As much as I loved living in the Southwest, for at least a decade I had occasionally fantasized about returning to my native Northeast. Not the concrete, asphalt, traffic, and sprawl of my suburban New Jersey boyhood and adolescence. Not even, within that sprawl, the one thing I fondly recall, in an adolescent-romantic way, about the Garden State: that railroad line that ran from my town to Hoboken; that corridor of steel, wood, ballast, brick, soot, grease, sidings, boxcars, loading docks, platforms, Italian bread factories, fifty-five-gallon drums, fens, storage tanks, chemical factories, rust, overpasses, billboards advertising liquor and Broadway shows, and bocce ball courts that threaded in the smoke and haze such burgs as Paterson, Passaic, Clifton, Lyndhurst, Kingsland, and Secaucus, and that I frequently traveled by passenger train for a few dollars after school for fun. No, nowhere in New Jersey.
Rather, my gaze was now upon New England, mainly the rural New England of my youth and the memories it held: Vacations on a lake amid the hills and mountains at the confluence of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York State; a lake of awesome breadth and, until I learned to swim, frightening depth, glassy one day and coarse with steep, mutinous, white-capped waves the next. Dense, dark woods into which I would venture only so far. A pine needle-blanketed railroad track nearly digested by the woods, yet bearing a short, crawling, thrilling freight train once or twice a week. Crows and song sparrows. Corn fields. Rivers of sibilance in the leafy treetops. Dairy cows encircled by electric fences whose strands I would test with a stem of grass. A shallow lily pond at one end of the lake in which was interred a rowboat coated in furry mud. Stubbed and bloodied toes. Legs and arms stiff and sore with poison ivy rash plastered pink with calamine. Motorboats. Water rainbowed with fuel. Lake activity echoing off a wall of white pine on limpid mornings. Sky-crumpling thunderstorms. A lush, mysterious, and silent private island belonging to a school for the deaf. Bass, pickerel, perch, sunfish, mussels, and crayfish. Nocturnal raccoons raiding garbage cans. Barred owls calling in the dead of night. Air balmy with a comfortable humidity. A place that introduced me to the wonders of nature and the succor of woods. As I walked carefully, slowly, tenderly in those woods, I think my developing mind for the first time got a sense of the past―not my past, not my mom’s or dad’s past, but the past.
Memories of a single year at a boarding school at the base of a western Massachusetts mountain. Coats and ties. Mandatory sports and chapel. No girls. Constant hunger. Nicotine withdrawal. Fear of failure. A frustrating if awe-inspiring English master. A big, quiet, comforting library sweet with the must of old books. The mouth of a culvert in which I huddled, sneaking Marlboros on bitter moonless nights deep with snow. The shame of a remedial education. And yet a school―with its reputation, recommendation, and a second-string spot on its varsity basketball team―that got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams.
I even fondly recall urban New England: Boston. Age seventeen. Staying at my sister’s apartment on Agassiz Street in Cambridge. Lolling on the banks of the Charles. Discovering Look Homeward, Angel on a night stand. The pleasure of first-time inebriation―screwdrivers―on a Boston subway platform. A side trip with sister and her friends by bus to a camp in Conway, New Hampshire.
However, bad memories also haunted that land. Adolescent New Jersey memories of bullying, loneliness, and academic shortcomings. I wondered if I could now stand to revisit them―for surely they still existed in Northeast places―and forever put them to rest.
Still, a land to which I owed much. My mind now enriched and my body seasoned by my years in the Southwest, could I, at age fifty-eight, reengage with its spirit? Could I spend the rest of my life there? I thought I could.
Now, could my wife?