Local Voices: Laughter shared on back porches

My husband and I spent a recent Saturday at Penn State Altoona participating in the African-American Heritage Project festival.

Most years we volunteer to help out, but for the last several years I have been exhibiting and sharing my own collection of Black History memorabilia.

It was a wonderful day, despite the rain. Great music, killer food and my favorite part – love, hugs and laughter.

Imagine then my joy to wake up to a call from my 92-year-old mother wondering if I had seen the Altoona Mirror’s article on the festival.

The shopkeeper mentioned on the first page, Dick Wahl, was the brother of her great uncle, Ed Wahl, in whose house she was raised around the corner.

It felt like one of those moments when life comes full circle.

My mother’s French father left her Irish-American mother during the depression and mother, then 10, came from down south to live with a great aunt and uncle in Altoona’s 5th Ward. I always loved the stories she told about their little neighborhood.

The Irish family that brought each successive baby to be weighed on Uncle Dick’s potato scale, the Sunday afternoon tea dances at the Jewish Hall where Catholic and Jewish kids could dance together even while knowing they could not date, the nights when world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, fought, and mother’s African-American neighbors, with radios blaring, would spill into the street and celebrate.

I had no illusions I was being told a story of religious and ethnic harmony but rather a picture of Altoona where neighbors were just that.

People both minded their own business and believed there to be a connection between them.

We were raised rurally, my parents leaving the city in 1945, but the positive influences my parents absorbed living in such diverse neighborhoods as children were passed on to my siblings and me.

Having known so many people of color and different ethnicities and faiths, my parents rather regarded everyone as Americans first, and that’s how we were taught history in a very history conscious house.

Returning to Blair County decades later and marrying a Jaffa Mosque-area (now Jaffa Shrine Center) resident, I determined to live as close to a neighborly ideal as I could.

Seven years on, I remember that first summer after “the new people” arrived.

Most, but not all, were black, and our streets were suddenly filled with children where few had been before. The slum lords began subdividing all the old houses. At night the teens would roam the streets practically shouting of their existence and all I could think (over my annoyance) was what it must have felt like for them to feel so safe.

I knew that with time and patience these kids would settle into life in our sleepy town and become Altoids.

Hearing my husband’s own tales of growing up in Altoona and the ins and outs of neighbors’ yards and fruit trees and bike riding, etc., I recognized that all these kids deserved those kind of memories, too, and no matter what their parents might get up to, it didn’t reflect badly on them.

The transient nature of rental dwelling, especially when landlords have little concern for health or safety, meant a lot of these kids move in and out in a year, but each newbie we meet gets their name written on a pad by the door so we can greet them on the street, ask about school, dispense hugs or offer advice.

At least in the tiny fiefdom we can control, we ensure these kids know they belong to a neighborhood and have a positive experience of that.

Our lives are so much rewarded for this effort, especially in a time when some people talk about African-American children in terms that incite violence towards them.

Every day I am grateful for the friends I have made in this neighborhood and the laughter and sadness we share on each others’ back porches.

To think that all of this is because of an unconscious lesson passed on by a mother raised by people who understood the very foundation of what makes our country shine.

I appreciate the Mirror and Ms. Virginia Day for sharing this lovely tale of optimism.

(Burkholder resides in Altoona.)