Wednesday, September 3, 2014

woman with the strength of ten thousand men

For thirty years, my wife's parents owned and operated a general merchandise business in a weekend-only farmers market that, itself, opened in the early years of the 20th century. The market, founded by William Zern, in 1922, has served as a one-stop shop for curios and collectibles, as well as fresh produce and the odd cut of meat, with a decidedly rural appeal (One stand boastfully advertised "pig stomachs — cleaned and ready to stuff." Mmm-mmm!) The sprawling maze of a building is located a one-hour's drive outside of Philadelphia, in the tiny country hamlet of Gilbertsville. Despite its proximity to the fifth largest city in the country, when the folks of Gilbertsville refer to "the city, " they mean Reading, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Berks County, with a population of 88,000. No one would dare venture to Philadelphia, because of the regularly-reported murders and the blacks and homosexuals that live there. The other intriguing aspect of the area I collectively — and dismissively — call "Gilbertsville," was Confederate flags were a constant best-seller in the store. My father-in-law could barely keep up with the demand and the inventory would routinely sell out.

The Walt Disney of Zern's
When I got married, I joined my wife and new in-laws in the family business on Saturdays. My young family needed the extra income and I found the quirky and quaint customer base somewhat amusing. When my son E. was born, he occupied a small playpen behind the cash register counter and, as he got older, he was put to work as well. Begrudgingly, but he worked just the same.

Over the course of thirty years, many different businesses came and went in the contracted stalls surrounding my family's concession. Some stayed for a few weeks before throwing in the retail towel, others were steadfast and remained for decades, sometimes being passed to the next generation. In the waning years of our tenure, a custom framing store opened just across the main aisle from my in-law's business. In addition to picture framing services, they offered a variety of pre-framed prints and posters, ranging from scenic depictions of lakes and mountains to reproductions of famous works of art to novelty pieces suitable for a dorm or kid's bedroom. It was here that we met Adeline. She worked as a salesgirl for at the framing place and she became instant friends with my son. They bonded on the commonality of music, movies and their closeness of age (Addie was one year older than E).

One Saturday, as Addie's high school graduation approached, she came to Mrs. P and me with a look of dead seriousness. 

"Can I ask you guys a question?," she began. We smiled and assured her she could ask anything.

"Do you think three-hundred dollars is enough to move to California?," Addie asked in all earnest.

My wife and I looked at each other, first wondering why we were being asked and not her parents. Then, simultaneously, we felt flattered.

I answered first. "Sure," I said, "if you only plan on staying for an hour and a half," adding that last part in typical smart-ass fashion. Mrs. P offered more motherly advice.

"Why do you want to know?," Mrs P asked.

Addie proudly replied, "I think I'm gonna move to California after graduation. Y'know, to see what it's like." She didn't have a trace of fear or apprehension in her voice.

Sure enough, within the next week or so, Addie gave her employer the customary two weeks notice. She told us she found an apartment online in the affluent La Jolla section of San Diego. She would be sharing space with several students at the city branch of the University of California. Although we were a bit wary, we expressed our congratulations. We told her that we were planning a late summer vacation to Disneyland, a mere 90 minutes from San Diego. We exchanged cellphone numbers and promised her we'd take her to a San Diego Padres game if we could meet up. Addie said her goodbyes and headed off to California. We were convinced that someone was sure to murder her within the first week.

Later that summer, when we arrived in Anaheim, my wife called Addie. We expected her to answer the phone in tears, spinning a tale of how she is confused and destitute and how she should have never made this trip. Instead, a chipper Addie was excited to hear from us, explaining that she cleared her work schedule — as a sales clerk at Nordstrom's — and was looking forward to the ball game. She gave us directions to her apartment.

