Monday, June 28, 2010

Greetings from the Old Hometown

We drove to my hometown, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the weekend to celebrate my dad's 96th birthday. He's walking with a cane but is still stubborn and full of vinegar. At his party, my sister offered him a choice of homemade chocolate layer cake, (his favorite) and homemade strawberry shortcake. Or both, of course. He thought about it as he was unwrapping a gift and asked, "So what else do you have?"

To replace the rusting steel mills (and the livelihood they provided for most of the town), there's a giant new Sands Casino. It keeps certain members of my family occupied a few evenings a week — and flush with wads of cash, since they all seem to be unusually lucky with slot machines. We Proper Bostonians lasted only about a half hour on our maiden casino visit. We lost $5 on two slots before we even knew what was happening. With the noise, the heavy cloud of cigarette smoke, and the general pointlessness of it all, our gambling career is now officially over. We'll have to be forcibly dragged back in there.

But downtown Bethlehem is still historic and charming, and we spent a few hours there between visits to relatives, browsing in the bookstore and enjoying the architecture, all an easy walk from our inn. Here is a café on our 19th-century Main Street on a quiet Saturday morning:

Bethlehem was founded in 1741 by the Moravians, a sect of missionary Protestants from Saxony. The town still has several of its original, mid-18th-century Germanic-style buildings. The building below, on the left, is the Brethren's House, where all the single Moravian men lived together. Single women also lived together in one building, as did married couples, widows, and widowers. Children were separated from their parents to be raised and educated together, too. Marriages were arranged once a year, by drawing lots.

This utopian religious community did not survive terribly long: even pious German missionaries preferred to have their own homes and raise their own children. And they definitely wanted to pick their spouses themselves.

There are no buildings like these in New England. The Moravian building style is similar to what you'd find in Bavaria (At least I was taken aback to find it there when my husband was offered a job in that region of Germany. And I realized that I hadn't come so far simply to find myself "back in Bethlehem" again — only unable to speak the language. So I refused to move there. A wise decision.)  

The Moravians made roof tiles from the local red clay and built massive, multistory buildings with thick limestone walls, trimmed with red brick eyebrow-arched windows and herringbone-patterned wooden doors.

The building above is a recent reconstruction, using traditional masonry techniques. A lot of these buildings are open as museums now. I spent eight years volunteering, and then working, as a guide and craftsperson in some of them. This experience was so pleasant that it ruined me for working anywhere else. We spent long summer days between tourists playing our guitars under the trees, throwing pots, spinning wool, or chopping firewood. I still can't believe I was paid for this.

Here's a peek at the Federal-style church on the corner of Main Street. Giant trees blocked the view from every angle, sorry:

The Moravians were very musical in addition to being pacifists. They ran a hospital and provided supplies in lieu of fighting during the Revolutionary War. 

The story is that they discovered that they could repel Indian raids by blasting trombones from the steeple of this church. But they also converted many of the local Native Americans, who lie buried under flat tombstones like everyone else in "God's Acre," their  cemetery. Everyone is equal — in death, anyhow.

Here's the chapel, which pre-dates the church. It's a beautiful site for weddings. 

Because my dad's house is only habitable by him these days (very hot, dirty, and cluttered, and he swears he likes it like that), we stayed in the Morningstar Inn, which is perfect. It's run by the wife of a high school classmate. Like me, he has only dim memories of those days, but it was fun to talk with him about other things. His wife is warm and friendly and we have a lot in common; she even introduced us to the most sociable of their three cats, who aren't normally allowed out of their private quarters on the top floor. 

The inn is a high-ceilinged Victorian stucco house on the nicest street in town, comfortably furnished with antiques. Very serene, pristine, and relaxing — in other words, the exact opposite experience of staying with my father or any of my relatives. There's even a pool. 

Our room had a black iron-and-brass bed with a round-top steamer trunk at the foot; we have the same set-up in our own Victorian-style bedroom.  They served a wonderful breakfast (cheese soufflés, Canadian bacon and two kinds of homemade toast, oatmeal-raisin pancakes with bananas and crispy bacon, crunchy French toast, fruit salad......) And there were always free drinks and homemade cookies in the pantry.

It was hard to leave the inn to visit the relatives. We'll be back. 

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