Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Pennsylvania We Never Found (July 2008)

It’s ironic that so many of our vacations take us to Berks County, PA, considering how much time I spent planning to get out… As a ten-year-old poring over my encyclopedias, looking up all the different states, trying to imagine where in the world I might live and what my state bird might be. As a teen with no date to the junior prom, wandering through a cornfield and picturing those miles of green were Manhattan city blocks. As a college student drudging my way through boring summer jobs at home, missing this or that boyfriend, dreaming of the beaded curtains and candles we might use to decorate some future apartment. Thinking up names for future cats.

Now, well into adulthood and healthily established in my beloved Seattle, I find myself back home for a family visit and making that familiar left turn toward our old community pool. It’s just an unremarkable little blue rectangle in a field of dried yellow grass. Japanese beetles float on the pool’s surface, Toby Keith blares from the loudspeakers. But the kids love it! A pool is a pool is a pool as far as they’re concerned. Besides, it’s too hot not to swim and gas is too expensive for an elaborate itinerary of day trips.

So, I sit on a picnic table and watch my son and his cousin splashing gleefully while my toddler-girl snoozes in a patch of shade. I’ve never actually sat and listened to all the lyrics of “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” before. Underneath the saber rattling, it’s kind of sweet in its own way. Reminds me of my 4-year-old’s straightforward and earnest solutions to everyday problems: “Mommy, why are we stuck in traffic? Why don’t you just drive right past?” And I feel benignly disconnected from this place, this scene.

Then. The radio station switches from country to one of those “music mix” stations, and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” blasts me straight back to the summer of 1978 with an unexpected surge of remembered optimism: the summer my family moved here. To our farm.

Just as I spent my youth dreaming of living somewhere new, my mother spent her youth dreaming of living in a hilltop farmhouse surrounded by horses and chickens. We’d moved to Pennsylvania for my dad’s job in the early 1970s and had been living in suburbia for the time being. Finding her childhood dream-farm was Mom’s mission. My parents looked and looked. Hopes would surge and crash as each new prospect didn’t work out. My sisters and I were hanging in there in suburbia, yearning for the idealized country life of our Tasha Tudor and Maple Hill Farm books, waiting for our dreams to be realized.

And one day, just like that, my mother found her farmhouse. It was a white stone house with a green roof on top of a hill, surrounded by an old orchard, woods, and fields. There was a barn and an old building that had been converted to a guest house, a huge willow tree on the lawn and an old-fashioned green water pump in front. She was in love. We all were.

We waited anxiously to see if it was really going to happen this time, hoping against hope. Just a few weeks before summer vacation, our parents closed on the house. Mom met us joyfully in the driveway, gave us the news, and gave us each a present to celebrate Farm Day!

That summer was all about the move. Mom packed boxes while the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack pumped in the background, forming my delightfully incongruous association with disco music and farm-related optimism. We said goodbye to our elementary school friends and wondered hopefully about our new school, where we’d take the bus instead of walk (just like the kids in our farm books). Maybe we’d grow our own fruit and vegetables! Maybe we’d have a horse! When our cousins all came to visit during that summer, we asked our dad to take a before/after picture of us all looking sad on our suburban lawn and happy in front of the farmhouse. We made up songs with titles like “Down on the Farm” and performed them for all the relatives.

That first year was a big adventure for us. We explored our new surroundings and marveled at the differences between country and suburbia – always with a positive spin in favor of country. We tramped through the woods behind our house and took rides on the back of our dad’s new tractor. In the winter, we’d huddle in front of the heat vents to read, channeling Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Our optimism remained, even as Mom was coming to grips with the unpleasant realities of country life: the insular, politically conservative community; the lackluster school; the aggravation and expense of trying to remodel a 100+ year-old home. More and more, it seemed, this farm wasn’t going to offer the “happily ever after” it had promised.

The one-year anniversary of our closing day came, and I asked Mom what we were doing to celebrate Farm Day this year. She just looked at me with such a sad, loving, “no such thing as Santa Claus” face. She didn’t need to say anything more. Farm Day was a myth. We all knew it. The sense of joy and hope had dwindled, the excitement had worn off. The stress was taking its toll on our parents. The kids at school were meaner than any Maple Hill Farm book ever led me to believe. By 5th grade, I had my face in those encyclopedias, plotting my escape.

For a long time, I held on to a “farm bring pain” attitude, seeking out an urban lifestyle at all costs. Looking back on it now, I think I was a little too quick to blame our subsequent unhappiness on the setting. Seems like no matter where we grow up, we come to associate our hometowns with the worst parts of our childhood and adolescence. But these things would have happened regardless of the town’s political and cultural climate; regardless of my parents’ homeownership woes. Come to think of it, my mom spent most of her childhood in Philadelphia. Seems pretty likely that her farm-love had similar origins. We romanticize the unfamiliar setting because it’s alien to our actual imperfect experience.

And the way I romanticize Seattle is not that different from the way my mom romanticized the farm. When I think of my day-to-day life, it’s probably not much different here than it would be anywhere else. Mainstream with mountains in the background.

And yet… those mountains. And that subtle smell of ocean in the air sometimes, those summer nights when the sun doesn’t set until ten, the misty spring rain, the evergreens, the sailboats on Lake Union, the murals, even the damn Space Needle with its eerie glow at night…somehow it all really does make a difference. Something about this setting feels particularly like “home” to me. I can’t explain why. Maybe my kids will love it too. Or maybe they’ll be plotting their escapes to New York or Santa Fe or Paris . . . or a hilltop farmhouse.

No comments:

Post a Comment