Mrs. Penney’s Diary

Years ago, when we were gutting the inside of the empty big house, I found a tiny notebook. Its black cover had script letters which read, 1948 diary, and I knew it was Mrs. Penney’s handwriting which filled each page inside. At the time, the pencil marks didn’t hold my attention for long; I had gleaned a few interesting facts about the farm, when I glanced through the faded pages, but entries were mostly about the weather, and some other people I didn’t know, ironing and potato hauling, and I was busy with one boy in diapers. So the diary was put aside in my bookshelf at home, 100 miles from Wellsboro. I certainly intended to someday bring it out again. Perhaps I would type up some of it for the historical society, or maybe to publish the diary of a farmwife, but it sat neglected for a long time.
This summer, I had a reason to open the glass door of the shelf and remove that diary to reread it. I was searching for verification of these two women who had unexpectedly appeared. One hot weekend morning, we were up at the farm, doing the things l like to do, in this instance shoveling dirt from an enormous pile, into wheelbarrows. We were filling some ruts in the lawn with the soil and were standing, shovels in hands, when two women drove their truck up the driveway, stopped and greeted us.
I eyed them askance, assuming that they were from a natural gas company, here to attempt to cajole me into allowing them to perform seismic testing on my land, for free. That had happened before and I was not in the mood to accommodate these pests. All summer, helicopters had flown VERY low over our land, circling and re-circling low over the house, presumably to test our neighbors’ properties, and that intrusion was loud and disquieting. Now they were again approaching us, I supposed.
A slim, attractive woman approached, smiling, and pointing to the house, the big Penney house in front of me. I listened as she offered surprising news, completely unrelated to gas drilling: she, Evelyn, had lived in that house. I smiled but was doubtful. The Penneys had lived there since the 1930s or ‘40s and had had no children. This 60 year-old woman was too young to have been one of the Baldwin family who owned it before that. The younger woman walked around the back of the vehicle, as I scratched my head with my dirty glove and told Evelyn that the Penney’s had lived here. She chimed, “Oh, yes, Aunty Florence….”
Now that was Mrs. Penney’s name, and I asked, “Oh, are you one of Mrs. Penney’s nieces?” No, they explained that they had just called them Auntie and Uncle, because they lived with them. I wondered if this was some kind of con artist trick, you know where strangers befriend you and before you know it they have locked you in the basement and left with your credit cards, automobiles and personal information. It just didn’t quite match. Who were these women? The first one told me that her mother had been a war bride from France and I stared, confused and totally suspicious.
I calmly probed further, and out came the names: they had been Evelyn and Jocelyn Madison, and instantly it clicked! Stanley Madison had been an old man when I was a kid, but he would stop and visit my father and tell him endless stories about being a driver for a general in the war and living in our house and working for Mr. Penney as a farmhand. I hadn’t paid much attention to the stories, but now they dovetailed with those of these women who were standing in my driveway. They were his daughters and they had lived in our little house, and Mrs. Penney had loved them as an aunt. We chatted and exchanged addressed and promised to share copies of old photos, but I was still a little wary. Later I would vaguely remember sitting in Mrs. Penney’s living room with her telling my mother that there had been two little girls living in our house, just like Natalie and I were.

When we were back home on Sunday night, I pulled out the diary as quickly as I could and squinted at the faded writing. I was startled to see Mrs. Penney’s first note in 1948 being of the birth of Jocelyn. Evelyn had stayed with her during the days when her mother was in the hospital. It was all true. How strange. Here was documentation of these women’s girlhood, notes that an exhausted mother had no time to make herself. I read on and on and suddenly the people jumped out at me in ways I had never expected. Georgette must be their mother, I deduced; and what about Ruth Reamer’s wedding? It was 1948…that probably was Mrs. Ruth Harper’s wedding. I excitedly showed Tom my findings.
That world suddenly came alive for me; the weather seemed to matter to me; the icy roads, the news from the radio. There was a vague reference to a public health incident which is now so documented and familiar to me because of my air pollution class: the 1948 Donora Pollution episode. Many people died in this southwestern Pennsylvania steel town, due the respiratory issues resulting from smog (smoke and fog combined) collecting in a valley (due to a temperature inversion).
I am startled and excited by my findings. I called Jocelyn and told her that I wanted her to have the original diary, though I wanted to type up the diary first, to keep a copy. She was pleased. It is now on my list of things to finish this summer, and I am on February entries. (It cannot be scanned, as it is too faded.)
Another thing strikes me, almost coldly, though. As I read of the past, of Mrs. Penney thinking it was too cold (minus 12) to do laundry (to hang onto the line to dry) and then later her mentioning that she ironed, it is more than the temperature in the story that chills me. I realize, rather breathlessly, that she was spending her life in ironing and other seemingly mundane tasks.….Now, don’t get me wrong, I do my share of them, and I don’t mind them- I am one of those strange people who finds comfort in tedious household chores, really.. What shocks me is that I was reading her life years after it had passed her, and I wanted to somehow communicate to her, wanted to reach her, to tell her that she would be seventy years old soon and an old lady and near death when I would meet her (30 years later). That she should forget the ironing, the weather and everything else and live out her dreams! I felt a sense of urgency…and helplessness.
Then I wryly think of my own diary and how I tell of spending my weekends shoveling soil into ruts, for fun…There is a lesson in this, but what is it? Tom teased me by his answer: “The lesson is, ‘Mind your own business and lease the land so hubby doesn’t have to work at mundane tasks.’”

