Travels into the Past

My daughter and I stop briefly in the New Hampshire town where I grew up, as part of a much longer day trip. Although Goffstown is three hours from where we live, my younger daughter had never been there. My parents have long ago moved back to New Mexico, my siblings spread out in their own adult lives.

The little village, where I haven’t been in years, is surprisingly unchanged. There’s some sprawl here and there, but not as much as I expected. A town ballfield has been converted to a cemetery, planted with saplings and marked, so far, with a single tombstone. Below that, the small pond where I learned to ice skate is still encroached by weeds and brambles, making for tricky skating but immensely interesting viewing for a child lying on the ice.

The snow has mostly melted here, and the earth is an amber-brown. Not a single shoot of spring green is visible yet. Walking around, I see the places that I loved: the gone-to-wild swathe behind our neighborhood houses — places a child could endlessly explore for years — the Ucancoonuc Mountains, the woods with huge glacial erratics surrounding the town. The library where I read out the children’s section and held my first job as a library page has been expanded. We walk through the library. Tom Wolfe famously wrote that you can’t ever go home. I can’t quibble with that wisdom, but walking through this library I loved so dearly, I step back into my childhood for a few minutes. Crammed with books, the library was both alive for me with the social chatter of the town but also ineffably fed my hungry imagination.

On this Wednesday morning, the library staff says hello and good morning to my daughter and me, and I feel, again, that same hum of life, endlessly unspooling, utterly fascinating. The shelves now stretch far up to the high ceilings, and this makes me so happy, to know the library is loved and funded.

Likewise, walking past my former house, I see a treehouse in the backyard and a tire swing from one of those enormous maples. Every summer, my father — and then his three children — painted the clapboards. Whoever lives there now does the same, I see.

I had expected to be sad, maybe nostalgic, about this town I never visit any longer. But walking around with my teenager, I see immediately that I’ve taken that town with me, that the child and teenager I was then carried that love of woods and wild, of imagination and dreaming, the same quirky family story and laughter with me.

At my parents’ former house, I see children play in that mixture of tended domesticity and the small patch of woods behind that old house. It doesn’t make me feel old; instead, I feel resilient. Driving, we listen to Coronavirus news, to the stock market careening, to the political uncertainty of this world. My daughter and I talk and talk and talk. Listening, I don’t second-guess myself, I don’t wonder what I’ve failed as a mother. I know, instead, I’ve given her a fertile, imaginative childhood, and I know it’s hers, to decide her own course, too.

IMG_7305

The Moral Arc

The fall after I graduated from Marlboro College, I was living in Brattleboro and working at Omega Optical where I crafted tiny round glass disks used as high-tech light filters — a strange and short-lived job for me.

That fall, David Souter was nominated for the Supreme Court, and on NPR we listened to every word of the hearings. A bachelor, Souter lived in Weare (pronounced where), New Hampshire, not far from where I grew up, a little town I knew well. Brilliant and witty, Souter made New Hampshire proud.

That fall, young as I was and newly in love, I rightly considered myself an adult. I walked to the company’s enormous building, not far from where I lived, and whose back doors opened to the weed-flanked railroad tracks, just above the wide Connecticut River. Before the winter, I knew I was unsuited that job and moved on. By the next spring, I was living in a tipi, and then my boyfriend and I packed up our old diesel Rabbit and a rusty Saab and moved west to graduate school.

I was glad to join adulthood, even though, as any young person, I had no idea how difficult that would be, how piercing a price the world would extract for my share of wrongdoings. My teenage daughter once urged me not to take our arguments personally — terrific advice. Step back; breathe. Justice isn’t personal to me, or anyone else, either. Watching her sister’s soccer game yesterday, in a row of women talking about Kavanaugh’s confirmation, I’m still astounded that she’s now one of us, more grownup than teenager, with all that means.

My fury about people is based precisely on the fact that I consider them to be responsible, moral creatures who so often do not act that way.

— James Baldwin

IMG_1005

Photo by Molly S.