Perfect Placement

“Pooh Bear has a spot, a log under a tree marked by a sign, that reads ‘Pooh’s Thoughtful Spot.’
 
“This is where Pooh would go to think. From this, a famous quote emerged, ‘This is a thoughtful spot to rest.'”

–April Giatt, “A Thoughtful Spot”, sholom.org

There were 14 of us around the table, talking about culture, talking about place. Our book of focus was JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. We all connect to the same small college. We are old and young, male and female, faculty and staff, retired, just starting out, and mid-career. And about half of us have our roots here, in this land, in this place, and in this culture.

The rest of us come, mostly, from northeastern United States and northern Ohio—places not so far away, maybe, but places that are different in shape and scope and in the way the wind smells after a soaking rain. One young instructor comes from a cityscape in new Jersey, and she is dedicated to understanding her Appalachian students.

She expected to deal with issues like excess partying and crazy costumes and disrespectful language…and she found, to her pleased surprise, that, those kind of issues are short in supply here. But she encountered other challenges, like the student who had to miss an important exam because her grandmother was in the hospital.

Her grandmother was not critically ill; it was a gall bladder operation.  No matter, the student told her professor, the family HAD to be there.

But…the young professor said. But…doesn’t your grandmother want you to pass this class—to do well in school? She must be so proud of you.

My grandmother, said the student, wants me at the hospital.

The people around the table who’d grown up in the area nodded and jumped in with their own stories. One talked of the edict, on a night that she had a very important meeting–a meeting, mind you, in which she had an organizational and a speaking role– to come sit vigil with the extended family for Aunt Aggie–who was 94, and had been slowly dying quite a while. Come and be there, the caller said, with 14 other family members, for the conference with the doctor. The person thus called upon is a smart and savvy woman, a polished professional who has made strong decisions and excelled at school and forged new pathways. And Aunt Aggie, mind you, was long past knowing or caring who was in the room with her.

So what did you do? the New Jersey refugee asked.

I told my mother, Aunt Aggie won’t know or care if I’m there, said our colleague. And my mother told me, Your Uncle Gary wants you there.

She looked at us and shrugged wryly.

So, she said, I went and sat vigil with Aunt Aggie.

Several people nodded.

It’s what we do here, they agreed.

They believe in the power and the value of family. They believe that you need celebration at birth, and support throughout your life.

They believe that, as long as you have family, there’s no reason for you to die alone.

**************

There are those of us who leave, and there are those of us who stay: for all of us, there is the issue, the decision, of place. The places we choose shape us and hone us.

Our choice of place is an important part of who we are.

**************

We lived for a while on the prairie in western Ohio, where Mark went to law school. We visited the campus the spring before he enrolled, exploring and observing; we watched students walking the sidewalks that intersected the manicured lawns. We gaped.

“Where are the piercings?” I asked. “Where’s the purple hair?”

I had worked at a SUNY campus where many of the students majored in music or art; they were dramatic and flamboyant young people with studded lips and noses. They wore vintage fabrics draped artfully over authentically tattered jeans.  Their hair color often changed to match their costume hues. Many students, both men and women, dark-lined their eyes, and their passionate conversations soared and crested.

On the campus that housed Mark’s law school, the students walked sedately. Young men wore Oxford shirts; some free spirits jauntily rolled their long sleeves up. We saw more khaki pants than jeans, and the young women, hair shining, often wore skirts.

They were polite and smiling; probably thinking anyone as old as we were must be faculty or administration, they all said respectful hellos when we passed.

Mark and I exchanged looks. “Toto,” we agreed, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Twice, faced with unexpected detours on the back roads of Ohio, I was rescued by polite young men in pickup trucks who insisted that they’d lead me back to civilization. One drove seven miles out of his way to get me onto the main road, and then turned his truck–which was pulling a trailer full of hay–around in a driveway, waved and sped off before I could even stop to thank him.

It’s how these boys were taught to behave. Or, as friends with strong roots here say, “It’s how we do things here.”

The people are nice where I came from, but I don’t see that seven mile detour happening. Place has a lot to do with how we act and interact.

******************

There’s a writer I like, Sharyn McCrumb, who writes books about North Carolina Appalachian folks–folks who are deeply rooted in the hills and the hollers of her fictional county. And she touches on, in her writing, the massive exodus of the Scots and the Irish from their lands, and their flight to the United States.

There’s a strand of green mineral, McCrumb says, that undergirds Scotland and Ireland. The same mineral strand runs below the hills of Appalachia. The author believes that back in the days of Pangaea, the Celtic lands connected to Appalachia. Then some catastrophic cracking separated the mass into two continents. But when the Scots Irish came to America and looked for a place to settle, the hills of Appalachia, formed and shaped by the same geology as the hills they left behind, spoke ‘home’ to them.

