As I talked to Sonya Siegfried, I started to forget the main reason for my visit, which was to discuss her election last month as the second woman to serve as president of the Lehigh County Historical Society.
The historical society is 109 years old, so I thought it was worth noting. Eleanor Pope Leh, a beloved civic leader who died in 1996, was the only other woman to serve in the role, and that was in the mid-1960s.
"I follow in some big shoes," Siegfried told me when I stopped by the J.S. Burkholder Funeral Home in Allentown, where she is general manager and works alongside her husband, Todd, commemorating and burying untold scores of the citizenry every year.
The funeral home is in a magnificent Victorian mansion at 1601 Hamilton St. — part of Allentown's Millionaire's Row of grand old houses built by factory owners and other long-ago royalty — and has been Siegfried's workplace since the summer of 1986, shortly after she graduated the mortuary program at Northampton Community College.
We sat in a nicely appointed room with marble samples on the table — for headstones — and Siegfried, of Upper Macungie Township, told me how her love of history was a seed planted early, when she was growing up in West Virginia and used to travel with her family to Gettysburg and other soul-stirring havens of the American past.
"Growing up, if you liked science and history and math — the boys were supposed to like those sorts of things," she said, trying to account for the general deficit of women in the historical society over the years, and not just in the top role.
As I say, that was the main reason for my visit — the news hook — but soon enough I forgot about the glass ceiling of historical societies and simply listened to Siegfried talk about the very nature of history.
"Our future is our history," she said, which at first blush sounded like a Zen meditation koan but simply meant that what happens today — not only on a grand scale, like the war in Syria, but in the workaday lives of every last one of us — is the foundation of what's to come.
Everything counts, in other words. Her parents drummed that lesson in at the dinner table, where everyone was expected to share some news of the day and risked dishwashing duty if they came up empty.
As we talked, and Siegfried happily hopscotched from one story to another, I began to think of quilts — not the decorative kind, but the kind used to stitch together elements of family stories for posterity.
For example, Siegfried said her husband's ancestors were the first white settlers in Berks County's Maxatawney Township, and their homestead is now the site of the Rodale Institute on Siegfriedale Road.
And speaking of farms, Siegfried bought her own family's ancestral farm in West Virginia eight years ago and has been restoring it, including the blacksmith shop where her great-great-uncle hammered out tools and horseshoes.
"So there's some history," she said, mentioning at the same time how the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, the society's headquarters, offers annual genealogy workshops so people can develop the skills they need to uncover such connections in their own families.
She spoke generously of the society, praising executive director Joseph Garrera and assistant director Jill Youngken and all the other untiring detectives who devote themselves to uncovering and preserving the past.
She also talked a bit about the funeral home, which was founded in 1895 by the stout, mustached Jacob S. Burkholder and used to operate out of a building on Linden Street where the Hess's parking garage stands now.
The current home was built for Charles Ziegenfuss, owner of Dorney Furniture, and some of the original blueprints hang in frames on one of the receiving room walls. These are stamped with the name of the architectural firm, Jacoby & Weishampel, which designed some of the best-known buildings in the Lehigh Valley. One, at 1227 Hamilton St., was the home of Gen. Harry Trexler for a time.
"So there's some history," Siegfried said again, adding that Trexler, the industrialist, and Burkholder, the funeral director, ended up as near neighbors in Allentown's Fairview Cemetery.
Ziegenfuss is buried there, too. He was never a funeral director, but many furniture makers were, Siegfried told me, because they made caskets.
We only spent about an hour together, but I got the sense that Siegfried could make a paper chain of such historical links that would stretch across Allentown. I also concluded that the historical society had done itself proud by making her president.
Did I mention she's only the second woman to hold that role?