Beaver Meadows, Pennsylvania – 1920
I found myself standing across the street facing the house I hadn’t seen since my bizarre disappearance on the night of my fourteenth birthday. What was most upsetting was that I had no recollection of how long I’d been gone or where I’d been, let alone how I got back home. Although the house looked older and badly in need of a fresh coat of paint, I recognized it immediately, especially the maple tree in the front yard. I marveled at how tall it had gotten since the day I’d brought it home from school as a tiny sapling. One was handed out to every first-grader at Rush Elementary. I remembered my dad helping me plant it. What fun we had and how excited I was! It was slightly taller than me when I last saw it. Now its branches were inching toward the second story window of our house.
As I gazed at the tree, a sudden gust of chilly autumn wind caused it to release the many multi-colored leaves from its gnarly branches. Like feathers floating to the ground, they created a dazzling carpet ranging from bright gold to crimson red on the lawn and sidewalk beneath its now towering frame.
As I reached out for a leaf drifting by, I noticed my hand in disbelief. Both hands appeared to be those of an adult male rather than a fourteen-year-old boy. Glancing downward, it puzzled me all the more that my feet appeared considerably larger than they should be. How long had I been gone, and why was I barefooted?
I gingerly stepped off the curb, slowly crossed the street, opened the rickety old gate and began striding toward the front door completely flabbergasted. Was this a dream or was I really home?
I heard the sound of our old next door neighbor, Mrs. Vitovitch’s front door opening. She stepped out onto her porch carrying an old throw rug, flung it over the porch rail and soon began beating it with a rug beater. The dust from the worn, old carpet created a faint cloud around her. I smiled warmly, gave a wave and called out her name. She momentarily stopped her chore and glanced my way but didn’t appear to recognize me. While tossing a nod of uncertainty in my direction, I could see the bewildered expression on her face. She gave the rug one final thwack before casually entering inside. I saw her throw me another puzzled look through her screen door, still wondering who I was.
My eyes scanned the neighborhood. Nothing had changed much, except for the two new houses built on some previously vacant lots. I also noticed Mr. Higgins put a bright new sign in front of the quaint old grocery store he owned and operated with his wife, Beatrice. Although I didn’t care too much for Mrs. Higgins, who was always a grumpy sort, I liked Mr. Higgins. He was always kind to me. His semi-toothless grin often made me chortle as he handed me a free Hershey bar, whenever my mom managed to drag me along to the grocery store.
I can remember Mrs. Higgins’ constant harping at her kindly old husband, “If you keep handin’ out free candy bars to all the kids, you’re gonna eat up all the dang profits!”
As I climbed the three small steps leading up to our front porch, I spotted the morning newspaper, The Standard Sentinel, resting on our welcome mat. I quickly bent down to retrieve it and couldn’t believe what I saw. The Sentinel was dated October 16, 1920, twenty years after I was born in 1900!
“Damn!” I thought to myself, “Is it possible I’m nearly twenty-one years old? If so, where have I been all these years?
The last thing I recalled was being asleep in my bedroom after my fourteenth birthday party and rudely awakened by a damp rag covering my nose and mouth. I remember gasping for air as I struggled before losing consciousness. What’s more, I had no recollection of hearing the sound of my own muffled cries for help. Strange, yet there I was—standing on my front porch as a twenty-year-old man, thinking, “How could this be possible?”
I pulled open the screen door, but as I was about to turn the inside door knob, I was startled to see a young man’s face reflected in the glass door, instead of my own as a young boy. Quickly assuming my parents may not recognize me and be frightened by an intruder in their home, I decided to ring the doorbell. While I waited, a disturbing thought entered my mind, “What if my parents no longer live here? After all, it’s been over six years.”
A few moments passed before the door swung open. There stood my mother with the same round face. She hadn’t changed much, except for her dark brown hair slightly grayed at the temples and a few wrinkles around her pale blue eyes. She was wearing a powder blue apron over a floral print housedress. Her short, lean frame stood leaning akimbo in the open doorway. Six years ago she was forty, and now, forty-six.
“Yes?” she asked quizzically, making it quite apparent she didn’t recognize me.
“Mother, it’s me,” I managed to choke out.
As she looked deeper into my eyes, her face suddenly displayed a spark of recognition. Slowly extending her shaky hands to touch my cheeks, she said, “Yuri? Oh, my Lord! Yuri? Is it really you?”
I nodded emotionally.
With tears streaming down her face, she threw her arms around me and asked, “Where have you been? My Lord, we’d given you up for dead!”
“Can I come in?” I asked sheepishly through tear-filled eyes.
She laughed and cried at the same time while nodding her head emphatically with both of us still enormously overwhelmed with shock. As she leaned heavily into my arms, glancing downward she grew perplexed when she noticed my feet.
“Good Lord, it’s chilly outside! Where the devil are your shoes?” she asked.
“I-I-I don’t know,” I stammered.
She pulled away slightly from our embrace and began pounding her fists on my chest, saying, “Where have you been? How could you have done this to us? If you’ve been alive all these years, why didn’t you come home or at least call?”
“Relax, Mom. I don’t know where I’ve been. I only know I’m back.”
She gave me a mystified look.
“What do you mean? How could you not know?” she asked incredulously.
“I don’t know, Mom, I swear. It’s a complete mystery. Where’s Dad? At work?”
Her crestfallen face spoke volumes.
“Oh, no. When?”
“Six months ago, son. I’m so sorry,” she lamented.
I broke down and cried! Death always had an uncanny way of rendering me speechless. It took me a while to regain my composure before I asked, “From what?”
“Black lung disease, Yuri. He was in such terrible pain for so long that, near the end, he prayed to die. Besides, he was never quite the same after we lost you. Quite frankly, neither was I.”