“Yep,” I can imagine them saying, “This here. This is the place.”

Transient, forced to leave their birth-lands, they settled in places that looked and felt and smelled like home. And protected–or cut off, depending on your view–from outside influence, they retained many of the customs and courtesies of the lands they’d fled. In fact, the year we first moved to this area, a troupe presented Shakespeare in the park in Columbus, Ohio–presented the play in Appalachian dialect. The language, the director maintained, was the closest living language left to Elizabethan English. Nurtured and protected in those hills and hollows, it  survived when other dialects were flattened out and homogenized by proximity and media.

Some of those hollows are still pretty well insulated from modern intrusions. There are students here who go home to houses where the long arm of the Internet still does not reach–or whose “highspeed” Internet is dial-up.

If your place does not plug into modern society’s media arteries, that, too, defines you.

***************

We understand that ‘click’ of connection, Mark and I do, with land that feels like home. We enjoyed the people and the long vistas and the opportunities afforded by our prairie years, but there were days when the cold wind blew in, relentless, from the west, and I could look out miles and miles and miles to try to see where it was coming from–a flat unbroken plain of view.

We grew up, both us, in western New York, on the coast of Lake Erie, where gentle foothills swell into the Allegheny Mountains. Those rolling hills shaped and formed us, and we found we missed them. (Once, then, I made Mark drive us to a nearby town called Mount Victory, so we could see the mount. We found, sadly, that the highest point in town was the railway overpass; there was no hill to climb.)

When we first visited Knox County, Ohio, where we’d live after Mark graduated, we felt an immediate connection. The hills rolled and gentled.

“This feels,” Mark said, “like home.”

****************

If one lives in the United States, one comes from migratory stock. One’s ancestors may have chosen to relocate, or they may have been forcibly relocated. But relocate they did. The mythos of the country is a legend of migration–of westward expansion, of independent cusses who had to up and move when the land got crowded, when things like stores and schools and churches moved in.

My friend Wendy, who grew up in New England,–where, of course, they famously farm for rocks,–comes to visit and she marvels at the rich and gently rolling land. New Englanders must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven, she says, when they came upon this fertile land. No wonder this place called to them.

People choose their places by geography or opportunity, by job and by marriage.  Some put down long roots and really merge, and generations come to know and appreciate the same spaces.  Others are transplants; their roots stay closer to the surface. Survivors, they know that they may have to pull up those shallow roots and move on again.

There are benefits and sacrifices to whatever choice is made.

*****************

I am thinking about place because of the revelations that emerge in discussing Hillbilly Elegy, and some of the mysteries of this place, and some of the mysteries of these practices, are explained.

I am thinking about place as one I know contemplates a difficult choice between two wonderful jobs–one that would take him away from the home he and his family have adopted and grown to love, but that would also move him closer to his roots.

I am thinking about place because a friend is willingly exiled by a family emergency; she misses the geography and the comfort and the refuge of home.

I am thinking of place as the reality of time rubs against the needs of an adult son with disabilities; he will need to access services after his father and I are gone. Where, we ponder, is the best place for us, ultimately, to live?

******************

The places we live work to shape us; the choices we make help define us. We choose this place because…it feels like home. It gives us room. It offers work. It has the goods, the services, the people, the proximity, that fill our need. Or–we choose this place because our family is here. Because our roots go deep, and we will not pull them up.

We choose because this is the sight we want to see every morning when we wake up and take our mug of steaming coffee onto the back stoop; this is the vista we need to start our every day.

The choice we make reflects what is most important to us at the time of choosing. We may make that choice many times in a lifetime. Staying will teach us many things. Upping roots and going will give us chances to learn others.

********************

And those who go and those who stay blend and meld and create cultures–and those cultures slowly change and shift, enriched–not often impoverished–by the influence of people, of media, of industry and tourism and the winds that blow across the lake, the plain, the mountain peak. We may be tiny pebbles dropped into a large still pond, but the dropping makes a ripple. We change the culture. The place exerts its pressure onto us.

There is not, I don’t think, a WRONG place to live–unless the place we’ve chosen sucks our souls dry or presents us with choices we cannot bear to make. But our places absolutely shape our beings.

We all, like Pooh Bear, need to find our place. And we need to be able to look at the place we’ve chosen, to sigh, and to and say, “This is a thoughtful place to rest.”

Fifth Grade Fire; Fifth Grade Ice

Schoolwork

Staying Put

SOJ

There was in the eyes a look of anticipation and joy, a far-off look that sought the horizon; one often sees it in seafaring families, inherited by boys and girls alike from men who spend their lives at sea, and are always watching for distant sails or the first loom of the land.–Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of The Pointed Firs

The big brick house has been for sale for over a year, stately, patient in its parklike setting.  It has a broad and welcoming doorway with sidelights and a transom; there is a big second story dormer right above that hints at a spacious landing where one could sit with a book in a chaise, cozily afghaned, while the snow flutters down…

I look the listing up on-line; I see a grand staircase with a gleaming bannister, and I see really bad, bad wallpaper throughout.

