’t the Appalachia you think of, with blue­grass and corn­bread and kids named Bil­ly Bob. This is where kids are named Stan­ley, and you can’t pro­nounce their last names, what with the sz’s and cz’s and w’s that sound like v’s. And the Stan­leys all say youse guys. This is the Appalachia where grand­moth­ers don’t flinch to say cock­suck­er in front of you when you’re lit­tle enough to only pic­ture an awk­ward sit­u­a­tion for a chick­en, but Protes­tant is whis­pered, a dirty word. This is the Appalachia where you vaca­tion Down The Shore, and pep­pers are man­gos and you sit on your dupa and shut your trap for two-tree min­utes now, hen­na?

The colos­sal maw of an aban­doned strip mine yawned behind my grand­par­ents’ house, the house that my Pop­pop built him­self, just down the big back lawn and across the alley from the loom­ing house that he was born in, the house that my Granny and Grand­pap lived in until they died, where Granny’s par­ents had been laid out for their home-funer­als, back when such a thing was what was done. My sec­ond cousins lived in one half of that house, and the youngest was just my age. The sum­mer they final­ly paved that alley, she and I got in a fight, each of us on either side of the cool­ing asphalt, and one of us hit the oth­er in the fore­head with a well-pitched rock. I can nev­er remem­ber which one of us threw the rock and which one of us bled. We were that close. When she got knocked up at fif­teen, I thought Well hell, I can’t judge. There but for the grace of God and my par­ents’ trusty pick-up truck go I.

Because my mom and dad got out, had packed up every­thing we owned and moved us, pick-up truck­load by pick-up truck­load, to Vir­ginia in 1979. I was four. The world had been all of a cou­ple miles squared, and every per­son I’d ever seen had known my name, known my fam­i­ly. I’d thought black peo­ple were only on TV. But you’ve heard the Bil­ly Joel song, so you know that part of the sto­ry. The coal was gone, the fac­to­ries were clos­ing. “It’s get­ting very hard to stay…”

But back I came, each sum­mer wowed by the hori­zon appliquéd with ghosty blue sil­hou­ettes of moun­tain tops, back to this place that seemed on one hand burst­ing with mag­ic and wild­ness, and on the oth­er just plain back­ward. Down at the bot­tom of Logan Street, behind Poppop’s house, there was the Shit Crick, into which all the borough’s raw sewage was emp­tied. There were no big box stores, no fast food restau­rants. We’d get on the high­way in Poppop’s big green Oldsmo­bile, cruise-con­trol it to the Frackville Mall for that. I’d perch on the arm­rest beside my grand­fa­ther as he sang Sina­tra, keep­ing my eyes peeled to catch sight of the gold­en arch­es high atop the hill as the mall came into view. Or we’d wind down the moun­tain to Walt’s Dri­ve-In for soft serve ice cream cones, watch golfers on the dri­ving range behind, bring back a CMP sun­dae for Nan­ny. Her favorite, chocolate/marsh mellow/peanuts. What McAdoo had was the fire­house, with booze at night. An Ital­ian place, for pitza, the kind that drips orange grease to bleed through stacked paper plates and needs to be fold­ed in half to fit in your mouth. An inex­pert­ly hand-paint­ed sign nailed up crooked­ly out­side somebody’s door, adver­tis­ing ETHNIC FOOD, and that means piero­hi, halup­ki, halush­ki. There was a roller rink, but that was closed down every sum­mer, or maybe just closed down for good. 

My cousin and I roamed, played all the make-believe games. We watched Hatchy Milatchy on black and white TV, and put on dance shows for Aunt Peg­gy when she came home from work­ing at the Kmart in Hazel­ton, and dressed up in Granny Palmer’s old hand­made floor-length slips and her oth­er acces­sories, antique hand­bags and scarves, that my Nan­ny still had saved in a trunk. We picked Queen Anne’s Lace and put the flow­ers in glass­es of water and food col­or­ing, watched the blooms turn col­ors. We argued over which celebri­ties we’d mar­ry, we argued over which of her teenage sis­ters’ boyfriends was the cutest, and when we got a lit­tle old­er we’d skulk in alleys and sneak cig­a­rettes and sing Guns N’ Roses. 

These were my sum­mers, until Nan­ny got sick.


It’s a few days after my four­teenth birth­day, and I’m stand­ing in the Decem­ber rain, strad­dling one of my cousins’ old ten speed bikes, watch­ing some strangers dump back­hoe shov­el­fuls of cold wet dirt on top of my grandmother’s cof­fin. Nan­ny is down in that hole, not wear­ing the col­or­ful poly­ester pantsuit she asked to be buried in. She’s wear­ing the mint green gown that she wore for one of the twins’ wed­dings. They said what she want­ed was tacky. I went back to the house with every­body else after the funer­al, but they were all eat­ing and talk­ing, and I didn’t feel like doing either. I came back, by myself, to watch this.

