Homesick

photo 5An old dairy farmer used to make hay in the fields at the end of our street, but now that farm, too, has been sold. When I saw the timothy grow high in this dry summer, I worried: won’t it go to waste? It didn’t. Someone else baled it though I never discovered who, and I had that farmer’s daughter’s feeling of relief. The work got done. That important work that helps sustain us all through the long winters of New England.

The second cutting of that field usually comes in late August when the alfalfa produces its flowers. Something about that lush field must appeal to finches because a flock of them flies up from the grass when I pass by on my morning walks. Yellow, yellow, yellow from such a deep green, such vibrant dots of purple.

This year, however, the flowers died, the finches left, and still the field was unmowed. Cows like timothy. They shove it around with their muzzles and yank some strands on which to ruminate, other pieces they leave behind the way my kids pick onions out of whatever they’re eating. But when you shake out a biscuit of alfalfa before cattle, the coarse strands scratching your forearms, prickling your wrists, the animals are all business. No evidence of  alfalfa ever needs to be swept away once the animals have finished. They lick their troughs clean, and then, they milk like crazy. Young stock never tastes this delicacy. You have to be a working girl to get that kind of a treat. So to pass this field those final days of summer, these first two weeks of fall, disturbed me. It also challenged me to remember: that’s not your life now. That field, the hayloft that still has room somewhere, all the bales that will not thrill some poor old dame missing her fresh pasture in the darkest days of winter, isn’t your concern anymore. Try to console yourself, instead, with the joy of those finches.

But one day when I was off at my job in the life I lead now where no one is dependent upon a good harvest, the field got mowed. Sometimes, I remember this well, things get done a little later than you had hoped. I had a busy day Friday and an upsetting one. A day that reminded me how cruel young girls can be and how, no matter how painful your own adolescence might have been, that feeling cannot compare to the agony it is to watch your own children muddle through it. I needed a walk, anticipated the healing way moving my body clears my head, and it did feel good to be outside. The Concord grapes are ripe and emit their perfume. Treetops are turning orange, their clingy vines a jewelly gold.

When I passed the field, however, all I could smell was the hay. To think about our farm, its ramshackle barns, the batting heads of our cows at their feeders, my father in his good weather footwear, black hightop Converse sneakers, strekking through the empty heifer barns towards where we parked the corn chopper  is one kind of longing. But to come upon a freshly mowed field of alfalfa is a much more potent trigger. I didn’t think of home again, I was home.

Because he baled hay late into the day and rushed home to milk before unloading the wagon, my father often parked the load outside my bedroom window. In dry weather, he left it overnight for the hired help to empty. If the forecast predicted rain, he emptied it himself after milking. Either way, I slept inhaling that scent. I’m sure a part of me thought that’s how I would always fall asleep. Outside, the stanchions would creak, the dogs bark at a raccoon in the cornfield, a calf would call out for its mother. Wasn’t there only one world to be a part of? And wouldn’t my father always be central to it?

Decades later, I stood on a street in a town that is far away from where our farm used to be, but that scent placed me squarely back in the hayloft, in the freestall where we fed the cows, in the bedroom of a house that was burned down long ago to make room for something else. I’m happy the bounty of that field will not go to waste, and next year, I can feel confident that eventually, someone will do the work that needs to be done. But that relief will not completely lessen the homesickness I experience when the field is not grass but crop, when I am reminded once more that there are some places to which we can never really return.

Maybe, for my daughters working through teenage strife, for me witnessing it, for anyone struggling along the unavoidable path before them, that’s also the good news.

 

 

The Disco Queen Rethinks Her Plan

Twelve hour roundtrip for a twenty hour visit (seven of which would be spent sleeping). Would it be worth it? I work full time, am raising (okay, taxiing) three teenagers. Pairs of clean underwear currently available: 5. Pairs of clean underwear with functioning elasticity currently available: 2. Weekends, I thought (and I used to be a person who took a disco nap from 7-9 before she got ready to head out for the night — for the TUESDAY night and all the nights after that), are for grocery shopping, vacuuming, grooming pets. Should they also be for these journeys that begin in a pre-dawn darkness and weave through highways no more picturesque than the backsides of strip malls? I never ask these questions for all the moments of tragedy in my life. The sickness, bad luck, deaths, that summon me at odd hours and from long distances. Why, then, should I wonder if it’s worth it to embark when, instead, a celebration beckons?

The answer is: I don’t know, but I’m not going to wonder anymore. This disco queen is hitting the road.