It would be this house all over again, Mark says.  Every wall would have to be changed, every room. And this house had good bones; we don’t know what that house’s bones are like.

He’s right: we are slowing down.  Another enormous project–probably not now, not for us.  Still, I watch as the price falls lower and lower, and I think: Three FULL bathrooms.

My own bathroom!

A bathroom for each one of us!

Five bedrooms, three and a half baths, over an acre of land…and the price falls down to 104,900.  My heart yearns. And then: the open house sign goes up.

I talk the boys into a tour before our Sunday sojourn to Half Price Books.  Mark agrees, interested; he wants to see the inside.  Jim agrees, reluctant; he loves our current house and neighborhood and does not want to move.

So we take a trip into the past; into bathrooms with pink sinks and turquoise tiles and a houseful of knob and tube wiring.  Old coiled metal radiators provide heat; there is no central air.  The basement is portioned into tiny musty rooms, and where the washer-dryer should be, the plumbers have excavated the floor down to bare dirt, tracking in new plumbing.

The wonderful antique tile, the grand and welcoming staircase, the bold and gleaming mantle over a working fireplace, the incredible park-like space…they can’t compete with the amount of work that needs to be done.  The plaster walls upstairs are crumbling; the raucous wallpaper is all that holds them in place. The slate roof must be replaced.

“It’s a gut job,” says Mark.  “It would take a couple hundred thousand just to get it livable.”

Of course, he’s right; we thank Jay, the nice realtor, and we climb into the car and head to Westerville.  But a little part of me yearns–for all that space; for all that challenge. For that new landscape.

I have a perfectly lovely house, a house that has all I need, and that offers plenty of projects I can undertake.  It’s in a lovely area; we have amazing neighbors.  But a little voice natters on about having been here four years, almost five.  “When,” it pokes, “have you ever lived anywhere for five whole years?”

Why can’t I just be happy where I am?  Why am I always looking toward the next move?

Maybe it’s time to settle in, to embrace the place, a place that welcomes and engages us.  It is, for me, surprisingly hard.

*********

When I was six months old, my parents bought a big house on the main street of our little town.  We lived in the house for ten years; we added a downstairs bedroom for my brother Dennis as he grew older, more serious, in need of a quiet place to study and read.  The house had lovely features–a stairway encased in French doors, gleaming hardwood, spacious, stately rooms.  The backyard flowed out into a ‘way-back’ yard, and that butted up against a field which led to a woods.  We loved that house; all of us did.

But, the year that I turned ten, the bottom fell out from family finances, and we had to sell the house. We moved to a neighboring city, which meant changing schools. Some of my brothers, entrenched with friends and activities, baseball teams and paper routes, were not happy. But we were moving to a rental near the lake; it had a big yard and a willow tree.  I would walk to the beach (if Mom would let me) and I would start a whole new school–a public school, which would be vastly different from my life, to that date, with nuns.

I really couldn’t wait.

I loved that new house, too, although the spiders were enormous, the basement dirt-floored and scary, and the location far, far away from even a corner store to walk to. Still, some summer days, my mother would pack up a picnic lunch and I would walk to the park by the beach with my younger brother; we would swing at the playground and wade in the lake, conscientious about our pledge not to go full-out swimming.  We would eat our lunch at a glossy, green-painted picnic table, and trudge home, tired but happy, having had a summer adventure.

I fell asleep at night to the sound of the water pounding the beach.  Stormy nights were thrilling.

We stayed a year and moved into town, into a duplex shared with the owners.  That neighborhood had three girls just my age; we formed a gang; we read books together, we wrote plays, we knitted. In the green seasons, we played Capture the Flag and Red Rover Red Rover (until Amy broke her collar bone and the game was unanimously banned by all parents); there was a troop of kids, always enough for kickball or wiffleball, enough to put on plays and carnivals. But. We had two fires in that house because of antique heating; there were relationship problems between my clattery family and the quiet, prim landlords.  Before two years went by, we moved again.

That new house, also a rental, became somewhat permanent; my parents stayed there until they moved to the tiny retirement apartment where they lived out their lives.  I enjoyed living there until college; then I tried out a series of apartments, learned that partying and housekeeping were incompatible, tried hard to grow up and get responsible.  I’d fly back to that semi-permanent roost; move out, explore, enjoy, reconsider.  I got married; that three-year adventure involved two rented homes.  From there I moved to a tiny bachelorette apartment until meeting Mark and deciding, after a somewhat lengthy courtship, to make it legal.