My dad worked all his life as a miner at the Lattimer Mines in Lattimer, near Jeddo, another rural Pennsylvania community. Along with that, he was a heavy smoker, and refused to give it up. I recalled many nights as a young boy being kept awake by his intermittent coughing. He died at forty-seven.
My knees buckled from the shock. Mom grabbed me under one arm, guiding me toward the couch in the parlor. After I sat down, she asked, “Yuri, where on earth have you been? You’ve been gone so long, surely you have to remember something.”
I continued crying, still reeling from the shock of my dad’s death.
“I wish I could explain it, Mom, but everything’s a total blank. The last thing I vividly remember is being awakened by a damp cloth covering my mouth and nose—then nothing.”
“But it doesn’t make sense. Surely if you were stolen away in the night, sooner or later, you had to see who it was that took you. I mean, it’s been over six years.”
“I understand that, Mom. The date on the newspaper gave me the first indication of how much time has passed. I couldn’t believe my eyes. After losing consciousness that night, the next thing I remember is standing across the street moments ago looking at our house. I still can’t figure out how I got here.”
“Good gosh, son. Do you think it was, oh brother, what do they call it? Amnesia?”
Although I was much too young to grasp what amnesia meant at the time of my disappearance, somehow at that moment, I seemed to not only be aware of the word but its full meaning.
“I don’t know, Mom, but even with amnesia, wouldn’t you think I’d be able to remember something, anything?”
She shrugged and said, “This is so strange and confusing. However, it doesn’t matter, son. The only thing that’s important is that you’re home. If only your father were still alive to see you walk through that front door.” A new tear formed and rolled down her cheek, as she asked, “Whoever it was that took you—did they hurt you?”
“If they did, I don’t remember.”
Swiftly, the thought of my baby brother and older sister popped into my mind. “Anthony and Gina? Where are they?”
“Gina got married three years ago and moved to Wilkes-Barre,” she said, then with a disturbed look, she added, "As for Anthony, that’s another story.”
“Married? No kiddin’? Let me guess. Was it Walter Kuwalski?”
“Of course. You know your sister well. They were inseparable since grade school and finally tied the knot. Walt became a veterinarian, setting up a private practice in Wilkes-Barre. They’ll be married four years next April. My goodness, I have to call her right now,” Mom said enthusiastically, while dashing toward the phone. “She’s not going to believe you’re home. She missed you so much, when she hears you’re back, she’s liable to sprout wings to get here.”
Hastily, she tapped the receiver several times, waiting for the operator to come on the line, then excitedly gave her my sister’s number. When Gina answered, Mom delivered the exciting news.
“What?” I could hear Gina saying through the receiver from across the room. “After all these years. You’ve got to be kidding!”
“No, honest to goodness, he’s right here.”
“I can’t believe this. Please, Mom, put him on.”
Mom handed me the phone. I took it and said, ”Hey, sis, it’s really me. How’s it goin’?” It took a while for my sister to gather her composure before she could ask where I’d been. My explanation was the same, but she, like my mom, found it hard to believe.
“Oh, c’mon, you can tell me. I’m your sister, remember?”
“Honest, Gina, I don’t have a clue. It’s almost as if I’ve been in a coma for the past six years. Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t, but I’m sure going to try my best to find out.”
Although she was baffled, she desperately wanted to see me, telling me she and her husband would drive to Beaver Meadows as soon as Walt arrived home from work. We spoke a little longer before hanging up.
Once again, I asked Mom about Anthony. He was a year younger than me, only thirteen when last I’d seen him. Mom sat down and fell apart.
“Oh, no, not Anthony, too,” the silent thought went through my mind. That would be more than I could bear. It took Mom a moment before she could deliver the news.
“He was only sixteen when he got a young girl pregnant and refused to marry her. Then, you remember his friend, Bruce Barnett?”
“A few months later, he and that ruffian stole a car. They got caught and were given a warning, but it didn’t stop there. Soon after, they began breaking into several houses and were eventually apprehended and arrested for robbery. This time the judge wasn’t so lenient. He sent them both to reform school. When your brother was released, he got another girl pregnant, refusing to marry her as well. There were so many fights between him and your father that I lost count. We couldn’t control him, Yuri. He became incorrigible. About two years ago, he disappeared. He ran away for good and we haven’t heard from him since. I doubt he’s even aware of your dad’s death,” she cried.
My heart went out to both my parents for not only having to deal with my disappearance but with Anthony’s juvenile rebellion, as well. It must have been rough on them.
“It was devastating, Yuri, a complete nightmare. Still is. I worry about him every day and continue to jump every time the phone rings, hoping it might be him—or you.”
“So, you have no idea where he went?”
“Mr. Higgins told me he thought he spotted him getting on a bus in Scranton, but that old man’s eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so we couldn’t be certain it was him.”
“Wow! I never expected this.”
Mom hurried from her chair to the phone, explaining the need to inform the police of my return. She began telling me stories of how the entire county searched for my whereabouts for months. After a year, they began to lose all hope.
“But we never gave up, Yuri. We hung on to our faith and prayed every day—and it paid off, because you’re home, safe and sound at last. It’s so hard to believe. It’s almost like a miracle.”
The operator said, “Number, please?”
Mom asked to be connected with the Beaver Meadows Police Department. While waiting for a response, she called me to join her near the phone. As I made my approach, she rushed to meet me, throwing one arm about my neck while half crying, “The Lord is good, my handsome, grown-up little boy. Having you back is surely a dream come true. Now you’d best get a wiggle on and run upstairs to find something of your father’s to put on those feet before catching your death of cold.”