This Tuesday, I bought one of the few copies of the New York Times which can be found in this area, and brought it home for later perusal. Because Tuesday contains the weekly Science Times, our toxicology professor at UNDMJ had recommended (years ago) that we read it to keep abreast of the action which was occurring outside our realm of research. (Graduate students tend to be myopic!) While a student, I rarely had time for this endeavor, but as a working-at- home mother of two busy boys, I make the time to stay somewhat connected in the world of science, and reading the Tuesday Times on those days when I am at the grocery store early enough to grab a copy is one of those strategies.
Later that night I was surprised to see, before I even got to the Science page, was a front page article titled, Deadliest Danger Isn’t at the Rig but on the Road. It voiced concern about exhaustion faced by natural gas drilling workers, and according to author Ian Urbina, more than 300 oil and gas workers were killed in highway crashes over the past decade, the largest cause of fatalities in the industry. Mr. Urbina continued that the cause is “In part to the exemptions which allow the oil field truckers to work longer hours than drivers in most other industries”. The National Transportation and Safety Board strongly opposes these exemptions which were implemented in the 1990s.
As I watch hundreds of tank trucks pass on the now busy road on my formerly serene farm, I wonder who else besides the unfortunate workers are being or will be affected by this lax law. Certainly their devastated families are impacted beyond repair. How about the rest of the community, such as the people who have to extricate those dead bodies?
Recently, I became involved in my son’s cubscout pack. The other committee members are almost all firefighters or policemen, and sometimes I feel guilty about how much they are giving to this committee on top of the scout work, and how much I don’t when I race off to my farm to plant the kohlrabi and trim the hedge-by hand, I proudly add. Last week, sirens screamed past me as I worked in the Wellsboro garden on a sunny afternoon; it is now a common occurrence- likely off to some gas industry accident, I guessed. However, today, I think of those families who give to their community as firefighters and EMT volunteers. They are wrestled away from their families, soccer games and/or sleep. They aren’t being paid overtime rates for this generosity. How long will those volunteers be willing to tolerate this burden? Who will balk? I certainly would!
I wonder what I should do to assure myself that no sleepy driver will crash into my car as I go down the road. I wonder if Wellsboro will be tolerable as a summer home with all of the road noise. I wonder if I should do more than read the Tuesday Times.

A Reunion

I just returned from a reunion of sorts–the twenty-fifthanniversary of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI.rutgers.edu)–a joint vision of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where I earned my PhD ….. hmm …. several years ago.

Not only was it wonderful to reconnect with my old colleagues, there were many excellent speakers–big players in the fields of public health, toxicology and the like.  I was so happy to be back there, listening to a litany of the progress made in the field over the past twenty five years. When guest speaker, pediatrician Dr. Phil Landrigan of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, discussed lead (Pb) toxicity and the long fight to remove it from gasoline in cars, I realized how much we all benefited by the hard work of other scientists, many who are not remembered, but who worked with skill and precision, and a dedication to truth, for decades.

During the morning session, the topic of environmental health impacts of natural gas drilling and ‘fracking’ was raised by emeritus professor Dr. Bernard Goldstein of the University of Pittsburgh-School of Public Health.  Nothing specific was mentioned in his short lecture, but he indicated that there is work to be done. Though still on the outskirts of research myself, I hope soon to present some material my colleagues have produced … but scientific work is slow and unglamorous. One must be precise in designing experiments, in carrying them to fruition, and then in analyzing the data. It is challenging to take that much care, but it must be done. I only hope we obtain some valid answers before the 50th reunion roles around!

Scientific Research on Fracking and Air Emissions

A University of Colorado School of Public Health study shows air emissions near fracking sites may have serious health impacts.
Researchers show air pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for those living near natural gas drilling sites.

Just something to think about…

The Apple and the Tree

I have been thinking on the subject of habits …. not habitats, but habits, and why I (and other people) do what I (they) do. One of the accidental threads in my book was just that subject, though I didn’t realize it consciously, as I was writing.  My mother always said, “Look at the parents, dear.”  and I love the saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Really, I am beginning to realize that I do what my parents did, which (of course) is in no way any profound or surprising breakthrough in research on human behavior.  Still, it is rather startling to me, to discover this, for I was raised in the generation of women who were better educated and trained in careers than most of the women of my mother’s era.  We were going to be different; we were not just going to be housewives; we were going to do greater things than they, (at least in our plans!).

So, all the while thinking I was so different, I have instead adopted many of the habits of my parents. I spend long weekends at our cabin (though I now know I am wasting fossil fuels getting there and thus drive as infrequently as possible, at other times to atone for it), I eat meat at many dinners (though I fret and try to eat more plant protein, instead) and I clean up the litter along our roadsides (though I worry considerably about germs on the dirty garbage we collect and wear gloves).  I like to believe that these modifications which I have added are improvements on my parents’ lives, but truthfully, I do what I do because of what they did.  I wonder which habits I am passing along to my children… and will my sons improve them?

The Beginning

My memoir, Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage (Coffeetown Press, October 15, 2011), began as diary entries and e-mails, and as a way to learn the facts about gas drilling and untangle my feelings about the difficult ethical decision I was facing. I was offered a large sum of money that would be paid at the expense of the local environment and potentially by the health of the community, and while I initially refused to allow natural gas drilling on my land, I soon learned that my sacrifice might not protect either. As I researched the impacts and consulted other landowners, I discovered that they, too, had initially said no, but then ‘reconsidered, since all the neighbors were signing gas leases.’ It was a relief to learn that I was not alone in my dilemma.

But also, I simply felt compelled to write this story, and quickly, too, because it could be lost in light of new information that is now becoming  available. In hindsight, with facts spreading on a lighted table, decisions are easy and blame falls on those who don’t foresee outcomes. It’s not so easy to make wise choices when one is grappling with them.

I invite you to share your experiences about this issue and why you came to your own decisions, whatever they may be.