**********
My mother’s family came to the States from Scotland; on one side of the family the men were seafarers.  On the other side, they were innkeepers.  I always thought that was a nice intertwining: the roving and the rooted.

When they settled in the Buffalo, New York, area, the men got jobs on Great Lakes freighters, or on the docks, close to the pulsing waters if not on them.  I often thought you could see the water in their eyes, which were blue and changeable, stormy at times, and serene at others.

My mother had those eyes.  I have them, too.

I have never been a world traveler; my journeys have been from the western side of the Northeast to the eastern edges of the Midwest. I just love the adventure, and the possibility, of another move.

***********
Mark owned a snug, sturdy little bungalow when we got married; it was the only home Matt remembered, and we stayed there until he graduated from high school–some ten years.  That was a long time for me, but not for Mark, whose family created a homestead in the house they moved into when Mark was six. His mother still maintains that big, red-shingled house, a home base for scattered siblings.

When Matt graduated from high school, we moved; Mark had changed jobs, I had always had a commute, and Jim’s special needs were best met in a different system anyway. Although we loved our neighbors and community, there were compelling reasons to go.

We rented an old inn for a year; it was built in the 1830’s, it had broad plastered rooms, gleaming woodwork, a scary cistern in the dirt-floored basement, and a pathway through the vineyards to the woods.

We bought our house on Orchard Street then and settled in until Mark, four years later, went off to law school.

There, in that law school village, we transformed a trailer on a corner lot, abutting a prairie cornfield; it offered a little more autonomy and a little more equity than a rented apartment would have, and it was a fun experiment in downsizing.

We bought a rambling old house in the town where Mark found his first job after graduating; then, when Mark changed jobs, we were blessed with the chance to buy the house we live in now, with its lovely neighborhood and double lot, its sturdy bones.

I figure I have lived in 13 homes throughout my life–it averages out to a new home every four years and three months, give or take.

Some nights, I look out the window, at the familiar landscape, and I feel a yearning to uproot, to move forward to a new building, new walls.  I look at ads in the newspaper, thinking–wouldn’t it be nice to have three full baths?  There’s a whole lot we could do with those two extra bedrooms…

**************

I think about blue-eyed wanderers.  It seems true in my immediate family–my blue-eyed brother Dennis, too, was a rover, moving as his career dictated; my blue-eyed brother Michael stayed in the same house for a long time, but his naval years might have planted the travel bug.  He relocated after retirement, to another state altogether, and as I write this, he and Mary, my sister-in-law, are visiting friends overseas.

Do brown eyes signify an attachment to the solid earth that grounds us? My brown-eyed brothers seem more settled and place-bound; my brown-eyed husband and son want no part of another move.

*******

I sit at my comfortable dining room table, and I write this early on a Sunday morning.  Maxie, the feline mayor of the neighborhood, is sleeping mulchily in my flower bed; a troop of five deer tiptoe daintily down my drive.  They stop, momentarily, and regard Max; some kind of message slides among them; they ramble off. My dog rumbles lazily at the wildlife outside, but she’s too content to take any kind of action.

Mark spent yesterday re-wiring the old garage, swinging a long metal light fixture to another situation, enlisting James and me as holders and steadiers as he mounted  a ceiling fan.

The garage will become his workshop; he has plans to repurpose the paint room downstairs for my craft room; and the south side of the basement is becoming a living suite, an efficiency apartment, a man-cave, for James.

We have carved out a guest room; we have plans to make the two half baths full. This house has all I need, all I want, and then some: character and charm, a lovely community, proximity to work. We have good friends here; there is good food here, and there are some very nice museums. It is an easy hop onto the interstate when a road trip is needed.

It is time now to stay put, time now  to claim this particular horizon as my lasting own. No more uprooting, no more home-base exploration is needed (although I reserve the right to make this spot be my true north–the place I can return to from trips far afield.) Now, it is time to say: We are here.

I have a chance, now, to explore my innkeeping, house-holding, heritage. I will hold this house. I will turn my eyes to the possibilities within; I will see what it’s like to stay.

Walking in My Neighborhood, Several Stories Deep

Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood...
Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood…

I clip the leash onto the collar of my wacky little dog, Greta, and pull open the back door. Greta stiffens, and I look down to see Maxie, the new mayor of the neighborhood, standing expectantly outside the storm door.

Maxie is a black cat with a priest’s collar; his head is the size and shape of a squashed softball. He is sleek and talkative. He waits in the ivy, under the shrubs that line the drive, when I come home. As soon as I open the car door, he starts his approach, spouting a long line of complaints: Yowlyowlmewwwwrrrryowlyou! MEW.

