"We're here," said Eric Thomas, my Welsh cousin.

We'd just climbed a steep hill in the Dowlais section of Merthyr Tydfil, the once-mighty coal, iron and steel town in South Wales where my dad was born in 1922.

"This is the street where your father lived," Eric said. "Do you want to walk on it?"

Pausing, I got a good view for the first time of the magnificent valley my dad had once called home.

For so long, I'd imagined seeing the gritty neighborhood of row houses ("terrace houses" in South Wales) where little Tommy Riordan was born, the places where he played, the candy shop he so fondly remembered.

Perhaps I might find the schoolyard where he broke a leg, nearly a century ago.

My father as a boy. Photo taken in North Adams, MA.
THE RIORDAN FAMILY
My father as a boy. Photo taken in North Adams, MA.

But I hadn't imagined Wales would be so hauntingly beautiful.

My dad was only 6 when he bid farewell to Wales. His parents had left him in the care of his grandmother and his aunts in Dowlais and sent for him after they found work and made a new home in the Western Massachusetts mill town of North Adams.

My father as an infant in Dowlais, Wales, being held by his aunt Rachel Thomas. Twenty-two years later, he was serving with the Navy in the South Pacific and she was among the nurses tending to British wounded in the first wave of the D-Day invasion.
RIORDAN FAMILY
My father as an infant in Dowlais, Wales, being held by his aunt Rachel Thomas. Twenty-two years later, he was serving with the Navy in the South Pacific and she was among the nurses tending to British wounded in the first wave of the D-Day invasion.

Growing up there, I was thrilled by the fact that my father had begun his life so unimaginably far away.

He was the hardest-working man I'll ever know. He was a linotype operator at our local newspaper and held a second, nearly full-time job as a clerk at the A&P. But his roots in what he always called  "the old country" made him seem almost cosmopolitan.

I used to think that someday I'd surprise him with a vacation to South Wales. But in 1995, a few years after his retirement, Dad died of prostate cancer.

Last year, I was told that I, too, have the disease. Unlike my father's diagnosis, mine was made early enough to support an optimistic prognosis.

So I decided to stop waiting for just the right moment to go to Wales. Last month I arrived in Merthyr, a pretty and well-kept town of about 60,000, where Eric and I started a conversation that continued for three memorable days.

He's 84, a widower, a father and a born storyteller with an accent that reminded me of my Welsh grandmother, who was his paternal aunt.

He introduced me to 20 or so other members of our extended family, who were as down-to-earth, lively and welcoming a bunch of folks as I could ever have hoped to meet. I immediately felt as if I'd know them forever.

On the night before I left, they all attended a dinner Eric arranged for me at a local hotel. I was at a loss for words — an unusual, if not unprecedented, situation.

It was only later that I realized I felt at home among the family I never met because I grew up with and was shaped by people just like them: Smart, sociable, proudly working-class people, strong people willing to travel as far from home as America or Australia to build better lives for themselves.

"I try to keep in touch with family, no matter where they are," Eric told me. "I may write a book about that someday."

A remarkably energetic churchgoer, movie buff and music lover — he cried when he played me his favorite LP of a traditional Welsh choir — Eric has lived virtually his entire life in Merthyr.

At 18, he got a job at the vast iron and steel works in Dowlais and became a skilled mold-maker. He was there when the place closed four decades later, bringing to an end more than two centuries of the iron and steel industry in Merthyr (the last deep coal mine in town shut down in 2008).

Eric has never needed a car. So we walked or took a remarkably convenient local bus everywhere, and everywhere we went we ran into people he knew, including at Cyfartha Castle.

A formidable stone mansion built by one of the "Ironmasters" who once dominated nearly every facet of life in the Welsh valleys, it's now a museum and art gallery.

"We're a tourist attraction," Eric said.  "We're no longer industrial."

Much like my Massachusetts hometown, where thousands of jobs in textiles, shoes, paper and, later, electronic components disappeared in the last century. Or like Camden, where blue-collar labor has been replaced, at least in part, by white-collar eds, meds and techie positions.

At one point during my travels with Eric, the bus passed a sculpture in the middle of a roundabout. This art object has been made of an ingot like those Eric worked with, a monument to Merthyr's glory days.

"I don't care where they put it as long as it's somewhere that's on view by the general public," he said. "They should have some idea of our past."

Likewise, the Cyfartha Castle museum highlights not only the majesty of Merthyr's vanished industries, but the lives of the workers who kept them humming, and lived in the smoky maze of streets criss-crossing the hillsides and the valley floor.

"It was so much easier in the old days," said Eric. "You could leave your front door open, because everybody trusted everybody else. Everybody in that little area where you lived knew everybody else."

His recollections of the collieries, iron works and steel mills where generations of Welshmen made a  living were more resonant than any historical image. So were his memories of the pubs on nearly every corner, the boxing matches, the snooker halls and the Castle Cinema, the movie palace for the people of Merthyr.

"Are you getting a picture? In your head, I mean," Eric said, as we stood on Walter Street, at the top of the hill where the Thomases and the Riordans had once lived. "All through here was houses, but they've knocked it all down."

The house, the candy store, the schoolyard and nearly everything else that my father might have remembered were, indeed, gone.

But the clear view of the valley reminded me of my where I grew up in Western Massachusetts. To a 6-year-old boy from that beautiful valley in Wales, America must have looked a lot like home.

Kevin Riordan and his cousin Eric Thomas stand on the street where his father lived in the Dowlais section of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK.
KEVIN RIORDAN
Kevin Riordan and his cousin Eric Thomas stand on the street where his father lived in the Dowlais section of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, UK.