(Laura Ingalls Wilder)
Home. Is it a building? A town? A state of mind?
I grew up in a house that my father built on the edge of a dying leather mill town in rural upstate New York. It is the only house I remember living in as a child, though I know that for a short time when I was very young, my family lived in an apartment building a few blocks away. I’ve always considered that particular house my ‘home’—the semantics of which drive my husband crazy when I refer to it as such. Like when I tell our son: ‘We’re going home for Thanksgiving’. “We’re going to your parents’ house,” he specifies, not a little exasperated.
I understand his annoyance. He wants me to think of our house as ‘home’—in the whole biblical sense of leaving our parents and joining our betrothed—which I do, too. At the end of a weekend with my parents, as my mother slips food for the return journey into my bag, I tell her: I’ll call you when I get home, and Cold Spring is what I mean. But there is a difference. Despite the fact that I haven’t lived in the place for two decades, I feel a distinct intimacy to the land, to the sky, to the very air that surrounds my home town when our car crests the hill on Route 29 and carries us into it.
When I am home—my old home, my parents home…whatever—I find that I am able to access a part of myself that is dormant most other times. It could simply be the acclimatization to country life that shakes things loose, but I suspect the transformation has to do with something more resolute than geography. The territory I roamed when I was young feels alive to me. Pungent mosses grow thick on the rocks and rotting logs, and in summertime the smell of manure from the horse farm up the road billows into the yard, riding deep on the hot, arid wind. My brother and I used to get lost for hours amidst the neck-high bulrush and sweet grasses that border the pond at the edge of the field. We’d sit for awhile amid the magic and then stuff our pockets with riches—tiny purple wildflowers, bits of fool’s gold, glossy pieces of shale—and then race back home where we’d ceremoniously lay everything out on the kitchen table. By the time we presented the trove to our mother, the leaves would be wilted and the rocks dry and no longer lustrous, but we didn’t care.
My parents have lived in the same place forever and, like hangers-on in many small towns, speak of the ‘old days’ with the tired nostalgia of surrender as they watch WalMart engulf acres of farmland that, during their childhoods, yielded corn and soybeans and potatoes. They sigh and vote ‘yes’ to allow zoning for a superstore and another distribution center, the low-wage jobs a necessary solution to the rising rate of unemployment, but a fix that will surely maintain the cycle of sadness and poverty that has caught hold there like a virus.
Sometimes after dinner my father drinks bourbon and tells us, again, about the spring when the city park was built—a garden and a band shell constructed on a block of land next to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Main Street. A shoe store and a bakery were razed to make way for wooden benches and fertilized grass and, once the wrecking balls and tractors were done, the topography, and his perception of the place, had changed forever. Improvement was how the mayor touted it. Inevitable development is what my father says. When he crosses the street to go to the bank, he still shivers in remembered shadows of buildings long gone.
I feel haunted in that town, too, despite the comfort I feel in being back home again. I understand the misery of the place, yet I also see the rolling foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in the distance. I know that, just a few miles down Route 30, majestic peaks and clean air fill the sky, and that once you get out far enough, the black smoke that seeps from chimneys in town—even in the hottest weeks of July—filters away and disappears.
Maybe I’m attached to those fields and streams because they hold the record of my darkest hours. Nights in high school when my father found me somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, his disapproval heavy on the car ride home; awkward years of glasses and legwarmers and big, sprayed hair, clumsy friendships, fights with my mother, and the days when I prayed to be anywhere in the world but stuck there, in that, with all of them.
Still, the place is my home. Standing at the doorway to middle age I find myself questioning who I am (and why I am on this planet) with alarming regularity. As I seek explanations to those and other more esoteric concerns, I hunt around in the past for answers, soliciting people who knew me when I was a kid, searching the dusty corners of the place where the seeds of who I would become were planted and tended to. That town, that house…they will always be the place; my place. The geographic nucleus of the sense of self I carry with me no matter where I lay my head, no matter how many years I am away from it, no matter how lost I become.