It has been decades since I have lived back East where I grew up, but I have been longing recently to return for a visit. It’s not that I haven’t visited over the years of my absence — I have made it a practice to get back East to Boston and New York annually and was last there on a book tour three years ago, pre-pandemic — but now I want to see my old haunts with end-of-life eyes. Corny as it sounds, I want to say goodbye to the town, a Boston suburb, where I lived from birth through high school. I picture myself strolling in the deciduous woods, surrounded by the chill and dazzle of autumn, feeling the dead leaves crackling underfoot, sniffing the Concord grapes that used to grow near our house, paying a visit to the pond across from our house where Thoreau reputedly spent significant time. When I was a child, my parents seemed to know everyone in that town of four thousand. When we picked up our mail at the post office (we had no mail boxes, nor did we have house numbers) my mother gossiped endlessly with everyone she ran into, as we waited in the car saying, Oh Mom! Hurry up! An annual town meeting was held during which certain characters held forth passionately about wacky ideas that gave rise to heated debate, but never violence. Robert Frost once came to read near the end of his life in that same town hall. On the Fourth of July there was the quaint small-town parade with quirky floats and fire engines, and that night people came from adjoining towns to watch the fireworks display. I feel lucky to have grown up in such a place, Waspy and lily-white as it was. It was beautiful physically, and it was populated by a progressive citizenry, many of whom were trying actively to make the world a better place. Growing up there taught me to appreciate the power and solace of community.
It’s not just my hometown I’d like to revisit. There are places all around New England that played a prominent role in my past. The coast of Maine, an Appalachian Mountain Club camp on an island in the middle of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, Vermont where I attended a Farm and Wilderness camp, Connecticut where I went to college, the Rhode Island shoreline where we spent time after my father died and my mother married a man with a house near the ocean.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my yen to return to New York City where I spent my late twenties and most of my thirties — the place I finally came into my own. I love these places with a passion that is certainly enhanced by the fact that I haven’t resided in any of them for decades. I’ve lived in Oregon for more than twenty years, and I love where I live. I love our house on the edge of town, and I love the friends I’ve found here, and I love this small city’s sense of community. But I will never be an Oregonian no matter how long I live here. My formative years were spent elsewhere.
My last novel featured characters from climate-stressed places around the world: a father and daughter from a disappearing island in the South Pacific, a man from drought-plagued Sao Paulo in Brazil, a young girl from the melting ice sheet of Greenland. All of these people have strong attachments to their homes which they see as unique and beautiful, in spite of the problems. Their fondness intensifies, like mine, the longer they’re away. Another character who has had to relocate from Kansas to California misses her home intensely, finds Kansas the most beautiful place in the world, and can’t believe everyone doesn’t want to live there. All of these characters yearn to return to where they’re from; they understand how much they belong to these places of origin.
Not everyone loves the place they were born. I have been conducting an informal survey about this for years, and my non-scientific results have revealed that people fall into one of three categories. There are people like me and my characters who are deeply attached to their homelands, even after years of living elsewhere. The second group is composed of people who have never felt particularly attached to their place of origin and have discovered great satisfaction in finding a place to live that is more in sync with who they feel themselves to be. Elizabeth Hardwick had such an epiphany when she moved from Kentucky to New York City, and found a deep connection with her new urban home. She wrote: “Many are flung down carelessly at birth and they experience the diminishment of this random placement.” I have a good friend whose experience echoes Hardwick’s. He describes arriving in Eugene and knowing immediately that it was where he belonged. The third group consists of people who had itinerant childhoods — often due to parents in the military — and, having lived in many places and attended many schools, they feel little attachment or identification with any one place.
A place sends its hooks into a person slowly and craftily. We absorb so much without having any say in the matter. Large or small. Rural, urban, suburban. Diverse or homogeneous. Each of these conditions has an impact on how we come to see the world, how open or insular we are, what we imagine our futures to be. There are the conventions and expectations of a locale — will you pursue an education, a family, money? Will you work in the coal mines, or in the lumber industry, or in high tech? There is the food you eat, the customs (dinner in New York is rarely served before 7:30 — in Oregon it is rarely served later than 6:00), the language spoken and the way it is spoken. Long before we attend school regional accents have lodged themselves in our speech. Shortly after I moved to Oregon, whenever I heard “Car Talk” the radio show with Click and Clack, their heavy Boston accents would bring me to tears. Then there’s the look of the landscape that we become accustomed to. Long vistas that reach the horizon. Tall moss-covered trees dripping with moisture. Rugged mountains that define what is west or north. The things that we see daily seep into our consciousness and become what we think of as normal. All of these aspects of place combine in various unpredictable ways to shape our identities.
New Englanders are known for being brusque and somewhat icy. We believe in sucking it up in the face of adversity, not crying or complaining. We believe in doing your work and not crowing about it. We believe in keeping strong feelings inside. We believe in self-reliance. These are stereotypes, of course, but I recognize many of these traits in myself, some of which I embrace, others I’d be happy to shed. My husband is of Filipino-Italian descent and his emotional style is much more expressive than mine. He is able to proclaim his love for me on Facebook and in person before a crowd. Though I adore him, I find it hard to be effusive about my love in the presence of others. It seems, well, unseemly. I try to follow his example, but I frequently encounter a block.
As ALS weakens me, complete self-reliance is no longer an option. There are various things I can no longer lift or open; I can’t answer the phone or initiate a phone call. Reluctant as I am, I’ve had to learn to ask for help. I’m trying to set aside pride, and necessity is helping me in that effort. And as I notice new symptoms — another muscle beginning to weaken, greater difficulty swallowing a particular food — I notice a tendency to keep that information to myself. Don’t be a complainer, says the diehard New Englander inside me.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to return for a visit back East before I die. Several trips have been cancelled due to Covid, and now I’m not sure I have the stamina for such a trip which ideally would entail lots of walking. But maybe it doesn’t matter. The places I love and that have shaped me, are indelibly printed in my mind as I want to remember them. It’s possible, were I to visit, I would find them changed in ways I wouldn’t like. It’s rare for anyone to return to a place they’ve loved to find it more appealing than before. We want places to be the way they were when we knew them, and in these days of climate change and incessant building they never are. The Welsh word hiraeth is more useful than ever. The term refers to the feeling of longing, nostalgia, and grief over something that is now inaccessible. Knowing that my home turf has probably been altered, maybe it’s better to simply appreciate what I carry of the place within myself.