From Slag to Sanctuary: A Daughter Reflects

I love when you tell us stories, Daddy. When you and me and Mom and Billy have finished our meal. When the white bowl with blue flowers holds only a few tablespoons of sweet potato syrup and specks of collard greens cling to the silver pan. When the window behind Mom frames a winter wonderland scene out of a postcard. When we sit quietly—enjoying the peaceful blanket that surrounds us.  

 You tell us about Bubba and baseball. About the projects. About riding your bike for miles. We’ve got so few artifacts from your childhood. Tarnished basketball trophies from the more prestigious at the time NIT and your high school MVP award arranged like an afterthought on a file cabinet downstairs. A yearbook hidden away in a cardboard box somewhere in a basement corner. A handful of black and white photos of you as a child.  You didn’t bring many physical objects when you left Pennsylvania (was there nothing more worth keeping?), but you did bring the memories.  And your memories are sometimes in sharp contrast to mine. I struggle to reconcile what you see when you think of Farrell with what I saw when I was there.


I don’t know why it was just the two of us in the car that day, Daddy. Usually when we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s all five of us would ride together. It still had that new car smell and Stevie or The Temps filled the cabin with joyful noise. Springtime, but no sun. Just gray. But no matter. I loved having you all to myself. We didn’t often have time alone together where your focus was solely on me. Even at 14 years old, nothing felt better. Whenever someone remarks on my RRR initials, I proudly explain that it’s all about you. They especially like when, after I say Renee = rebirth, I tell them even my baby picture looks like yours. If that makes me a Daddy’s girl, so be it.


“We’re back in Farrell now. You know I spent most of my childhood here.”

“Really, Daddy? How depressing.”

I couldn’t imagine why you looked so wistful. Your eyes linger, you turn your head to keep a sign in view as we pass. Your mouth a mix of smirk and smile, like you’re trying to keep a secret inside. Sometimes you’d bow your head and slowly turn it side to side as if trying to erase whatever flashed in your mind. 

Out of the window I saw hulking 70s-era Oldsmobiles and Chevys, some with only three tires, parked, possibly abandoned, against crumbling concrete sidewalks. Most of the two-story bungalows with rickety porches, peeling paint and collapsing foundations looked abandoned as well. No wonder no one bothered to lock the rusty chain-link fences. I saw a couple crooked basketball hoops missing their nets, but no toys or bikes in the postage stamp-sized weedy yards. No children to be seen or heard. No anybody to be seen. The only signs of life I saw were greasy spoons selling fish sandwiches and the liquor stores on seemingly every other corner touting Kool and Colt45 in neon lights. 


“I’ll bet you were glad to get out of here.”

“But Rozzie. It didn’t look like this then. Farrell used to be the spot.”

You saw the booming factories. All the Black-owned businesses on Market Avenue. The grocery stores loaded with canned and fresh goods. The laundromat service. The tennis club. Black dentists. Black doctors. You remembered the matrons in their white Eastern Star gowns, patent leather toes peeking out. Men strutting down Broadway in suits and ties and hats on the way to the Hello Soldier Club of Farrell’s USO. Others dragging their feet and carrying metal lunch pails to the mills. You remembered all the churches. You saw Mrs. Alford’s on Staunton and Lee where you could get a cheeseburger, fries and pop for fifty cents.

I saw only empty lots where houses once stood. Boarded-up buildings with shadows of faded advertising on red brick facades. Men with vacant stares in dusty jeans, tattered jackets shuffling in taped-together sneakers. I couldn’t wait to get back to the protective shelter of Grandma and Grandpa’s tidy ranch house.

Our Audi was conspicuous by its newness, its foreignness and luxuriousness. Farrell made me sad but also a little scared. I didn’t want to be there after dark. I felt the same discomfort in Detroit and any other place where I didn’t see any white people. Maybe it was the crushing despair emanating from the desolate landscape. Maybe the newspaper and television had convinced me that only bad things happened in the ghetto. Maybe it’s because I almost got beat up by a Black girl in Akron who thought I was bougie.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t want anyone to think I belonged there. 


 “Bubba’s pool hall used to be where that liquor store is.”