My future journeys towards confetti, champagne toasts, hugs, and the offer of a floor space to blow up my air mattress will forever be fueled by this weekend when I travelled to Auburn, New York, for my amazing friend Sarah Yaw’s book launch. It was raining. My book on tape wasn’t exactly engrossing, and all I found channel-surfing was Christian rock (which, in my semi-dream state, I mistook for some cool indie band discovery). When you turn onto a highway as ugly as the Mass Pike and the GPS tells you to proceed 147 miles, you re-consider why vacuuming away a Saturday is such a bad idea, but then you turn onto a street whose name you have scrawled on Christmas cards or postcards and you think: one of my true loves lives here! It’s a Cinderella’s castle kind of moment. It is leaving the black and white backdrop of Kansas and being plunged into technicolor Oz. Sarah under the carport, Rebecca (a water spirit) coming out into the rain of  the driveway, Brenda inside in a wolf costume chasing a 5 year old Batman, these people I love and miss most of the days of my life, and a gathering of people whose names I’ve heard, characters stepping out of a storybook into real life. There is coffee, bagels, the last minute details of planning a night in which a friend reads from a novel that took her ten years to finish and you get to sit in the front row. How many hours, how many miles, should ever keep us away from scenes like this?

We had fun at discos. We wore high heels, which, combined with our 80’s hairdo’s, made us all seven or eight inches taller. We danced to I Can’t Wait, Crush on You, anything the DJ played. September’s had Nickel Night, which inspired a great historic moment in my life when my cousin Sue said, “I’ve always wanted to do this,” then stood up and announced, “The next round’s on me!” She, my stunningly blonde friend Karyn, and I perfected the Fuck You look to get ourselves through hordes of party-goers without being hassled so we could get to the bar and order Peenie Weenie Woo Woos. We ended our nights at IHOP, and the next night? We hit REPEAT. Okay, so we weren’t mothers, we had jobs but we weren’t going anywhere in them, I vacuumed the living room every Saturday when I finally rolled out of bed, and my mother is, among other things, a devoted laundress who folded my underwear into towers that would have impressed her C.O., but the point is: we revelled in one another no matter how late the night, how long the drive, how early we had to be up to sling breakfast at a beach dive or dress the mannequins in the Weathervane clothing store’s display case. Of course, Sue, Karyn and I also lived a few miles away from one another, a luxury I am not sure we were grateful enough for. That, especially, and most glaringly, is the difference between our lives now and then.

But let’s face it, there’s little we can do about the way geography separates us except this: get up early and get on our way.

Welcome Home

 

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By the time this house came on the market, we had looked at almost seventy places in several towns and two states. I wanted an antique, we needed two acres affordable enough so that, when we did have kids, one of us could stay home with them for a couple of years. Jeannette had been a patient realtor, ushering us into home after home. When she finally called with this listing, we were long past the enthusiastic imagining stage. Grim, resigned, and borderline hopeless, we set a time to take a look, hung up the phone, and said, “Rowley? Where the hell is that?”

375 years ago, families first moved to what must have been a dark and buggy place. They needed the clam flats, the lumber, the nearness to other settlements to make a go of it in the New World and they came here, assembling along a stream that today is crowded with willow trees and wild shrubs. They needed each other in obvious and critical ways and had travelled together to arrive here. What a different journey we embarked on in 1995.

Our first three years, we commuted down 128, arriving home to let the dogs out, feed the horse and goat, and then to tackle another home improvement chore. If we were really adventurous, we headed to the Agawam Diner for a late meal and then drove home past houses of strangers. For the first couple of years raising children, I often carted them off to friends closer to Boston or spent several days in Westerly. We loved our house, our yard, the view of our horse grazing out the window. However, though we said we lived in Rowley, we really didn’t.

 

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But an address does become a home, slowly, wondrously. And Rowley has become that for us. We had neighbors like Kathy and Armando who lent us advice and the occasional blocked drain augur. Snowy nights, they delivered Portuguese stew and homemade goat cheese. Our daughters headed off to Pine Grove pre-school and RCC where I stood amongst other parents for the Halloween parades and (admit it) the interminable Christmas concerts. Dennis and the other fathers milled about exchanging small talk at the Pumpkin Ball. With other moms in the neighborhood, I gathered once a month to knit (and, contrary to rumor, we did knit. For a few months, anyway). When the library needed ideas for adult programs, I suggested a book club and 107 books later, we read on. Soccer sidelines, track meet bleachers, my faithful place behind the PTA’s popcorn machine, the aisles of Market Basket, these are the settings for interactions, 375 years later, that have linked me to the other settlers here.