He always ends decisively, waiting for a response.

I usually give him a little piece of frozen turkey from a baggie in the freezer; he accepts this, but seems none too thrilled.

Max lives with the Next-to-Newest Neighbors across the street–a lovely mom and her just-college age daughter. Max was the daughter’s friend’s cat. When Daughter’s Friend was going off to school, Daughter’s Friend’s Dad calmly informed her he was going to shoot the damned cat.

Apparently he wasn’t kidding; so, Maxie came home with our next-to-newest neighbor.

He’s an outdoor guy, Max: he only goes in when the weather is too cold for cats to sleep au naturel. Meantime, he prowls the neighborhood, making sure everything is safe. He spends a lot of time with Shirley, our elderly, widowed neighbor. He naps in her window well. She provides food and drink in case Max needs a little nosh.

Sometimes I’ll pull up the driveway and see Max sitting outside Sandy’s Florida room next door, staring hungrily through the window at her squawking gray parrot, who is not amused by the visitation. And for a while, Max decided he wanted to check out the Newest Neighbors’ home across the street. He would stand by their front door and warble insistently. From the house, deep ominous barks resounded. Maxie was unfazed, but the Newest Neighbors did not seem inclined to let him in to explore.

Today, Maxie glances at Greta on the leash, then looks at me in disgust. Really? he registers clearly. Walking that stupid dog??? He gives his sleek shoulders a shake and ambles off toward his nest in the ivy. Greta rumbles deep in her throat and pulls me toward the yard and the front walk. Let’s avoid that scary cat, she’s implying.

We head out to the street. Maxie forgotten, Greta settles in to a nice sniffing meander. We don’t get two steps before she finds a fascinating pocket of scent. We stop, and I gaze across the street, at the lights down below, twinkling out this early morning. A walk with the Grets is a stop and start affair.

Our neighborhood traces a ravine; my house is on the firmly planted side. Across the street, where Next-to-Newest and Newest Neighbors have their sparkling white abodes, the houses perch. Front yards are lovely; back yards drop off abruptly.

The ravine is long and steep and wooded, a refuge for a herd of deer who wander up, unabashed, almost daily. We watch the babies grow up during the summer; we watch the wary relationship between Senior Buck and Junior Buck. Greta snuffles up their scent, fascinated, and they obligingly leave lots of it around, sometimes in freshly steaming piles on the pine needle carpets in our backyard.

Woe to my plantings; they’re fast food for deer. But this Spring—hah! I have a recipe from my woods-and-fields-savvy friend Theresa. I’ll be dousing my hosta, my impatiens, my everything, with the Theresa Formula. Take that, you foraging deer.

There are gray squirrels and black squirrels in the neighborhood; they bore Greta, who just ignores them. There are bunnies, too, and chipmunks, — although, come to think of it, not as many sightings occur since Maxie’s moved in.

Having read her olfactory messages, the dog snorts and we move on. Phyllis’s house is the last on the street, ravine-side. It has a lovely side deck, between the house and a little woods. The driveway leads right up to that deck, which overlooks the ravine, and, at night, a beautiful light display: you can see the busy commerce and industry of Linden Avenue just below; off to the southeast, the lights of the city glitter in the night sky.

The way Phyllis’s house is situated, the street at the corner leads right into her driveway.

One night, shortly after we moved in–congratulating ourselves on landing in this quiet neighborhood–(Mark would stand outside at night with his eyes closed and his arms at his side, palms parallel with the ground, murmuring, “It’s so QUIET.” Our vacated neighborhood was NOT.)–I went to bed early, worn out from the strenuous haul of moving and unpacking. I was reading in bed, eyelids drooping, when the sirens began, a low whining that grew closer and closer.

And closer. Soon, one could hear speeding cars, tires on pavement, brakes squealing; that grew rapidly closer, too. And then, very close, a crash!

I heard Mark’s startled exclamation, heard him scuffing into his old shoes, heard the front door open as he ran out to see what was going on. “Oh. BOY!” Jim said; he was, I could tell from the placement of his voice, standing at the front window.

I considered going down, but knew the Markmeister had it under control. He would tell me the story when he came in.

And so he did. Hotly pursued by a police cruiser, a car drove up the street, couldn’t make the turn, and flew right on to Phyllis’s deck. The driver jumped out and ran into the backyard, where he didn’t expect a ravine. He tumbled over the edge.

Mark stood with Phyllis and her husband Terry as the drama unfolded. The hapless driver, thinking to avoid arrest, crawled up the ravine at the other end of the street. The police, who’d been nonchalantly watching his progress, cuffed him and threw him into the cruiser, called for a tow truck, and took all the necessary information from Phyllis and Terry.

Mark, who works for a county government unit and gets all the juice, brought the details home next day.

