Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Thomas Wolfe Was Correct

Our former home, depicted in a Colonial Revival era color-tinted photograph by Wallace Nutting: "A New Hampshire Brick Ender"

Thomas Wolfe was right and so was Thornton Wilder. When it comes to going home, we can't quite repeat an experience again, we can't even relive it, but we can attempt to revisit and see things in a new way. You can't exactly repeat any one day of your life, like Emily tried to do in revisiting her 14th birthday after her death in Our Town, but that would be the point.

When you return to a place where you have lived and loved, it is never the same. When you are gone for a prolonged period, that odd, uneven homecoming is laced with a bittersweet taste, especially if you are not returning to the house where you have recently lived or the one in which you may have grown up. Both of those family homes are no longer in our family (and their undoing by our choices has not been lost on me and yet I know that those were the right ones). So for the first time in my life I am revisiting this beloved place where I can not just go and open a door and walk inside and find immediate comfort and the old familiarity that is a home (however, renting one that belongs to a cousin to whom we gave a favorite soft and chintzy couch, is somehow reassuring). I knew of this reality before my departure–and also years before that with some subtle and then pronounced changes, and the eventual sale, of our family farm–but knew that it needed to be confronted. I had a perfect two-week window in June, quite possibly my favorite month in New Hampshire. I knew if I didn't seize this time to be here that another year could go by and that I needed to relearn, sooner than that, how to negotiate being in a place of memory while no longer living in it. And what better window than your eldest child's forthcoming 21st birthday?

The first day I drove to Syracuse, New York via Akron, Ohio, where I stopped briefly to drop some copies of The Pantry at a beloved historic museum home that was once in our family (for a book signing at an annual meeting on my way back to Kentucky). When I was a child, every summer we drove to New Hampshire from Akron the same way, along the New York Thruway, usually at night. This homecoming was my first since moving and selling our house 10 months ago, the longest stretch I've been away from New Hampshire since my Akron childhood. So it was fitting that I chose the northerly route to avoid rains in the Appalachians, which we generally follow up from the rolling knobs where we live, along the spine of the mountains and hills and on into the northeast.

Except for a brief detour in Akron, I was on the interstate the entire way until I pulled off of I-91 on route 10 in Northfield, Massachusetts, the same way we approached at the end of a long night of sleeping in the station wagon as it carried us, bum pity, bump, across the cement interstate of New York. I was secure with my father at the helm and my mother at his side pouring him coffee, while we slept stretched on mattresses in the back end. Around dawn we would hear them announce, "We're in New Hampshire!" as we crossed the state line into Winchester. "Yea!" we'd answer in our bleary-eyed state. From there it seemed the next forty-five minutes were the longest stretch of the journey: the evergreen canopy over the road enclosed our way until our first glimpse of Mount Monadnock that teased us between breaks in the trees all the way to my grandparents' farm in Jaffrey.

In Northfield, a town with a long Main Street and every represented style of New England architecture, I couldn't get enough of the buildings. My mother went to boarding school at Northfield School for Girls (for many years part of Northfield Mount Hermon) and we enjoyed seeing her old haunts as we passed along. On this trip I even took some photographs (always one to stop for a building, I realized I'm now a kind of tourist in my own land). Strawberry signs began to pop up and I stopped to buy some (savoring the strawberry segue from Kentucky's almost end of season to the start of New Hampshire's upon arrival here).

Pine trees and old cemeteries and stone walls are everywhere in New Hampshire.

With a pause in Winchester at the Evergreen Cemetery, something I'd never stopped to notice (and probably shocked to not see plastic flowers on all of the grave stones, a common site in the South), I inhaled the scent of pine. Past Fitzwilliam on the way to Rindge, a moose crossed in front of me, safely enough away that I would not hit him. In all of my 33 years as a New Hampshire resident, and a lifetime of visits, that has never happened to me once. In fact, it was only the third moose I've ever seen. I took it as a good and welcome omen.

In Rindge I passed the Cathedral of the Pines on the way to my mother's to say hello. I saw the gaping hole left beyond the bell tower where the pines fell and were cleared after the devastating December ice storm. Beyond that has always been a magnificent view of Mount Monadnock [as Nathaniel Hawthorne noted in 1838, "like a sapphire cloud against the sky"] to the west, within a windy bower of pines, now all gone. [Ironically, the impulse for the cathedral was created out of the devastation--and clearing out--of the Hurricane of 1938.] Everywhere has been evidence of the woodland carnage: trees still arching over, piles of wood debris on the sides of the roads. I visited with my mother (also the longest I have been away from her) and she followed me up to help me settle into my lovely rented home in the northern part of the region (thanks to a dear cousin). The day was clear and warm, with brilliant blue skies and white puffy clouds. I couldn't have asked for a better homecoming.