That squat, square building with only the one window to let in gloomy light? What was it like hanging there with your grandfather, Bubba? Watching weary men drink too much too fast, trying to wash away the brutality of the mills. Exhausted from 8 hours of running from one end of the rolling machine to the other. Drinking away the sirens and screams after hot steel wrapped around a man’s body.  Moving like ghosts—or rather, dead men walking. Eyes focused on the cue ball or the bottom of the bottle.  Shoulders stooped. The anxiety of walking on slippery floors so close to the open vats and keeping pace with relentless machines spitting out steel. Did any of them ever say to you, “Son, you don’t want this life?” How many of them were like you? Knew life could be more. Knew they were capable of more. But couldn’t or wouldn’t take that one step towards a different life. Was that hope ever there? Or was it snatched in the pits before it could blossom? 

All you’ve told us is that Bubba would give you a quarter so you could go to the movies (for only 10 cents) and eat popcorn (15 cents) at the Capital or Colonial. 

But I’ll bet there are more stories. Stories about fights between patrons. When Bubba used his shotgun to chase out drunk whites looking for trouble. Stories about people saying hurtful things about Grandma—but only when Bubba was out of ear shot. And what happened that one time Bubba heard what was said. Stories of people who tried to crush your dreams—“How dare you think so big! Who do you think you are?” Yes, Daddy. I’d love to hear those stories.


Farrell in the 50s and 60s prospered from the thousands of jobs at Sharon Steel’s mills. The dirtiest and most dangerous of these reserved for the darkest and most newly-arrived. With no protective gear, little ventilation, deafening noise from hot rollers, suffocating heat raging from the pits, no wonder so many mentally broke down. 

Still, did you really need to run away the first chance you could? Surely, a Chemical Engineering degree from Penn State should have been the ticket out of blue collar and into white. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe you thought they wouldn’t have given you a shot. Maybe you knew that, degree or not, you would still be a Black man, and they wouldn’t be ready to let you on the other side of the velvet rope.


“I lived in the projects for 9 years before we moved to an upstairs apartment on Market Street and then to a trailer camp in Wheatland a few miles over.”

Projects? My Daddy in the projects? My uninformed imagination conjures images of 8 year-old you walking past a baby with a dirty diaper, down dark, cold, narrow halls with cracked paint peeling off the walls, roaches skittering past your sneakered feet, bombarded by radios and moms yelling at kids, assaulted by the smell of collard greens and bacon grease creeping down the walls and under the doors. Did you ever imagine that one day you’d have your own house with bright rooms and a large yard? A fortress to keep your family close and everyone else and their smells and sounds far away. 


Tell me, Daddy. 

Who was that trip through Farrell for?

For me?  So I would appreciate Fairport more? If anything, Fairport insulates me from harsh realities I’m quick to dismiss. So I would explain to Mom why we don’t visit your sister more often? Get her to stop with the guilt trip she lays on you about it? If that were the case, we wouldn’t go to Detroit to see her side as often as we do.

I think that trip was for you.

You needed to see the destruction with your own eyes. Feel the grit in your lungs. To validate your decision to run away. From Grandpa’s critical eye. From Grandma’s black sheep status. I saw she was buried at the bottom of the hill at Oakwood Cemetery instead of the top with the rest of her family. You needed to flee the streets that swallowed up your brother-in-law, leaving your sister a veritable widow. You needed to flee the doubters who tried to hold you back and pull you down to their level.

Too bad those doubters weren’t there to see us in the Audi.


When we moved to Fairport, in western New York, in 1972, it was the definition of suburbs, filled with office parks and shopping malls.  We shopped for groceries in a new, bright and clean Wegmans store, whose fresh glazed doughnuts linger in our families’ collective memory. On special occasions, we went to Lums, a sit-down family restaurant notable for the spotted cow milk drink my baby brother ordered every time.  Our 99.9% white neighborhood boasted a pool and a pond. Pristine fields and quiet, welcoming forests. Pool where kids and adults congregated from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Basketball courts with bright white lines and hoops with nets. Playground with sturdy swing sets and shiny slides. Lush grass and smooth paths ideal for roller skating and skateboarding.  Most of the dads (including mine) worked for Xerox or Kodak. Most of the moms (including mine) stayed home. The newly built houses sat astride newly poured asphalt driveways sporting newly built wood-paneled station wagons. People played pool in basements and rec rooms. 

