samedi, août 10, 2013

Lake Ninevah: Dreams from my father (and mother)

If I'd thought about it at all, as a child, I would have figured that there were two places New Yorkers went on vacation--  Long Island (Sag Harbor, Shelter Island, the North Shore, the Hamptons before they were "The Hamptons"), and New England.

(I didn't understand then, of course, that some New Yorkers never had the money or the time off from work to get out of town at all during the summer.  Lucky for them if they could escape to Jones Beach or Coney Island for a day.)

My folks had friends, a few, who went east to Long Island. But they already lived in Manhattan, with disposable income and higher-paying jobs.  It appears that, long before I was born, or my sister and brother after me, my parents had chosen to spend their leisure time in New England.

My recollections begin, shadowy, in Maine, on the rocky beaches of Bailey Island.

But, as I remember, it was when we returned from a year in Italy and England (my father had a Fulbright scholarship), that my parents turned their gaze to Vermont --  specifically, to a lake near Ludlow called Ninevah.

And that's how it began -- two Jewish intellectuals from New York renting a simple two (or three-bedroom, I can't recall now) cottage just yards from the shores of an uncrowded bit of paradise.

In the city, we lived in a four story brownstone (now I can imagine that dad probably struggled to pay the mortgage on his assistant professor's salary).  Our idea of greenery were the majestic trees and manicured lawns of Prospect Park.

Dad had a mind bent  towards questioning, speculating, pondering.  In fact, he never really stopped questioning, whether it be politics, faith or the mysteries of family.  Did he seek out the serenity of the north as an antidote for the anxiety that sometimes troubled him?

But up in Vermont, we didn't have a schedule. There was nowhere we had to be. The options were limited.  

Yards away from our door,  lake and its ancient rowboat beckoned. While none of us were fans of the squirmy bait we needed to cast our lines into the water, we did not question the order of things. If you were on a lake, well, you fished.

Excitement was a visit to a President's birthplace (Calvin Coolidge's home wasn't that far from us), or to the local general store.

Now and then we'd wander up the road to see Mr. Blakely, who oversaw the vacation cottages, and ran the tiny store lakeside.

Worms.  Ice cream. Candy.  That little shack (I didn't see it that way then) was a wonderland of treats to be doled out according to the whim of a benevolent despot of a parent.

The worst thing that happened to me at Lake Ninevah was being caught once for climbing onto the counter to get at the molasses cookies. Wouldn't you have done the same thing?

Later we would move on to Hanover, where my father would spend summers doing research, and my mother work on a master's degree. But it is those summers in Vermont that reverberate. As my mother and father looked at property to buy, I would seize on a Victorian house, or a twenty-acre lot, and plead with them -- buy this one? Buy that one. Just commit.

Buy something that connects us to this time and this place so that we can keep coming back.

Of course, they had their own priorities. But now, at the distance of so many years, I wonder what drew them there, and back. Was it the beauty of the green hills and mountains, the serenity of the quiet lakes?

Was it the charm of the village greens? Was it deeper, more profound -- a fork in the road not taken?

Far more than me, my parents were urbanites, grounded in the teeming, raucous, literate and endlessly fascinating city of their own childhood.

It took me well into middle-age before I realized that I belonged somewhere radically different. Or, put it another way -- I didn't know where I belonged until I brought my children here.

I get to create my own version of the family story, as they created theirs. And then I will step aside, inevitably, and my kids will take the stage.

Already we know that my daughter finds rural life tedious, leaning towards shops and suburbs rather than cows and village festivals.  My son, on the other hand, speculates that he may end up in a small town with a village green, stores and a church. I tell him that such places exist.

I have seen them with my own eyes. They are the landscape of my childhood.

We went back to Lake Ninevah once -- Mr. Blakely and his family received us graciously in his home.

Years later, I returned with my husband, to find the family long gone, and the lake itself different from the enchanted refuge I recalled.

Yet still, it is beautiful.

For that, and other reasons, including many hikes and rambles around the state,  I have a life-long love affair with Vermont.

Whether what I recall is accurate can be debated, because childhood memories, all memory is selective. But whether it is true? Of that, I have no doubt.

I only wish I knew now what my parents were seeking on the shores of Lake Ninevah, in that bucolic setting so far from home. What did they find in Vermont that beckoned to them so much that  they dreamed of creating a summer life there? It is a question that I must throw out, and let it rest, alone, a monument to memory.

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