I was raised in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege. Not that I even knew it at that time; but as I see it now, through the prism of experience. Material wealth, surely. But also the intangible kind of riches–the kind of wealth that cannot be counted. Freedom to run loose on a fine summer’s day; to ride my bicycle through the neighborhood, heedless of the sidewalks or any property boundaries. Freedom to do nothing at all, if that was my choice. If I wanted to run in the woods across from my parents’ house and collect bugs in a killing jar for a school project, I did. If I wanted to scavenge the neighborhood for leaves from all the different trees that grew there, I did. If I wanted nothing more than to lie on the freshly mown lawn and stare at the clouds until my eyes began to water, I did that as well.
Surely the big houses situated on vast swaths of green lawn, studded with tall, leafy trees speaks to the quiet accumulation of material things. These family men, home from the conflicts in Europe and the Far East, wanted to (and did) prove themselves as able to provide material things for their families as they fought so hard keep their nation free.
Going home is always problematic for one whose life’s focus was always on escaping the tedium and censure of a small town. A place where everyone not only knew your name, they knew the names of your parents, brothers and sisters and precisely how much your father earned. Now, of course, I see things differently. There is security in small towns, in the awareness of neighbors. As children, we were never out of sight of home, no matter how far away we might have gone. There were always watchful eyes on us, ready to take over when needed.
Going home this time was an opportunity to re-experience my childhood through the eyes of my own child. As we walked up the street on which my parents still live, I was able to relate to her the stories of each family that lived on my block, for, indeed, I knew them all. The house where tragedy struck in my freshman year, when the boy who lived there was killed in an automobile accident (the first of several during that time and the most traumatic). The house that once belonged to my friend Claire, who spent one entire year in a full body cast. The house where one of my best friends lived, and where we had Girl Scout meetings and played a highly-imaginative game involving Pharaoh and ancient Egypt. The house where the neighborhood gossip ruled from her front porch, complete with phone, to report to all the comings and goings of everyone on the block. And then, at the top of the block, the elementary school that I attended for five years. A school no longer, it has morphed in several incarnations, the latest of which is an office building.
As we turned the corner and continued on our walks, we passed other houses whose inhabitants I once knew. After all this time, there is no one left that I remember living in these houses. Although from the outside they are the same, they are only shells of memory. If I listened closely, I could hear mothers calling the names of their children. But the mothers and their children are long gone. Small towns offer security to the young and only memories and loss to the old. All seek to escape once they understand that contradiction.
As we made our way up to the shopping center (not a mall, but literally a cluster of shops and small businesses) for our daily lunch, I was able to recall for her the businesses that once were and mourn their loss. Where the five-and-dime was and where you could buy live baby chicks, dyed purple for Easter (and where I bought my first lipstick–Tangee) is now a liquor store. Where the bank was is now an accountant’s office. The beauty salon is now a pizza place, the pizza place is now a laundromat and the library is now a beauty salon. The Dairy Queen is unchanged and the bowling alley remains. The super market is gone entirely, replaced by gravel and weeds.
As we walked back to my parent’s home, we passed the very first house we lived in when we first moved to this town. Red bricked and small, it loomed so large in my recollection. The rose bushes clustered in the side yard, which were a rich source of iridescent Japanese beetles, still remain. In a case of things coming full circle in life, our very first neighbors eventually bought the house next to where my parents moved (and still live) many years later.
I was able to show my daughter where I caught tadpoles and where I went to junior high and where my friends and I would hang out after school ended. I lived just short of the boundary that would have made me eligible to ride the bus. Most days, I would walk to school and then home again. This gave me the freedom to go at my own pace and timing. I was able to show her the synagogue where I passed through the rituals of my youth–Hebrew school, Bat Mitzvah, Sunday school, confirmation.
We had dinners at the country club; a place, which my family and many others viewed as Moses saw the Promised Land. A place that we could see but could never enter. Only as the population began to shrink, did they admit Jews. I wonder if they regret that decision now that there is once more a waiting list. My father enjoys playing golf there, the course stretching like a green, grassy river below the windows of the formal dining room. At the country club, I hear echoes of the past. I see the college-age waiters and waitresses in their uniforms of khaki shorts and dark green polo shirts. I see the faces of the Establishment, with their Northern European ancestry writ clearly on them. What do they think, these fresh-faced people with their lives in front of them, of the passing parade? My father greets his golfing buddies, men with names like Crichton and Hall. Tall men, with white hair and blue eyes and a birthright of entitlement. Men who once ‘ran things’ and have settled into their old age with quiet dignity, still maintaining their sense of purpose.
Not that we didn’t have our own country club. We did, of course. Not a championship-level course, but one that was good enough. There was a pool where my friends and I used to baste ourselves with a mixture of baby oil and iodine and broil in the hot summer sun, constantly turning over, like chickens on a spit. The Swiss-born manager, in a fit of pique, torched the clubhouse. Maybe we weren’t good enough for him. No matter, the clubhouse was rebuilt, better than before, although all the rustic charm it once had was totally lost in the restoration. The club never really recovered from losing the clubhouse, even temporarily. The members either died off or deserted the club and it was eventually sold to the Elks. My father, who would do anything to play golf in those days, joined the Elks so that he could continue to play. Then the town itself began to shrink and he joined the club he goes to now. He took me downstairs to show me the card room where he plays twice a week. It was once a bowling alley, now there are tables whose tops are the last remnants of the lanes. My twenty-fifth high school reunion was held there, at Sunnehanna. I half-expected the walls to crumble when I walked up the main staircase. Everything is all so changed now. And everything is still the same.
We ate out every night. Some nights at the club, some at restaurants. One thing about small towns, you may rely on seeing someone you know everywhere you go. Most of my parents’ friends are gone, having either died or moved away. Yet, there are still enough of them there so that I was on display, along with my child. I almost think of these people as contemporaries. And it comes as a shock to realize that I babysat their children. Those children who now have children of their own, some older than my daughter.
Small towns are paradoxical. They pull you in and push you away at the same time. The draw exerted on me is strong. The opposite is true, as well. I slip back into routine and familiarity and struggle to get free at the same moment. Like from an elderly aunt whose welcoming embrace is followed by a pinch on the cheek.