Back East (an essay)

May 2004

“What was it like?” I demanded on quiet, interminable afternoons in my grandmother’s mobile home.

“Oh…” she said distractedly, “There was a tire swing at the side of the house…We had our milk delivered once a week and put it in the ice box.” She’d trail off. It was always the same answer, the tire swing, the milk, the ice box. My grandmother had migrated west from Binghamton, New York, in her twenties, and we were her native-born San Diegan descendants. I grew up with the nagging suspicion I was missing out on essential elements of a classical childhood, the kind reflected in my great aunt Nancy’s homemade Christmas cards, which I picked through obsessively on similarly quiet, sunlit afternoons, waiting for my mother to come home. My grandmother read mystery novels in the other room, and I dug through old photographs, memorizing faces, age progressions, and hairstyles, unable to distinguish between who was a blood relative and who was just a neighbor on a campout. I felt like an astronaut from the future coming to inspect the remnants of my family’s history a thousand years before. I knew I was related to these people, but I felt cosmically far from them.

* * *

Unlike the extravagant seasonal changes back east, the ones in California are slight and barely noticeable except to natives. A single deciduous tree lost its 20 leaves by Thanksgiving in front of our apartment each year. As a child, I prayed for snow when the morning temperature dipped below 45, as if the snow that would actually fall would cloak the slopes of the neighboring landfill enough to be able to sled down them.

My mother took me back east, to Whitney Point, the village near Binghamton where aunt Nancy lives, for the first time when I was 10. Certain details stand out: everyone smoked, even indoors. The food was different: freshly killed venison, a lot of mayonnaise. My cousins had accents: they flattened words like “Mom” and “coffee” when my side of the family carried them delicately in the middle of the mouth, with the non-inflection of television newscasters. A clothesline ran from Aunt Nancy’s kitchen to a pole in the yard, and you could manipulate it from inside using a pulley.

My cousins—there seemed to be hundreds—were loud and frank, even when it seemed impolite. They’d never met me, but were as brusque and familiar with me as they were with their own children. Their children—my second cousins—were less forgiving. It was clear they’d spent a decade’s worth of lakeside campouts falling into an intimate, confident rhythm with one another. I learned years later they thought it was strange I spent so much time in the tent, reading.

I look at the pictures of that visit now—they’re in an album among dozens in aunt Nancy’s living room—and I scan eagerly for my face, for a flash of my brief, first insinuation into the tapestry. I was there for two weeks. At 10, I am mousy and not swift. Even my build is different from my lanky, sturdier cousins. My second cousin Julia, an incomprehensible 12, cocks her hip to one side, daring the camera. Elizabeth is holding something, searching. Lauren, on someone’s hip, knits her brows, ready to wail. John, never self-conscious, doesn’t notice that someone is taking a picture. The sun is setting; this moment belongs to them. I think of the old photographs, choreographed black-and-white pictures with all the children in a row, from oldest to youngest, the littlest ones kneeling in the grass with their hands on a ball.

Fourteen years later, the pictures from the campout have that bygone quality—the light, over the years, gone slanted and nostalgic, almost yellow. “Look at my mom’s hair,” someone says.

* * *

Weeks after returning home to San Diego, with its sea cliffs, freeway grids, and approaching fire season, I knew I’d been to a foreign country. A foreign countryside. It reared my grandparents, and their parents and cousins, and the ones before that, until you went all the way back to Scotland, England, Germany, and Holland, which was so distant as to barely register. It did not rear me. Not yet.

This was a place that managed, much longer than southern California, to retain its smallness, in corner grocery stores, smoky, unapologetic diners, and flat, nasal accents. Towns the length of a fading Main Street, announced only by a sign reading, “Thickly Settled.” Other signs bear obscure phrases like “Frost Heaves” or “Raise Plough Now.”

At 10, I noticed every detail with the precision of an anthropologist. I missed it terribly and cried and cried in the bunk bed I shared with no one.

* * *

When I moved east in 1998 and decided to stay, I did my grandmother’s journey in reverse. I’ve changed my orientation, taken on winter and black coffee and a propensity for discussing miserable weather at length. But secretly, it is still marvelous and strange, and so far, my eastern relatives show no signs of becoming ordinary.

“They weave their own wool,” I explain to friends. “They knit. They make quilts. They go bird watching. They built a barn.

“They built a barn,” I repeat. My family in California have taken lately to more adventurous culinary exploits, like roasted root vegetables and Yorkshire pudding at Christmas. They buy their sweaters at department stores. I have never known any of them to make a quilt; aunt Judy crocheted afghans in the 70s.

