Before and After Agnes by Cheri Sundra

The 8 mm film is still partially covered with mud. For many years, it sat in a dresser at my grandmother’s house, next to the dike built to hold back the waters of the Susquehanna River. As a child, I pulled the blue and white roll out of the dresser drawer countless times and tried to see the images captured by my grandfather, in the miniscule frames, by holding them up to a light bulb. All that I ever saw was something that looked like a hazy reddish blurb of illumination in the center, near the top of each frame, at the beginning of the roll. Still, I tried to catch a glimpse of something, time and time again. The film projector, like many other possessions, was lost forever to the flood waters of 1972.
For people of a certain age, life in Luzerne County is only measured in two ways–there is life before the Agnes Flood and life after Agnes. To my childhood self, this film seemed to hold a secret since it possessed the ability to exist in both the “before and “after” simultaneously.
About two years before Agnes, my grandfather’s obituary in the
local newspaper said that while he was working as a pipe fitter, he was “stricken with a heart seizure.” When I attempted to fill in the blanks of my family history at the library, I learned that death notices were often very dramatic before Agnes. The obituaries seemed to warn of innocent victims who were “taken” or “claimed” by death, allowing the insinuation to linger that implied you could be next.
During the last moments before Agnes, my grandmother sat in stillness, saying over and over again that she wished that my grandfather was still alive. A police officer knocked on the door and told us urgently to evacuate the area. There were sirens in the background screaming warnings into the night as rain beat down on the pavement. That is when the time known as “before Agnes” officially ended for me.
About 18 years after Agnes, my grandmother died. For the first Christmas after her death, I took that flood stained home movie to a camera shop to have it converted to VHS format so I could give copies as gifts to family members. The reddish blurb on the film turned out to be lights on a Christmas tree. It was a Christmas before Agnes, before the deaths of my grandparents and before the arrival of the last three grandchildren who would complete the next generation.
I don’t remember much about my grandfather who passed away when I was in kindergarten. I have no real sense of him as a person other than that he was a hard worker—which was a badge of honor in this community built by the history of European immigrants and anthracite coal. After he died, my grandfather was known to me only by his absence, just like on the last night before Agnes. It’s somehow fitting that a man defined by his not being present was also unseen in the one home movie that survived the flood.
I don’t know much about my family history. The lives of my great-grandparents have been reduced to nothing more than names from the pages of local obituaries only mentioned as the parents of those who have died. I only know the names of two ancestors who came before them. The best explanation I can think of is that they must have been people who were so caught up in the hard work and struggle of just trying to survive, that concern for the present always had to trump contemplation and preservation of the past.

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3 thoughts on “Before and After Agnes by Cheri Sundra

  1. Wonderful story….Cheri. It is too bad that you never knew your granfather. I didn’t either since he was killed in the mines in 1921 at the Pine Hill Coal Company in Minersville, PA. I do remember my step grandfather but he died when I was 6. We lived in Connecticut when Agnes hit the valley. My parents were not in the flood but my sister-in-law was….such destruction. It looked like a bomb was dropped on the valley. We did not move back home until 1976 when Tony finished grade school. My husband is a retired pipefitter.

  2. Cheri, I remember the Agnes flood as well and how there was the world before and after. My grandmother lived directly accross the street from the river, my aunt and uncle 4 blocks away. I remeber flying with my parents into Selingsgrove to help pack what could be and moved upstairs. I was fascinated with watching the river rise…always rising and going so fast. That was before…just hours before her home had 10 ft. of water in it. I rmemeber going back there to see what had been, and knew that there would forever more be a life before and after that horrible flood.

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