Seems Driver Man was from a notorious ne’er-do-well family. Needing some weekend drinkin’ cash, he called for a pizza, thinking he’d take the delivery guy’s stash. Driver Man lived in an isolated country locale.

Delivery Guy arrived, got out of the car, and was confronted by Driver Man, wielding a pistol. Delivery Guy was big, and not a man for nonsense. He slapped the pizza box into Driver Man’s face and took his gun away. Then, when the pizza box fell off Driver Man’s face, Delivery Guy popped him a good one.

Down went Driver Man. Delivery Guy pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. As he was talking to the dispatcher, Driver Man scrambled to his feet. Delivery Man popped him again.

Down, again, went Driver Man.

Now stop hitting him! the dispatcher purportedly said. Get in your car and drive back to work, and an officer will meet you there to pick up the gun and get your report.

O-kay, said Delivery Guy, reluctantly, but when Driver Man got up again, talking some smack, he couldn’t resist knocking him down one last time. By the time the police arrived, Driver Man had wobbled into his own vehicle, and the chase began.

They drove darned near all over the county before Driver Man flew his vehicle onto Phyllis’s deck, decimating it.

By the time the luckless felon crawled up the cliff, he was battered from the repeated poppings, scraped and cut from the fall down the ravine, and ready for medical attention and a comfortable bed in a cell.

The insurance rebuilt Phyllis and Terry’s deck, but it was one of the last times we saw him, that kind, friendly, helpful neighbor. He was hospitalized shortly after the Deck Event. He never came home. Now Phyllis and her sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren enjoy sitting on that deck, talking softly on starry summer nights. But we know how much they miss Terry.

Greta makes her mandatory sniff-examination of Phyllis’s rose bush; satisfied, we wander across the street and up the long curving driveway of the Helen Purcell Home. Helen Purcell had been the sickly daughter of a local family in the early 1800’s. Since she was puny, anyway, she was designated as the one to stay home and care for Mamaw and Papaw. Her siblings went to school, got married, moved away; Helen learned to sew. And she was pretty [I so want to say ‘darned’] good at it. She took in sewing and made a little extra money.

And then, the parents both died, and there was Helen, suddenly and sadly free. She packed up her sewing stuff and her belongings and she moved herself to Cincinnati, where she set up shop. And she succeeded; she was a sought-after seamstress, and an independent woman.

Until her brother got sick. Then Helen was called home–her role, after all, was to care for the sick ones. She left her beloved independent life. She nursed her brother, but she never forgot her taste of freedom. She, the sickly one, outlived all her family contemporaries. When she died, she left her estate in trust, to establish a place where women in need could recover from whatever vicissitudes plagued them. It was a healing home for independent women needing to get back on their feet.

Now it is a home for the elderly; not so very long ago, they agreed, finally, to admit men, too, and the facility offers independent and assisted living and managed care. The staff is lovely, the residents energetic; there is a van that takes people out and about, although many of the residents park their own vehicles in the long carport that faces our house. In the lovely common area, with its polished paneled walls and massive fireplace, there is always a jigsaw puzzle in progress, and always clusters of people visiting and laughing. Not bad neighbors to have.

We round the expansive driveway, and come out on Norwood Boulevard, near the Mission Oaks Gardens. The park, open to all from dawn to dusk, is reached by crossing the Hendleys’ driveway. The Hendleys had a vision of a winding, meandering park within the city; they bought the house and acquired grounds abutting their property, then acquired more, and the gardens grew. We walk there in the good weather, sometimes sitting in the rustic log tea house; we watch throughout the summer, as the plants shoot up and bloom.

There are rhododendrons, local of root; all kinds of hosta; native flowers and imported flowers; trees and shrubs. There is a vast conifer garden. There are two ponds with tall waterfalls, and there are benches and gazebos and many places where a bride can splendidly pose.

It is not a place for Greta to walk, though. I am not sure, prissy city dog that she is, that she’d even consent to walk down the grassy paths; she’s a sidewalk girl, my Greta. But it doesn’t matter: she’s not invited. The park is home to an aging Scottie dog, who greets all visitors and likes a bit of a scratch. When we moved into the neighborhood, there were a pair of Scotties; now this guy remains, alone. He’s awfully glad to walk a ways with a visitor to the garden.

But it’s cold and muddy January; this is not a Mission Oaks day. We walk the sidewalk by the gracious, Spanish-style home on the property instead. This house, with its lovely upper deck (what a great place for morning coffee, I always think) has a Past. It was the abode of a wealthy businessman’s mistress, who lived brazenly there and entertained her paramour while the respectable wife held court across town.

Deer at the Hendleys

Now the Mistress’s House is the gateway to a great gift to the community. You just never know, I figure.