I have no idea where they bought their booze.


“Of course the projects were at the bottom of the hill close to the plant on the river. Both Blacks and whites lived in the projects, but as you moved up the hill, it got more white.”

You’ve told me that race relations were pretty good then. Schools were integrated. Decent. You didn’t have any trouble. Your friends were in the projects too. People in the projects celebrated birthdays just like anyone else. Except everyone else didn’t hold their parties on dirt courtyards. In the projects, you were close to the action on Staunton, close to the furnaces belching red and brown filth that obscured the sun.

Were you glad Grandma and Grandpa got you out of Farrell and up the hill in time for you to go to high school at Hickory so you could get an education that prepared you for college? 

Or would you rather have stayed in Farrell with your friends and played basketball for legendary Coach McCluskey?  Maybe he’d have called you “Les Jr.” and my name would be Leslie instead.

I wish you could have done both. 


Grandma and Grandpa built their house on the hill for adults, not children. Grandma decorated the parlor like a museum, with delicate glass and porcelain objects she picked up at estate sales placed around never-used furniture. For this reason, we always stayed to the right of the grandfather clock that chimed every 15 minutes and towered over me in the foyer. We would walk through a rudimentary kitchen, then left past the study, to reach the family room. That day, though, you turned left of the clock and I followed you. Light bounced off cut glass figurines forming mini-rainbows on the white walls. A white and pink cat on the floor in front of a pink wingback chair was as tall as me so I wanted to get closer to it. Grandpa wanted to spank me for walking into the parlor. You snatched me up into your arms and said, “Don’t you touch her.” Grandpa demanded perfection and, as a child, you chafed under his glare. You were strict, Daddy, but you understood kids would be kids. Grandpa either forgot—or perhaps never was allowed to be one.


Our house in Fairport was on a hill in a neighborhood that was itself built into a hill. Dad wore golf shoes when mowing the front lawn.  He always looked like he was concentrating. Not sure if it was to make sure the lines were straight, or to keep his balance. Because of the hill the house was seen as less desirable and therefore less expensive. However, it was also directly across the street from the pool and the playground and the basketball courts. On the Fourth of July, we smelled beer and grills and popcorn from our porch. We could hear the oscillating diving board, whose sound defined summertime. As teenagers we played the card game Speed for kisses in the pool’s cabana, where the smell of chlorine and coconut suntan lotion mingled with that of cigarette butts and Dr. Pepper. We played 4-square with the pastel chalk lines we drew on the asphalt basketball courts. I’d sit on the playground swings with my back to the house so I couldn’t see when Mom turned on the porch light, signaling time to come inside.

It was also the first house my Dad ever lived in. 

I think that’s why we rarely had visitors. Despite its prime location, our house was not the neighborhood gathering point. In twelve years, we may have hosted twelve sets of family members, and with the exception of my Mom’s mother, none visited twice. The fortress allowed only a handful of Tupperware, birthday and Christmas Eve parties within its walls. More than anything, though, for the five of us, it was a sanctuary.


I notice that we’re coming up to an intersection we passed through earlier. The net-less hoops on the right. Colt45 neon blazing on the left.

This time there’s a girl about my age on the corner. She holds a baby on her hip. Curlers in her hair. Cigarette dangling from her mouth. She looks at me. I feel she can see inside of me. I fidget and turn my face away.


Roz RoseboroRoz Roseboro is currently a third-year MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University and an Associate Editor for Non-Fiction at Passages North. She spent the previous 20+ years in the telecom field, writing reports, working with clients and presenting at conferences around the world. In addition to an MBA, she has a BA in English, and wrote creatively on the side for many years. In 2019, she decided to devote her full attention to the craft of writing and moved from Chicago to Marquette, MI. Her work has been published in Fine Lines and Solstice, with the latter judging her essay a finalist in its most recent non-fiction contest.