Later on I drove over to another town to see some friends and realized the fastest route was to come through my old town. And yes, to pass down the Main Street of memory, right past our old house, the house I can not dream about when I sleep but that can sometimes haunt my day dreams, creating such longing that I truly know what homesick means. But then, as soon as I dwell in it for a while, I can leave it again only to return to each remembered room as I can with every family home in my memory. I have recently found renewed comfort in this Biblical passage: "In my Father's house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go and prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." John 14:2-3

A cache of flag irises, in abundant bloom now.

There is a scene in a particularly violent David Lynch movie, Blue Velvet, if memory serves, where the beginning of the movie is in slow motion and the protagonist drives through the summer afternoon serenity of his Southern town and people are waving, watering their lawns, living their lives (or maybe that was at the end of the movie Pleasantville?). I experienced this same dream-like trance when I arrived here again, where things seemed somehow new again but yet strange in their luster. As if I had returned from a long sleep myself. The canopies of trees, after two long days on American interstates where open rolling lands and wide cleared alleys drive us onwards, were suddenly strange to me. Had living in open knob country where wide vistas are common somehow changed me?

Shirley ("Shirl) and Lucy Davison

On Sunday I visited with some farmer friends of ours and stopped at my favorite used bookshop, Old Number Six Book Depot, located in Henniker. I chatted with the employee about the state of books today (a topic for another blog) as well as the recent burial of the power lines in our former town, where he also lives (also a topic for another blog). I can spend hours in this bookshop and nearly did on this trip. I ended with a pour through a few boxes of old New Hampshire Profiles magazines. My grandmother, Louise T. Grummon, occasionally contributed articles to this magazine and it defines, like the earlier years of Yankee Magazine, the New England of my childhood, of my mother's childhood. Almost immediately I found an image that seemed somehow familiar. It was of a New Hampshire village street scene in 1959 and I could tell by the road signage and the glimpse of the brick historical society. Another issue had an ad featuring an image of our former home, the same year it was purchased by my husband's family in 1961. Was the universe speaking to me again, reminding me of my former place in the world and showing me new images of it, while playfully enjoying my return? Of course it was.

This town where I lived for more than a decade has always been a poster child for a Norman Rockwell Hollywood movie set of a perfect New England village. But it, too, has changed. Many of the older families have gone or can not afford to live there any more. In 1997, our oldest son was the first child born on Main Street in over fifty years; now there are many children in the village and that is a good thing (and each of our children benefited from that bounty). Many of our old friends have passed away now and taken a great bit of the town with them. We lived our lives in such a way that we did not interact much with the town. I realize that is not how a villager should live but that we were probably not suited to being villagers (which is probably why we live on several hundred acres in Kentucky now). [IMAGE, above, shows our former home, Whitcomb House, as it appeared in an ad at the back of a New Hampshire Profiles magazine in 1961, the same year my husband's grandparents purchased it.]

I found this image of my former village in a 1959 edition of New Hampshire Profiles magazine in a favorite used bookstore. Majestic elms once lined Main Street. We planted six "Liberty" elms from the Elm Research Institute in front of our house ten years ago and five are still living. [Click to enlarge image for detail.]

The same view in June 2009, fifty years later, the elms long gone.

So my visit hasn't been mournful so far but refreshed. There have been a few tears but they have mostly been because of joy and release, a kind of needed catharsis of closure and renewal. I am seeing the region with new eyes, seeing old friends, my mother, my daughter (who is visiting from her own new life in another nearby state), and immersing myself in a place that is dear to me but that is no longer home. And that is OK, too, because I know where that is. I already feel the pull back there but know it is well-tended, that my husband is taking the helm and that my boys are so happy in their new land that they really didn't want to pause this month to come back to their old one. This confirms what I already knew: that we made the right decision to move when we did.

Just before she turns 21 later this week, for two days my daughter, mother (who was 70 in February) and I will walk along the sea and we will rejoice in the beauty and wonder of all the things that matter, in all the places to love, in all the people to love. My mother was there for the birth of each of my children and I know that she carries us in her heart, even from the miles away that we are, just as I carry my own children--and my extended family--forever in mine. Our seaside visit will be both a beginning and an end, as every journey needs to have, as well as a destination.

By Father's Day I will have returned to my new Kentucky home, far away from the pinewoods and the stonewalls and the clear granite-bottomed lakes, and the familiar architecture, from family and old friends. But I will be refreshed as I carry the past into my future, as I embrace again my husband, my boys–my new land, my new home.

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