We start down the street past the Hendleys’, but Greta abruptly changes her mind, turns around, and leads me home. We take the sidewalk, the fast way. We encounter no feline or otherwise furry friends.

It’s not a long walk, but it certainly is a story-filled one. We all know how exhausting stories can be to a tired little hound, one who has to protect a house all day and contend at times with an ornery neighborhood cat.

Greta waits patiently for me to treat her with frozen coins of hot dog once we are safely inside, and then she jumps up on to the couch, paddles down the throw, and snuggles up. I get my book and join her. She puts her heads on my leg and snores; I travel vicariously to Scotland.

We’ll find more neighborhood tales on future days, as we deepen our relations with our neighbors, share their memories, hear their adventures.  It’s one of the perks of coming to such a stopping place: here we can send down our roots, several stories deep.

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The cover photo on this site shows one of the ponds from Mission Oaks Gardens…

You Know, I’m Not From Here, Myself

Image from whatmortgage.co.uk
Image from whatmortgage.co.uk

Some days I remember how true it is that I’m not from here, myself.

I got a fascinating letter yesterday from Clarissa, a former student become fast friend, who has moved to a farm some ways from here. Clarissa was detailing her summer exploits…in which she and her husband harvested and canned and preserved, froze, dried, and dehydrated, an amazing abundance of food.

Clarissa writes about the wonders of fresh eggs, the stupidity of guinea hens, and of drying every last piece of the tomato–skin and seeds and pulp,—then grinding the dry stuff to a powder she adds to soups. She writes about squash and cucumbers and corn (which the coons ate; she had to buy her canning corn in town), about an ancient variety of sweet peppers, and getting the root cellar ready.

And she writes about green beans,— picking them, cooking up messes of them, canning, and sharing them. But there was one sentence I just didn’t understand, so I took the letter into work with me.

Taylor and Andy and May were chatting at the front desk. As it happened, they were talking about eating off the land, which gave me an opening. I said to Taylor, “Hey! What does this mean: ‘The pale beans are going to be shelly beans now.’?”

Taylor gave me that ‘you’re an idiot’ look.

“Gimme that,” she said.

She scanned Clarissa’s beautifully handwritten letter and snorted.

“POLE beans,” she said. “The POLE beans are going to be shelly beans now.”

May and even Andy–who’s from upstate, who just moved here,– both nodded knowingly.

“Shelly beans?” I said. “What’s a shelly bean?”

There was one of those sucked in pauses–one of those pauses that gives you long enough to see the thought bubble settle over someone’s head, and to read, “Can you believe this moron????”–and Taylor said, “SHELLY beans. You know–like you SHELL them???”

Oh. Sure. SHELLY beans. I grabbed my letter and thanked her for her trouble and marched back to my office, which, thankfully, is way back at the far end of things. I folded up Clarissa’s letter and put it in my book bag, and maybe later tonight I’ll get on the internet and look things up and try to understand the point at which a pole bean becomes a shelly bean, and what, indeed, a shelly bean is.

And as I marched away I could hear Taylor explaining to Andy, “She’s not from here.”

It reminded me of another time. Mark and I were at a church event in Mayville, New York, and one of the older ladies was talking about the elephant that the town adopted back, I think, in the 1950’s.

“Wow,” I said–it was quite a story–, “I never knew that before.”

“Well,” she responded, and her voice had that same tone Taylor’s did when she was explaining my ignorance to Andy, “you’re new.”

At the time, I’d lived in Mayville almost eight years.

You shuffle your feet, and you’re destined to be the ‘new kid,’ a transplant no matter how long you’ve been there.

Or, instead of shuffling, you settle back in, and you’re a lifer.

Both have their own little cachets. Or stigmas, depending how you look at it.

I was talking to a man the other day who lives in the house in which he grew up. Bill went away to college, got his degrees, and moved back home. By that time, his parents’ nest had emptied. Bill had married and anticipated, quite rightly, as it turned out, that there would soon be children to fill the four bedrooms. So his parents downsized, and he bought his well-loved home.

He and his wife have transformed that home; it is a showplace, a warm, welcoming, expansive space, totally their own.

And still: the house he grew up in. How would that feel?

Thinking of that, I decided to make a list of homes I’ve lived in. I was very surprised to work it out to be 16. That means I’ve lived in three or more places per decade. That means I’ve spent less than, on average, three and three quarter years in each home.

What does that tell me about my life, my roots, my roosting qualities?

There is someone within hollering distance who remembers when Bill fell asleep on the school bus in kindergarten and rode it all the way to the end of the route. They still talk about his high school football exploits, and three of his four school days girlfriends (he married the fourth one) go to his same church. Bill could probably tell you all about a shelly bean and why the town shuts down when the Buckeyes play on Saturday; he can debate the merits of hot chicken sandwiches vs. pulled pork (and talk knowledgeably about whether the cole slaw goes ON the sandwich or next to it), and explain who our first female mayor was, back in the ’80’s.