It isn’t how we do things in California: we are my grandmother’s children. We are sunny and polite where my eastern relatives are sardonic and cheerily confrontational. We make decisions based on the availability of parking, freeway traffic, and major sales, and they learned the pragmatism required to get groceries in a snowstorm, to bear half a year of totally indoor activity, of bleak, icy hillsides and the hideous fallout of a mid-March thaw. Southern California is where people vacation, whether it’s winter or summer, and growing up there gives you a languid, convenience-oriented outlook. Maybe it’s just that I’m familiar with them, but my side of the family never makes me feel like I stumbled into a living issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

Aunt Nancy makes invitations for the Memorial Day picnic and talent show by hand. They think big: under her son Andy’s direction, 10 of us accompanied my cousin Rick and his daughter Tara this year as they sang “Summertime” by blowing into bottles filled to specified depths with water, all tuned perfectly with a pitch finder. Andy’s sister Marna makes a dozen scarves in a weekend; aunt Nancy spins her own wool from local sheep. Once, she made a hat by spinning the discarded dog hair from aunt Judy’s collie.

My cousin Andy smokes in his mother’s living room in the winter, sitting on a short wooden stool, exhaling into the chimney.

There is also the barn. Six years in the making, it’s nearly complete; it houses the talent show and the mid-winter garlic party. (Cousin Johnny’s garlic is a local delicacy.) They salvaged the frame from a derelict barn in a neighboring town and built the rest from scratch. Marna made a book about it, compiling pictures and a narrative of its gradual progress; it’s called “Come Along With John,” and it follows the rhyme and meter of “The House that Jack Built.”

There are few occasions, and little available land or resources, for barn-building, or barn-using, in San Diego. Barns were erected in the inland valleys a long time ago, when California was still wild, but the way the venture capitalists bought and carved up and cultivated the land guided the state’s trajectory in such a way that today, my native countryside is tidily sewn by close-together, flimsily built housing developments, tile-roofed outdoor malls, and their mile-wide parking lots.

It’s part of the reason I fled east. I can go to aunt Nancy’s on my own now—I don’t need a picnic or a major holiday or a cross-country trip to do it. I imagine this makes me more of a regular, makes time spent there less excruciating. I’m less likely to mourn the passing of its sweetness before it begins.

Last December, I drove four and a half hours, narrowly avoiding my first snowstorm, to Whitney Point for the annual tree-lighting ceremony. (The town is small enough that its tree-lighting has an audience of 60 people, 14 of whom belong to the junior high school marching band.) Marna joins us; she is here twice a month.

“I thought my family was going to curl up and die when I left for college,” she confides when I ask her why she didn’t settle further away than Albany. She is the second oldest of her brothers and sisters. As a teenager, she would hurry home from school to help her mother care for the babies.

The cousins are a flock, a rare species of bird that managed to flourish, unimpeded, on their own island. It’s hard not to feel left out. “Around here, you’ve got to speak up,” someone informed me years ago, jostling in a buffet line under a canopy. They are used to straining to be heard over the din and resourceful enough not to be fussy. In their presence, I hover at the sidelines, watching. I am still in the tent, reading, so to speak.

As the first snow falls, Marna and five cousins play Pinochle in the kitchen. Everyone is smoking. The overhead is bright enough to make your eyes water; the sun set eight hours ago. They howl with accusation and belly laughs and eat nuts from a can. They are not nostalgic; they have a million nights like this one. They don’t have the grievous suspicion that these moments are parceled out just so: gifts you have to notice before they’re lost.

I am in the next room, sharing the couch with Aunt Nancy as she mends my pea coat. I blink and remind myself that she knew my grandmother as a child. She was born in 1921, before Binghamton became a post-industrial ghost town. She lived in the house with the tire swing and the delivered milk. She is in all the photographs: lithe and red-mouthed in a pair of figure skates on a frozen pond; seated in the lamp light at her mother’s knee, watching her sew; cradling the first of nine babies, fresh-faced and a little scared, my Uncle Charlie standing behind her, his enormous hand delicately resting on her shoulder. People don’t live like she does anymore, not without irony or willful quirkiness. Her sons and daughters are handy and resourceful, but they have email addresses and give iPhoto slide shows.

The snow gets heavier outside; a log sputters in the fireplace. I feel the moment expiring; I commit it to memory with exacting detail; I picture telling it later. I want them to go on like this forever.


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