Addie & E. keeping mum at Petco Park
The next day, we headed down Interstate 5 in our rental car. We carefully followed the directions, knowing that some ramshackle shit-hole would be waiting for us at the end. As we pulled into the neighborhood and got closer to the address, we were pleased, impressed and a little dumbfounded. The area was gorgeous! Soaring palm trees surrounded beautiful, modern architecture and meticulously landscaped grounds. We located the gated complex and, after identifying ourselves at the front entrance intercom, Addie buzzed us in. Addie met us outside of her unit, looking healthy, happy and — with a pair of rubber dish-washing gloves encasing her hands — domestic. She grabbed her purse, said goodbye to a roommate and we left for Petco Park. We had a great time reminiscing, talking about Zern's and asking about her summer and future plans. After the game we took Addie back to her place. Mrs. P and I, feeling like surrogate parents, bid her "goodbye." However, we lost touch with Addie for a while.

A few years later, I left work for the day and was walking through the train station, when I heard someone call out: "Hey! Josh!" I whipped my head around and there, climbing a set of steps, was Addie. She clutched a stack of books in her arms. She told me she had spotted me a few days earlier, but couldn't get my attention. I asked her what she was doing and she informed me that she moved back to the area and was taking classes at Temple University. I told her that E. attended Temple. I gave her his phone number. I told her how nice it was to see her and we parted in opposite directions. When I got home, E. quizzed me.

"Guess who I'm having lunch with tomorrow!," my son asked, and — not waiting for a response — answered the query himself, "Addie!"

"Cool!," I said. I told him I ran into her in the train station. She sure wasted no time getting back in touch. E. met Addie several times for lunch and bumped into her often in-between classes. Then, we lost touch with Addie for a while. Again.

Every summer, my family attends a three-day outdoor music festival sponsored by the radio station that now employs my son. My wife and I spread out a big blanket on the grass near the top rim of the natural amphitheater where the show is held. Our "spot"  becomes sort-of a congregating place for E.'s friends and other people that we have met at past year's shows. Two years ago, to our surprise, Addie just showed up on our blanket. After greetings (and a maternal hug from Mrs. P), Addie told us that she hears E. on the radio all the time, proudly telling everyone that she actually knows him. We all chatted more, getting up-to-date on each other's general activities, until I finally asked her, in my most parental way, what sort of plans she had for the future. Addie, absentmindedly twirling a piece of grass between her fingers, answered that she'd like to work with people and also be able to work outdoors. Instantly, I suggested that she look into becoming a park ranger for the National Park Service. Addie lit up as I told her that a friend of mine worked as a park ranger and loved it. Addie sat with us for most of the day until she had to leave early. She was working the night shift at an O-ring factory near her childhood home (Gilbertsville!, as far as I was concerned). We explained that we'd be in the same place tomorrow and she said she would see us then. The next day, she called E. to say that she was going to a party with some members of a band that had performed the previous day. Oh, Addie! What a character!

"Look, Ma! No fear!"
When last year's festival rolled around, I emailed Addie to asked if we'd see her at the show. She replied saying she would be unable to attend. But she had an awesome excuse. She was in Colorado training to become a park ranger. Through the miracle of the Internet, Facebook and Instagram, we followed Addie's progress as she chronicled her journey and diligently worked her way to fulfilling a dream. 

Addie missed this year's music festival, but, again, she had a legitimate excuse. She was busy spending time outside — communing with nature and meeting new people in her new job. Addie is a park ranger. And Addie is pretty proud of herself, as she should be.

Mrs. P and I couldn't be more proud if she was our own daughter.


  1. Good for Addie! We can never have enough park rangers. It's good to see that her risks paid off, and it doesn't hurt that you and your wife supported her decisions. Pat yourself on the head :)

  2. Wow guys! Thank you so much for this-- I feel very flattered. At first I thought I was reading a blog post about the history of Zern's ( which would no doubt be interesting) but then this story became peculiarly familiar! Thank you both for the recognition-- i always looked forward to hanging at your stand on the weekends at Zerns and I always get a kick out of your family's blogs, drawings, and E's radio persona ( a role he was born for)--i'm glad i'm not the only one who's getting a kick out of the twists and turns my life has taken-- obviously makes for a good story! :)
    Next adventure: biking to Florida from PA haha
    Thanks again-- from Bat's Day to King Cake i've gotten a kick out of you guys too! ...Ouch.