By Tom Cardella
“Reach out your hand if your cup be empty If your cup is full may it be again Let it be known there is a fountain That was not made by the hands of men” — Jerry Garcia and Robert C Hunter (1970)
We were singing “Ripple” as our car pulled into Sonestown, Pa., last Friday, my wife, daughter and son-in-law. We were down to the da-da-da part of the joyous refrain. And that Grateful Dead tune just seemed to fit the moment when cousin Rob greeted us on the front porch of the Sonestown Country Inn. As we walked through the bar, the regulars sized us up. And waiting for us in the dining room were cousin Ange, his wife Angela and family and friends. “Dysfunction” has given family get-togethers a bad name. Hell, dysfunction is what makes families interesting.
The hugs and kisses lingered. Circumstance had kept us from seeing one another for the better part of a decade and, in some cases, even longer. But with the impetus provided by Rob, we had finally run out of excuses. It was the first time Fran and I saw Rob’s two young children, a bolt of energy named Amy and the littlest guy of all in the family, Alex. We dined on manicotti and chicken parmigiana. The Sonestown Country Inn graciously accommodated Italian tastes on this evening.
Rob took his children to Sonestown about a year or so ago at the suggestion of his Uncle John. John is a transplanted South Philadelphian, who plays a mean guitar as well as other as- sorted musical instruments at Sax Daddy’s in nearby Forksville a couple of nights a week. He lives on Main Street — right across from the Inn where Rob and his kids reside.
Sax Daddy’s is located inside Big Mike’s General Store and Restaurant.“Big Mike” is also from South Philly. Purchased the restaurant in 1999. Makes authentic Philly cheesesteaks served on Amoroso rolls. The cheesesteaks at Big Mike’s were recently ranked among the top-10 cheesesteaks in the state. And cheesesteaks aren’t the only reminders of Philly on the menu. One of the omelets is named after the Philly Fanatic. The eggs go great with Mike’s garlic home fries. Our entire gang ate breakfast at Big Mike’s our last morning. I still have the garlic breath to prove it. Eagles memorabilia adorns the walls.
Did I tell you that Sonestown is not very big? The population is barely over 100. George Sones came to the area in 1843. You can say that he and his sawmill were responsible for there being a community here at all. Sonestown depended on its lumber industry. And for awhile, the place was booming. Ask your parents about the old wooden clothespins they used to hang out the wash with in the backyard in South Philly. Chances are those clothes pins were made in Sonestown. But then time — rarely a friend to most small, one-industry towns in America — ushered the boom out of Sonestown.
The population keeps dwindling. The Inn gets its regulars, but depends also on occasional tourists and bikers. The room rate is cheap enough. Sixty dollars a night for a clean room, $65 if you prefer a Queen-sized bed. Some of the rooms like ours sloped more than a bit in spots, but hey, we had just come off a cruise with some rocky seas so we felt right at home.
What made the trip worthwhile had nothing to do with the sloping rooms or the Italian cuisine. The long weekend was all about family. Rob arranged a barbeque for all of us in a 60-acre field on Saturday. He saw to every detail. There were pony rides for the kids and the rest of us took a ride through town in a horse and carriage. My daughter provided face painting for Amy and her friend Randi. The kids then turned the tables and did some face painting of their own on some of the adults. The young people whacked a whiffle ball all day long. Rob served the pulled pork while hamburgers and hot dogs sizzled on the grill. The women provided cookies, peach and cherry cobbler, and pound cake. Soda and beer were in the cooler. Hell, if this were any more of an American classic, Norman Rockwell would’ve been nearby painting it. Storytelling was popular. As we sat around a fire pit, the family stories continued into the night.
Retelling of stories is the way we’ve kept families alive through the years. There was the time my son dropped a fake fly inside a plastic ice cube into some stranger’s cup of soda at Opryland, then dipped his hand into the guy’s soda to retrieve it. Stories like that never grow old. There are stories we could recite word for word each time, but they never grow old, even though we recite them word for word each time. They never grow old because the only thing in life that never grows old are family and friends. Someday, I hope, my grandkids will be sitting around a fire telling the story of their Uncle “P” and the fly-in-the-ice cube. May those stories never die.
We left Sonestown on Sunday after breakfast at Big Mike’s. Swear to God we’ll do this again next year. Sang “Ripple” all the way home.