There are sev­er­al acres of ceme­tery out here on the edge of town, butting up to the rail­road tracks, before you cross over to the long road through the woods where wild huck­le­ber­ries grow in sum­mer, where cold, cold water bub­bles up from moun­tain springs, the road that leads out past the cig­ar fac­to­ry, over to Tresck­ow, where both my aunts live. Chain link and crum­bling stone walls sep­a­rate sundry grave­yards that belong to dif­fer­ent church­es, fences that keep the dead Poles from the dead Ital­ians, the dead Irish from the dead Slo­vaks, the dead Rusyns from the dead Hun­gar­i­ans. I look out and see a wide expanse of gran­ite head­stones jut­ting from the var­ie­gat­ed drab greens, browns, yel­lows of grass that’s been frost­bit­ten. Look­ing back toward town, I see the slop­ing streets crowd­ed with clap­board hous­es, and the squalid onion spire of St. Mary’s against the low gray clouds.


She hadn’t been my favorite. My Pop­pop was ded­i­cat­ed to spoil­ing me, sneak­ing me sug­ary cere­als in tiny box­es and buy­ing me cheap toys at the IGA. She was ded­i­cat­ed to tough love, mak­ing me spend the whole sum­mer writ­ing out my mul­ti­pli­ca­tion tables, and telling me that wear­ing those tight jeans like my cousin did would give me crotch-rot. But then she got sick. Real­ly sick. She had at least two kinds of can­cer at the start, one of which required bed rest, the oth­er of which was best man­aged with an active lifestyle. We would walk two miles every morn­ing, in a big loop, very slow­ly, very care­ful­ly, and then she would spend the after­noon in her reclin­ing chair. I spent a lot of time with her. We talked a lot, like we nev­er had before.

She told me sto­ries. Her toes curled up girl­ish­ly, and she rubbed her feet togeth­er as she told them. Sto­ries about drink­ing fresh hot milk from the goats her par­ents had kept in their yard over on Jack­son Street. Sto­ries about her father Wasyl com­ing to Amer­i­ca from Rus­sia, how the coal com­pa­ny owned him, how he nev­er real­ly learned Eng­lish. Sto­ries about dat­ing my grand­fa­ther, illus­trat­ed by black and white pho­tos held into the albums with those lit­tle paste-on cor­ner frames; pic­tures of Pop­pop with slicked-back hair, in white tee shirts and blue jeans, look­ing like Mar­lon Bran­do, her by his side in bob­by socks, the cap­tions call­ing her Katie when I’d nev­er heard any­body call her any­thing but Kath­leen or maybe a few times Kathy. Sto­ries about my moth­er when she was lit­tle, about how she final­ly got so tired of wash­ing and brush­ing and iron­ing my mother’s hair that she one day sur­prised her by lop­ping it off with a sly pair of scis­sors after her bath; about how she got so sick of my moth­er sneak­ing out of the house with her bell-bot­tom jeans rolled up beneath her school skirt, those hip­pie jeans embroi­dered with a big pair of hands grab­bing the ass cheeks, that she stole them and burned them in the fur­nace. Sto­ries about nurs­ing school, work­ing at the hos­pi­tal, trav­el­ing on her cruis­es. The sto­ry of when I was born, two months ear­ly, tiny but strong, and she was there in her crisp white uni­form to assist Dr. Lee with the delivery.

But most of all, she liked to tell me about her favorite movie.

I’d nev­er seen it, The Sound of Music. We nev­er watched it togeth­er. It was the mid 1980’s of course, and my grand­moth­er didn’t own a VCR. The idea of pop­ping a tape in and watch­ing a movie when­ev­er you want­ed to was still an absurd exoti­cism. But this was even bet­ter. She recalled the plot for me a thou­sand times over. She described the char­ac­ters, recit­ed dia­logue, sang the songs. I felt like I knew the whole movie by heart. It made her so hap­py, even when she was exhaust­ed and strug­gling, even when she was so bent that she couldn’t lie in the bed any­more and had to spend all her time in that brown reclin­ing chair. She died in that chair.

We’d come up to vis­it for Christ­mas. My birth­day is the day after. I heard her the night before, up all night with my moth­er by her side, beg­ging my moth­er to help her kill her­self. Ask­ing for her sewing scis­sors, as if she’d be able to do the job with them. She told my moth­er that she could see her par­ents, stand­ing in the hall­way out­side her bed­room door, wait­ing for her. Then in the morn­ing, on the day I turned four­teen, she took one last gur­gling, labored breath. She was 54 years old. 


