All posts tagged “northumberland

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On Loss: William J. Engle

Pap at Cecelia's Wedding

It’s been a over a year since my grandfather, William J. Engle, passed away on February 14, 2013. He was 89 years old. I got caught up in my life before I really had the chance to write anything about his passing. My heart still stung with grief when my mother told me on a phone call on a cold but clear February morning. Two deaths in 6 months was too much for me to handle, too much for me to live with. I wanted to be numb, unaffected and so, I was.

Pap, Me and Gaby Engle

When I was 6, maybe 7, my parents and I went to Canada, where my grandparents owned a small cabin, pictured above. I was sitting in the kitchen, at the long dining table, eating breakfast. It was cold cereal with milk, probably something that turned the milk a pale pink or purple. I never finished the milk in the bowl after I ate my cereal; I disliked the little bits of cereal floating in the off-color milk. My grandfather gave me, a young child, a hard time about not finishing the milk. He was upset, repeating “She didn’t finish her milk. She should finish her milk.” I vaguely remember being ashamed and my parents being dismissive of his concerns. This interaction feels like a small but important detail that helped define my relationship to him.

I didn’t really know my grandfather very well and I know only the generally understood details of his life. He was a dairyman and milked 40 cows, everyday, twice a day by hand until the early 1980s. He cared for his children, lost both of his wives in his long life. I can conjure up memories of a quiet man from my earliest years. He was quiet, reserved until the end. He didn’t talk too much about his past but enjoyed his present while fishing, boating, hunting, building, fixing, tinkering. I didn’t see him very much in my teenage and adult years, as I was out in the world, away from the town I grew up in. I distanced myself from him because I wasn’t sure how to have a relationship with him. His life and my life felt very different from one another and I had no idea how to connect with him in any meaningful way.


 I realize now, this far from his death and living a much different life than I was a year ago, that I could’ve actually connected with him had I understood how he spent his life. I know he valued hard work. In the last year of his life, he expressed approval at my interest in agriculture. I would’ve liked to talk with him about his farm, his cows, his work.

I also realize that the one defining interaction that I had with him, regarding unfinished milk, wasn’t really about my personal habit. It was only until recently I understood why he was so bothered by that half a cup of milk poured down the drain that particular July morning. His life was defined by his work and so much of his work was milking cows. He didn’t own a modern dairy and he milked his cows by hand for so long, that half of cup of milk represented to him several minutes of his work day. He was insulted that someone could throw away his time like that.

I understand, finally. Every time I have cold cereal now, I finish the milk in the bowl, without hesitation.

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On Loss: Carol J. Skumanich


Carol J. Skumanich, my paternal grandmother, affectionately known to her children and grandchildren as Gaby, passed away on Friday August 3rd, 2012. My phone on silent, my life ticking along, I did not receive the news until 10:30 that evening when I returned my dad’s phone call. I want to say that I was shocked but I wasn’t. My grandmother had been ill, suffering from COPD and emphysema, for a very long time. Her immune system compromised, she was prone to pneumonia and other lung infections. She had been fighting for her life for so long and her quality of life, by the end, was quite compromised. I think she was tired of putting up the fight, tired of being resilient against her weakness. I don’t blame her. There is only so much one can put up with until one can’t anymore.

There are photographs, these photographs, that show her as a young woman. I hadn’t seen them prior to her passing. Upon seeing them for the first time, I was dumbstruck. Seeing her, young and light, with more years ahead of her than behind her, brought the reality of a life lived and lost to illness into sharp, crystal clear focus. It brought up so many questions. What dreams did she have at 18? Who did she want to become? Where did she think she was going to end up? I also noticed from the photographs, as they progressed through the years, is that I had forgotten that she used to go swimming, that she could walk up and down the stairs with ease. I forgot that she used be able to breathe and to enjoy the life that she had made for herself, that laughing didn’t cause her to cough, that she could go places without oxygen, that she could travel.

 GabyWeddingDressV PopandGabyGraduation

I do not love the glossing over of someone’s negative behaviors and traits after they have passed away. In ignoring this, it says nothing to acknowledge the intricacies of the people we love and cherish. It does not speak to the trials that life causes. It does a disservice to the dead by making us into angels and says nothing about the type of person one was, nothing about how one loves someone, despite their short-comings, their mistakes. Without recognizing her bad traits, I cannot fully appreciate her good ones.