My history is a little different. I grew up with friends whose mothers cooked duck blood soup (they pronounced its Polish name “Chi-nee-na,” but I would seriously have to look up the spelling) and pierogis, or spaghetti sauce from tomatoes they grew in their backyards, ladled thickly (some families called that sauce ‘gravy’) over homemade, pillowy ravioli. I grew up knowing it was beef on weck, not beef on “wick,” and I remember when the wing came to Buffalo. I had my sports-heart broken a lot of times.

Our winter talk was about lake effect. OUR storm was the Blizzard of ’77.

Here, they talk about the storm that came in 1978, and there are parking signs that tell you three inches of snow constitutes an emergency.

There’s no one here who remembers the time I got stuck vaulting over the horse in gym class and wound up hanging upside down by my toes–earning myself the forever nickname, from my gym teacher, of “Amazing Grace.” There’s no one who remembers the alcohol-fueled argument I had with the guy in the take out place who insisted on talking about the “Equal RATS Amendment.”

In some ways, being peripatetic is a really good thing.

It’s funny, though. I was a terrifically shy kid; whenever I went someplace new, it took me forever to warm up, a long time to reach out and make friends. So it would make sense if I hated moving, if the door jambs from every place I’d ever left had claw marks dragged into them from where they had to tear me away.

But the first time we moved, when I was in third grade, I remember being really excited. My brothers, who were older and settled into their classes, middle school and high school, were not; they were upset at being made to leave home and friends. I had good friends, too, and I missed them, but I was fascinated by the change from Catholic school to public school, from a homogenous grouping to a more eclectic one.

The next move brought me to a neighborhood where three girls my own age lived within half a city block–what a wonderful place to spend my middle school years. And then my parents moved to the house they’d occupy until they moved into their tiny ‘old age home’ apartment. That house was home for my high school years–where the neighbors would come out and ask me about my season as I swung my wooden Wilson racket down the street, walking to the courts; where Mr. Legier would sometimes drive me to my job at the supermarket when Dad couldn’t take me–in a grandpa car-boat fifty feet long that he drove at a steady 15 miles an hour.

Then I moved–college, apartments, marriage, divorce, apartment, marriage, job changes, law school for Mark, aftermaths. And every move has brought new treasures in friends and place and work and quirky, unique details.

I have lived in the town Mark Twain called a stud farm for idiots. I have lived in the town where the actual one-hour photo machine, used in the Robin Williams movie of that name, wound up being used to develop photos, sometimes in one hour, at the local grocery. I have lived in Paul Lynde’s birthplace, and I live in a place now that has a restaurant/bar built from barn wood taken from Agnes Moorehead’s farm, which is just down the road aways. I have lived, I can say with truth, in fascinating places. I have grown in each of them.

There’s an anchor, though, in my husband’s family, who are firm in the area where we grew up, a magnetic north that pulls us back. We have made our own ‘homeplace,’ and yet, for Mark especially, there are layers to the meaning of ‘home.’

Bill and his wife Allie have traveled all over. They’ve probably been to 35 states; they’ve been to Europe, to Egypt, and they have toured the Far East. But they return each time to where they began. Adventurous, inquisitive, their roots are strong and fast in the place of their births.

We are all needed–the intrepid, sometimes clueless, wanderers, the firmly planted live-at-homes. We need the memory of what has gone by; we need the expectations of what a place should be. Between the two, there’s a tension; the tension holds us up higher, makes us reach collectively for a little better life. Reach to match the wanderer’s expectations. Reach to honor the vision of the ancestors who built.

That’s what I think my work is about, at a wonderful community college where the students range in age from 12, sometimes, no kidding–to, gosh–occasionally, there’s someone taking a class who’s even older than I am. And that’s why little shelly bean jokes will never separate me fundamentally from Taylor, whose passion is in helping others reach their dreams. She grew up with some of those same dreams; she made hers come true, a lot of them; she’s got others that are still waiting to come to life. She’s helping, now, too,  her sweet, funny daughter reach for dreams uniquely her own.

My family’s dream required relocating; it’s been weird and painful and interesting; and it’s been fun and informative and priceless. We think that this place, this time, this fit, allows us to get cozy, to settle in, to let those shallow roots search out a deeper level.

We may be here twenty years from now, established [and old] members of the community.

And if we are, someone will say, after we ask about a story we’ve never heard, or inquire about a person we never met, “Ah, yes. You’re new.”

And I’ll just smile, and agree. It’s true, it really is. I’m not from here, myself.

 

Some names have been altered to disguise the knowledgeable.