Our first apartment in Ambridge took up the second floor of a three-floor house on the north-west most edge of town.
We shoehorned ourselves into that little apartment. Two young people, married for two years, with a shocking amount of possessions, and not a lot of cleaning impetus between us, meant that this picture represents as clean as this place ever got. It felt cramped on a good day, but it was all we really needed. And based on our impetus toward maintenance, it was probably all we really deserved.
Like so many towns in our sliver of Western Pennsylvania, Ambridge is built along a river, but spreads crawling up the neighboring hillsides. This first house was in “lower” Ambridge, on the residential street nearest to the river, though still separated by a highway, railroad tracks, and a steep drop.
Our destination almost every day was our school. We had a car, but unlike the commuter’s purgatory where we were raised, everything here was close together. So, quite often, I walked.
Our particular block was not very nice. So the beginning of my daily walk was a little unsavory.
But I was quickly rewarded, as the rest of that walk was through the prettiest part of town: the home of Old Economy Village.
What a gem this place was! Seeming incongruous in the middle of a struggling old steel town, I suspect this little historic village is the quiet heart of hope here. My relationship with OEV started within a few short weeks of my arrival. I did a demonstration at their big annual fall festival, and volunteered for that one day every year for four years.
That second-floor apartment was where we discovered our new life in Ambridge. Where we became students again. Where we lost our third baby. Where I got a little more lost, before I was ready to be found again. Where I dove into designing and dyeing, largely in search of a sense of purpose that I was not yet ready to take seriously.
After a year of cramped quarters, we were ready for a change of abode. We were also starting to talk to some close friends about dreams of living in intentional community. This confluence led to our second Ambridge address, which we lovingly called “Experiment House,” or “Ex House” for short.
“Experiment House” was both a cheeky reference to The Silver Chair and an admission that we had no idea what we were doing with intentional community. We had great ambitions that never left couch-bound discussions, and chore charts that were ritually ignored. But for a year, it was a lively center of fellowship and friendship.
We painted the dining room a bold, mottled, sponged blue,
and we dug a garden in the back yard.
We grew squash plants that took over the yard, and tomatoes which were largely consumed by the local rabbit population.
This house was on the far north end of the Ambridge zip code, technically part of Harmony Township. It was conveniently located to the best local Greek food festival, and the Shop N’ Save, but not much else. Still, starting from our curbless sidewalk…
I walked to school.
It was more like a half hour walk, even at a pace that now lightning-fast, since at the time I didn’t have children in tow. I passed the time listening to books on tape, sometimes knitting a sock with hands rested on my purse, sometimes reading an article for the class at my destination. A few times I did all three at once.
But the real gem was a block and a half away, where an unmarked path led straight through the woods, up the side of a steep hill …
And came out on a field in the middle of nowhere.
That’s the great thing about where we lived. It was very much a town, but a stone’s throw a way from Appalachian countryside. I loved that little field, with its motorcycle tracks and random abandoned campsites. We explored it in the lushness of summer, and in the bleaker parts of a winter that didn’t hold much snow.
It was a hard year. It was a year where I learned hard lessons and let go, where I found purpose and opened to healing, and began to see the scope of the character work that lay before me. It was a year full of knitting design work and spinning, of parties and plans and failures and late-night chats. But in the end, the experiment of Ex House concluded, and Jared and I struck out on our own again.
When we got the keys to our third address in the same zip code, I declared, “we are not moving for three years!”
Our yellow cottage, as I thought of it, officially made us “hill people,” in Ambridge terms. We were at the edge of the part of town that started to get nicer as the altitude increased, but still low enough that walking home was not a hideous prospect.
By then our seminary community was well established, but changing. We’d become friends with the next year of students, and the priest/friend/mentor who did our house blessing was one who had moved to town after we had.
I didn’t walk much that first year. I was pregnant, and an early over-enthusiastic walk had thrown my front pelvic joint out of whack, which couldn’t be cured until the relaxin – and the child – were out of my system.
I soon made up for it though. I took to babywearing as much as I could, and by the next summer I was back to walking Ambridge, now with a constant companion.