In addition to being brilliant and funny, my grandmother was a difficult woman, with a wit and a tongue when directed in such a way, caused a deep sting to those who received it. She could be judgmental and was given to snobbery around things like class and race. She was prone to bouts of depression and anxiety. In those times, it was difficult to be around her. I worry now that I should’ve been more gracious, more understanding, more sympathetic to her sadness, her despair, especially since I have experienced so much of my own. My reasons are different than hers, surely, but the experience of isolation and fear similar.

Going home, going back into the valley that I was born and raised in until I was 12 years old, has a tendency to deeply emphasize a lot of my own pain and truths. My experience there is colored, marked by the fact that I knew at a young age that I didn’t belong there. The drive is long and the drive home for the funeral was one of the most difficult drives I have ever made. Given the circumstances of my life right now, where I am playing house with my partner and lack a career or direction, I have been feeling so painfully inadequate. I was worried about whether or not she was proud of me, if I had done anything at all worthwhile when she was alive. I fretted about what to say to people when they asked me what I was doing, with my fancy college degree and my life lived far away.

There is no one else in this world that greets me with the enthusiasm and joy that she did when I walked into her kitchen after being gone for a few months, exclaiming “Shelby!”, with an enormous smile on her face. She encouraged me, endlessly. She was one of my biggest cheerleaders, always enthusiastic to hear about the work I was making, to see the photographs I was producing, to hear what I had been up to. Growing up, she spoiled the shit out of me and I received a long string of awesome gifts from her. At 7, she gave me a purple snapshot camera (my first) and a bunch of film. At 9, the farting Ren doll, from the cartoon Ren and Stimpy, that drove my parents nuts. At 16, the woven blanket featuring Jim Morrison’s dramatic face and bare chest. At 21, a sewing machine for use at college. She was always generous and always excited to see the reaction to her gifts.

At her funeral, I lost count of the number of people that came up to me and told me how proud she was of me, about how, even when she was in the hospital, she talked about her three grandchildren constantly. I was gracious but overwhelmed at this and it was comforting to know she loved me, despite my shortcomings and my failure to live up to my own promise as an artist and as an adult. While I know that she loved her four children very much, I think her three grandchildren brought her much joy in a very different way. I suspect we functioned as beacons of light and youth and promise for her and I think she wanted to see us succeed and come into our own.

After being gone for three days for the funeral and experiencing such enormous sadness of my own and of others, coming back to my day to day life felt both utterly mundane and incredibly difficult. Doing the dishes and getting the mail felt so inconsequential to the enormous and insurmountable reality that she was gone. At three, four weeks out, it still feels that way but I do all of the things I need to do anyways because I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what else to do other than to move forward, to keep living the life that I have. I’m not even experiencing the worst of it. Because I do not live close to my family, her presence did not mark my day to day life as deeply as it had my aunts’, my uncles’ , my father’s, my cousins’. I cannot imagine the hole in their life right now.


When I first read my grandmother’s obituary, I was struck by how it breaks down her life so simply, into understated terms about how she spent her time and who her family was. She was so much more than the paragraphs suggest, then what the newsprint tells the reader. Her life, all 77 years of it, is only slightly reflected in those words. It does not tell of the details that made up her life, of the characteristics that I loved her for, that her family loved her for. It glosses over her laugh, her smile, her sense of humor. It passes by her fine, thin, age-spotted hands with long nails filed to a point; hands that knitted and sewed and cooked and comforted. It ignores the time spent at her kitchen table, in idle conversation about the world, about local news. It felt like it didn’t honor her in her complexity. I realize this is out of practicality; there is not enough space anywhere to convey what the dead mean to us after they are gone. There are not enough words, not enough paper, not enough space, not enough time, to say all of the ways in which the people we love imprint on our hearts, our minds and our lives. The best we can do is to honor them in our actions, keep them alive with stories and traditions, to live the life they would want us to live.

On the Surface of Memory.

While my work is images of the external world, it is very much about my internal world. I photograph places a lot of the time because I respond to them as suggestions of memories or out of nostalgia. I see my past reflected in the details of the world; they trigger a long string of sensory input that I long forgot about up until that very moment.

Photographing in the neighborhood that I grew up in was like that. The texture of the road, the threshold between the asphalt and the grass lawns is the texture of place in my dreams. I spent so much time looking at that road when I was young that it is permanently burned into my brain.

The Narrows.

Speaking of home, timauman over at Flickr has uploaded a bunch of scans of old postcards and photos from Sunbury (and surrounding towns) and they are fantastic.

I wanted to share this one, a particular favorite of mine. It is strange and wonderful to see a place so familiar depicted in such a picturesque way. The way those towns look now is so enormously different than what is depicted in the images. The Opera House and The Trolley in Northumberland are absolutely amazing.