by Constance Garcia-Barrio
One of the four freshman music majors in the off-campus house where I lived decades ago had perfect pitch. I recalled her gift of nailing every note as I read “Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines,” a short story collection by Mark Lyons, 71, of Mt. Airy. Each character has a distinctive voice that brims with warmth and aching.
“I pick up voices,” said Lyons, winner of fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 2003 and 2009 and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Together, his characters’ voices form a quirky chorus that echoes long after one turns the last page.
A book launch party for “Brief Eulogies,” just published by Wild River Books, will take place Friday, Oct. 10, 7 p.m., at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane. It’s free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.
Lyons draws from a rich trove of living in creating stories. “I grew up in Downey, a suburb near Los Angeles,” he said. “In the ’40s and ’50s, it was surrounded by orange groves. We would throw green oranges at each other to try to knock one another into the irrigation ditches.”
At 15, Lyons faced a devastating challenge when his mother, a poet and founder of a local community theater, became mentally ill. “Her illness consumed our family,” said Lyons, who has a brother four years older and a sister 12 years younger. “None of my friends knew about her.”
Lyons took refuge in raising pigeons. “I spent a lot of time with birds,” said Lyons, one of whose stories spotlights them. “I kept records of all my pigeons, how much feed I bought on a certain day. I felt safer with them than with people, and I understood them better.”
Growth came with a price and the makings of a story. “He Sure Do Want to Fly” in “Brief Eulogies” is set in the Rancho, a now-demolished California facility for people paralyzed by accidents or illness. “I was in my early 20s, working there as an orderly,” Lyons said. “I had just put my mother in a mental institution, broken up with a true love and dropped out of college to find my way.”
After Lyons’ 1965 graduation from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in history, he did a yearlong stint in VISTA, “the domestic Peace Corps.” Assigned to Atlanta, he ran a tutoring program that threw him into the thick of the civil rights struggle.
Lyons’ work in the South was the seed of “Aaron’s Auto Salvage and Restoration,” a story in which a snake-handling preacher, cast out on the highway, finds faith in a junkyard. More adventures found their way into “Brief Eulogies.” In 1972, as he hitchhiked across the country, he met a hobo, Arnold, who made meals from roadkill. Arnold shared a spit-roasted rabbit and many a tale with Lyons. “Arnold’s Roadside Café” acknowledges the hobo’s generosity.
Lyons, who’s lived in Mt. Airy for many years with his wife Jeane Ann and two sons — Jessie, 33, and Seth, 27 — has worked in the Latino community for the last 25 years. He got involved in the farmworker justice movement and became director of the Farmworker Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grassroots organizations.
“For 15 years I saw patients and did health planning in a Latino health center in North Philadelphia,” said Lyons, trained as a physician’s assistant. He also has a master’s degree in public health. “When I directed the Farmworker Health and Safety Institute, I used theater to train farmworkers about AIDS, pesticides and workers’ rights.”
Lyons began writing in 1995, at age 52. Many of stories in “Brief Eulogies” center on forgiveness. In 2002, Lyons began a three-and-a-half-year oral history project that recorded the experiences of Mexican migrant farm workers in Kennett Square. “While spending eight years doing education in farmworker camps, I heard many stories of people who took great risks to come to this country and ‘worked like burros’ to create a better future for their families.”
Those stories resulted in a collection, “Espejos y Ventanas/Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families” (2004), which Lyons translated and co-edited. One story of a 16-year-old who’d come to the U.S. by himself riveted Seth, Lyons’ youngest son. Seth, 16 himself at the time, photographed the boy who’d crossed the border alone and was working 80 hours a week to support his disabled mother and demented father. After hearing the youth’s story, Seth decided to become a lawyer specializing in immigrant rights.
Lyons continues to steep his life in stories as director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project. “Participants record their stories, mix them with music and share them on CDs, the radio and webcasts,” Lyons said. One hears the quiet anger, guilt and sadness of an Ecuadorian woman who came to the U.S. to support her family and hasn’t seen her 13-year-old son since he was 3, or the panic and rage of a family who has had a father deported. “These stories inspire me and enrage me,” said Lyons. “They keep me doing the work I do.”
More information about the book launch party for “Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines” or the Philadelphia Storytelling Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.