There was so much to explore from our new neighborhood. There were stairs up some of the steeper hills which served as pedestrian shortcuts. There was a strange maze of new roads to discover. From each house, I had tried every possible route to school, picking my favorite ones – usually one for efficiency and ease, and another which led by my favorite yards. Here, a long stretch of Beaver Road had some truly beautiful gardens.
We walked in all kinds of weather, though admittedly less in winter.
That third year in our third Ambridge house, our fifth year in town, things changed again. I was no longer in school, so my time was different, though we still walked there often for lunch with daddy, who still worked there. Now, my walking companion now had perambulatory powers – and opinions – of her own.
Being the oldest child, her preferences were unchallenged. My preference for pretty yards fell by the wayside, as my new navigator had one desire: “see the lights!” (pronounced “see da yites!”) Namely, the stoplights. She will tell anyone who wants to know that green means go, and red means stop, but we’re still not sure about that middle one. It’s unclear whether it’s yellow or orange, and she keeps telling me that after it turns red, the light turns blue.
I grew to knew those sidewalks quite well – specifically, which patches of sidewalk to avoid with a stroller. N grew to discover the joy of stomping in puddles.
By the time we left, I had a little girl with pigtails …
with an abundance of words to supplement her navigation skills …
with enough guts to brave the 5-12 playground at the park on Park Street …
and with a new little walking companion to watch her play.
We’ve walked down the sixth street steps, and around Ridge Road. We’ve walked to friends’ houses and stores of many sorts. We’ve walked past war memorials, and gardens with porcelain gnomes and BVMs.
We loved that little house on our uneven, brick-cobbled street.We learned to remind our visitors that our street was one-way, which their GPSs usually forgot. I learned the names of most of the flowers that appeared in our yard, little gifts to me from an owner who never knew I would enjoy them, and who would be horrified to know how little I weeded.
We came to Ambridge with two years of marriage under our belt, and left with seven. We came in our mid-twenties, and left nearly thirty. We came with two lost babies, and left with one more lost, but two in our arms. We came with one calling, and left with two ordinations.
We made friends, saw some of them leave, saw some of them start families, saw some of their babies grow into children, saw some of their children grow to a new stage of life. We saw businesses start and close. We started giving directions based on where things used to be. Then we became one of the families who left.
Ambridge is – I’m not gonna lie – a little crappy. It’s also a little beautiful. It’s a place where the already and not-yet are swirled like oil and water, and what you make of it is entirely up to you. There’s broken-down depression, businesses that struggle and close, and parts of town where you don’t want to find yourself out alone after dark. But there’s beauty, and history, and wonderful people pouring themselves into a more positive future for this town. It’s a town that can’t hide its hurts and faults, but it’s a town with hope there, if you have the strength to seize it and not let go.
What town isn’t a little crappy? I’m proud to have fallen in love with a town that doesn’t hide behind glitz and consumerism. It doesn’t because it can’t, but I don’t fault the difference.
I wanted to be one of those invested people. I wanted to give back to the town, the region, the churches, the friends, who had given us so much. We were willing, and we tried. But doors kept closing. God kept saying no. Now we know why: we were being wrapped up with a ribbon to serve somewhere else. Somewhere else that, while quite different, funnily enough has about the same population as Ambridge.
It was a wrench leaving that house where our family doubled in size. As we packed and junked and donated, the basement and closets disgorging itself of all manner of useless crap, my heart sank. Not because I’m attached to the stuff, but because it felt like we were erasing ourselves. In making room for another family to live there, we were literally wiping away all evidence that this house had been our home. But a friend came to help at the last minute – the first Ambridge friend, in fact, that we made before we moved here – and after the last few forgotten items were thrown in trash bags and boxes of miscellany, she prayed with us.
It was surreal driving through town that last time, knowing that when we return, it will be as visitors, not residents.
My consolation is this, bittersweet but completely true: if we learned to love this place so well, we will learn to love someplace new.
Goodbye, Ambridge. And thanks for all the walks.