This weekend, many of those people gathered to celebrate Rowley’s birthday. Friday night amongst my book club friends, those knit night women and their families, we shared drinks and dinner on the Common, danced to a band whose members we know. The next day’s parade was filled with elementary school teachers, local business owners, our children’s classmates, people we’ve fundraised beside and cheered beside and raked leaves beside for the past couple decades.

The first day we stood in this house, Dennis and I huddled behind one of the massive chimneys in the attic and I said: I WANT this house! It didn’t matter where it was. I wanted its big rooms and wood floors and fireplaces. What I got, instead, was the town itself, complete with world renowned mosquitoes, a diner where nobody screws up your order even though they don’t write it down, a law making process that involves raising your hand, a flea market whose best bargains can be found between 4am and 6am and streets and streets full of good friends.

Happy Birthday, Rowley. Home Sweet Home.

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What better holiday than Labor Day to describe the connection I share with Arthur T. DeMoulas, newly reappointed leader of our beloved Market Basket? For the past six weeks, the “good” Arthur’s workers staged a boycott to protest his firing. We shoppers, feeling a solidarity that, I’m guessing, surprised and enlightened us, joined the revolution. And, what do you know? We won.

Once upon a time, a long time ago now, our district, facing budget cuts, had decided to lay off three teachers at the high school. I was one of them. My colleagues and I, handed pink slips and then sent off with no information, requested an audience with the principal and superintendent simultaneously. We were denied.

Okay, I admit it. I wept. I loved Burlington, its kids, its community. Even if I could find another job – this was the early 90’s; they were more rare than a sighting of an Asian crested Ibis – I didn’t want it. Teaching was my default profession; I had always wanted only to be a writer. But the first day I walked into Room 207 and stood in front of those Red Devils, I knew: there is nowhere else I want to be. And now, I had been asked to leave.

Maybe Arthur T. felt the way I did: alone, adrift. And maybe, when word trickled down to him that certain workers were holding out in protest, he also felt what I felt when a rumor began circling that students were planning a sit-in. Keep in mind, this was long before the days of social media. If they were planning it, they were doing so by word of mouth, by landline. It was thrilling in the same way thinking about winning the multi-state lottery is: a fun but impractical daydream. Except this fantasy came true.

The night before, I learned later, Stephen Maguire, senior class president, and one other student had launched a telephone campaign. At the homeroom bell, students were to gather in the school’s main corridor and sit down quietly. Meanwhile, I stood in my classroom waiting to begin the day. It was a lonely wait. Eventually, teachers and students popped in to say, “You have to go down and take a look. You won’t believe it.” Some people estimated almost 200 students participated. I took one quick look, one thrilling, humbling, life-altering glance and went back to my empty classroom.

They were an orderly assemblage, class leaders armed with prepared statements, dozens and dozens of young people peacefully demonstrating as the bell sounded to end the day’s first period (and the second, and, I think, the third). In fact, the only sign of panic was the principal who threatened to remove the protesters from scholarship lists. No one budged. When the superintendent didn’t appear, someone called out: Tell him to stop hiding behind his five percent raise! and so he came and there they stood: the elusive duo of principal and superintendent. And there were our students, getting what my colleagues and I could not – an audience, some answers, a promise to reconsider their decision.

My freshmen finally did return to class that day. They were kids unused to rocking the boat and, according to some accounts, there had been faculty who had chided them for their actions. One boy asked me if I thought they had done the right thing. It was hard for me to separate my personal feelings from the event, of course, but beyond my personal gratitude, I felt a great deal of pride in them. Isn’t that what we want of our students? That they become passionate, thinking, active members of their world? What I said out loud, however, was something like this: Only you can judge if you did the right thing. You have to ask yourself if you participated for the right reasons.

I also told them that their actions might not have changed the minds of the administration, but that they had definitely changed me. From that day, I have never walked into a classroom without remembering them and without working hard to justify the kind of faith they had in me. I can only imagine Artie T. will be inspired to approach the remainder of his own career thus indebted.

I did keep my job that year and only left when the demands of family required me to work closer to home. I was fortunate to land in another wonderful community where tomorrow, as year 19 beings, my students will file in, hopeful, fearful, curious. The only thing I can know for sure about the year ahead is that, no matter what challenges face us, I will work hard to be the kind of teacher who deserved what those Burlington kids did for me that day.