Friday, March 30, 2012


Summer was a dilemma back there, back in the narrow passageways of southwestern Pennsylvania. I could never decide if I wanted a breeze or not. With all the growing green, humidity was the common denominator of every day, except for the blessed day or two when a thunderstorm swept through, followed by a good strong wind and a cloudless sky.  On those days the music from Jefferson Swim Club carried all the way up to Gill Hall Road.  But most often it was the kind of humid air that stuck to your skin and held everything still.  If there were a breeze to refresh the skin, then it brought the stench of US Steel's Clairton Works over to Pleasant Hills, the smell traveling low like a twin engine crop duster, dropping the stench of molten coal into the valleys and hollows of our hometown.

The summer after I turned 19 I came back home with a diamond on my left hand.  My first time back after my first time gone.  The throbbing of my heart made that space and time a blur in my memory now, but I do remember clearing off one of the twin beds in the Garden Apartments, a place I had never called home because Mom and Libby moved just after I left for BYU. But wherever Mom is becomes home, and I felt happy to be there, excited for the future with my husband-to-be, and sweetly torn between the girl I had been and the woman I was becoming. 

Dave clerked in a law firm, Thorpe Reed, I believe, that whole summer, except for the week or so we spent honeymooning on Mackinac Island, MI.  In late April I drove down to Clairton Steel Works and applied for a job in their college summer work program.  They called me back for an interview, and so I drove through the giant chain link gate, around the perpetual pile of coal and the guard station to the human resources office.  Dressed in my good grey pantsuit and heels, hair freshly washed and mascara applied.  Wearing those heels made my hips sway from side to side and I felt strangely feminine striding through this masculine place, though the femininity, as I recall it, was weirdly situated in the stench of steel making, like I was that niece of Hermann Munster who was the oddball because she was normal.

The stark environment of the office made me feel like I was waiting for the principal…off-white linoleum floors with glitter interspersed and waxy yellowed edges all around the perimeter. Blank off-white walls with brown paneling coming halfway up, a small metal strip edging the top, a photo of the batteries and smokestacks framed in fake-wood K-Mart fashion, hanging off center.  I sat in the chrome legged row of chairs until they called my name.  Back behind the long steel topped counter I was shown into a cubby hole of an office; one desk, two chairs, a balding man in a short-sleeved off-white shirt and a tie. There was no "white" in Clairton.
He hired me right off.  Few were chosen.  Many were called, but few were chosen and I felt decidedly fulfilled and mature as I shook his hand and he handed me papers to fill out.  I told him my brother had worked one summer at the mill.  He looked at my application and mumbled…”Hansen…Hansen…Hmmm…Did your brother work here not too long ago?”  I answered “Yes, maybe four years before.”  He stroked his chin as he stared at the paper. Looking up he caught my eye, and with a look of semi-recognition he announced, “You’re rich.”

 “I’m what?” I answered, in that dumb teenager back of the throat voice that belied my classy high heeled dress. “You’re rich,” he repeated, “With a mother like yours, you’re rich.” 

“You know my mother?”  My mind raced like one of those flowering fireworks that spins on the asphalt, bouncing haphazardly.  How in the world would my mother know this guy?

“I do not know your mother, but I know that you are lucky to have her.”  He went on to explain that in the 25 years that he had been hiring young people to work at the mill for the summer, only once had anyone ever called to thank him for a job.  “If your brother’s name is George Hansen, then that person was your mother.  She called to thank me for hiring her son, because he was earning money for a mission for your church.”  He looked me straight in the eye, lifted his hand and took mine to shake it, then placed his other hand over both in a fatherly sort of way and again repeated, “You’re rich.”

I worked on the batteries that summer.  2,500 degree ovens that turned coal into coke and turned fat into muscle so that my wedding dress looked rather smart.  My legs became strong, my determination tempered, my morals solidified.  I earned $8 an hour, far more than any other job I could have had that summer, plus time and a half on holidays and graveyard shifts that rolled around every third week.  More money than I had ever made in that chunk of time. 

The steel mill in Clairton is closed now.  Not even a whisper of a belch comes from her silent belly.  The money I earned is long spent and forgotten.  But my mother sleeps in her bed just up the road from me now, curled on her side, her white hair laying against her deep red pillowcase.  I can almost hear her breathing; slow, steady inhale and a small puff of an exhale. 

I am rich. 


  1. Thank you sister for taking me home! What a gift you give us. Love you. Ps. I can still smell those clothes we washed after you came home from work...only smell that came anywhere close were michaels uniforms when stationed aboard the Enterprise. Yes indeed, we are rich.

  2. Made a comment. Said it was published. CheckEd back 2 hours later. It has disappeared. Oh well.

  3. Rich indeed! And aren't we fortunate to have had her love and guidance, tender and tough, all these many years. I must remember to thank her again when she wakes in the morning. And thank you for the gentle reminder. Love you. S.

  4. oh, that gram. she's an amazing woman and you tell the stories of her life beautifully.

    a nice morning pick me up. now i'm off to try to be the kind of mother gram is.

  5. I am on my knees tonight telling our Heavenly Father Thank You for our mom and the example she set for all of us, and Thank You for your gift that you are so willing to share with all of us.

    We have two places that are "Up the hill and down the road to Home."

  6. How I hope that someday, my children will write something this beautiful about me. I won't have earned it - but I can always hope that somehow I'll stumble into myself then and find out I had done some things right. I love that the man told you these things. And you made me remember the smell of the Newark Purina plant - we'd pass by it on the freeway sometimes. Not a steel mill, but close enough.