The rain has soaked through my clothes and I am freez­ing. The grave is filled and I’m alone here, the work­men are gone and it’s get­ting dark. I ped­al back up to the Slo­vak church, and I slip inside. The doors have nev­er been locked, day or night, any time I’ve tried them. That would nev­er hap­pen in the city where I live. But I’ve come here a lot, this is famil­iar. I kneel in front of the paint­ed plas­ter Blessed Moth­er in the dim and qui­et. Her eyes are like anthracite slag. I light one of the votive can­dles, add one more flick­er­ing flame to the field of squat red glass cylin­ders. I reach deep down into the pock­et of my jeans, and I pull out my rosary beads.


I’m sure I’ve been gone a long time, but nobody seems to have noticed. Most of my rel­a­tives have got­ten pret­ty drunk, even the ones for which it takes a hell of a lot. As I walk in, I hear an aunt say She held out for Christ­mas, she held out so she wouldn’t ruin Christ­mas for every­body. My Pop­pop turns his head slow­ly, slurs, one thick fin­ger point­ed at my chest, She died on your birth­day, so you can nev­er for­get her. 

I change into warm, dry clothes. I ghost past them, between them, eat a lit­tle frost­ing from my cake; it’s still in the fridge, pris­tine, with the plas­tic bal­le­ri­na on top. I go into my grandmother’s bed­room; nobody wants to be in there. I shut the door and curl up in the dark, in her chair. My hair is still damp. I’m remem­ber­ing when I was scared to sleep in the dark, in this room, and she told me The dark is noth­ing to be afraid of. God made the dark so that every body and every thing can rest.

I’m sob­bing now, chok­ing and heaving. 

And when I’m done, I breathe deeply. I rub the brown velour uphol­stery on the arms of her chair. I notice the remote con­trol for the tele­vi­sion on her bed­side table, just where she must have left it last. It’s bare­ly vis­i­ble in the dark, but it some­how catch­es my eye. I sigh, and I pick it up. My fin­ger touch­es the pow­er but­ton, and there it is. In Tech­ni­col­or. Julie Andrews, twirling around and around and around:

The hills are alive with the sound of music,

With songs they have sung for a thou­sand years…” 


My grand­moth­er left me her wed­ding ring when she died, she left it to me. My moth­er took it, said I couldn’t be trust­ed with it yet. My moth­er wore it on her own fin­ger, for years. As my birth­day approached, in 2004, she asked me if I want­ed any­thing spe­cial for turn­ing thir­ty. Yeah I said I want Nanny’s ring. She gave it up reluc­tant­ly, but now I wear it. It reminds me of where I’m from.

When peo­ple asked, I used to say Oh, from around Allen­town. Or maybe Do you know where Scran­ton is? Wilkes-Barre? But those answers are not quite true. So, you ask me now, ask me where I’m from. I’ll look at my fin­ger, and I’ll tell you:

Yeah, every­body has a dead grand­moth­er sto­ry. They’re not sexy and nobody’s buy­ing. But this sto­ry is mine, and it’s not so much about the woman as it is about the place. I’m from a lit­tle coal town, McAdoo…

Anna Lea Jancewicz lives in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, where she home­schools her chil­dren and haunts the pub­lic libraries. Her writ­ing has recent­ly appeared or is forth­com­ing at Bartle­by Snopes, The Cit­ron Review, the­New­erY­ork, Riv­et Jour­nal, and else­where. Yes, you CAN say Jancewicz: Yah­nt-SEV-ich. More at: http://​anna​jancewicz​.word​press​.com/



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5 Responses to The Hills are Alive, essay by Anna Lea Jancewicz

  1. Rachael Gallagher says:

    Very well writ­ten with amaz­ing descrip­tions of N Logan street and Mcadoo. Can I inquire as to what house was your grand­par­ents? My hus­band and I live at 17 N Logan Rear in the alley. Your last name is the same as the man whom my hus­band bought the house from in 2006. He told my hus­band that his mom lived here in our home and that she passed away in the house. When I read your sto­ry I was won­der­ing if our home was the one your grand­fa­ther built, or if it belonged to a fam­i­ly mem­ber of yours. We are research­ing the house and prop­er­ty and we would be so thank­ful if you could help us out with your detailed knowl­edge of the prop­er­ty or prop­er­ties. Thank you

  2. Leslie says:

    What a beau­ti­ful writ­ten and enlight­en­ing sto­ry as I nev­er knew of an Appalachia like this. I enjoyed it very much.

  3. Camille Ney-West says:

    Thanks so much for shar­ing this. Read­ing it, I was remind­ed of sum­mers "up home" My fam­i­ly is spread all over Schuylkill Coun­ty from Pine Grove, to Pottsville, Hegins, Val­ley View, and Llewellyn.

  4. Teresa Booher Brown says:

    Thank you. That was one of the most won­der­ful Granny sto­ries I have ever read. Again, thank you.

  5. Pingback: The Hills Are Alive at Fried Chicken and Coffee | Anna Lea Jancewicz

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