Impossible as it seems, it’s now been fifty and a half years since I graduated from Saranac Lake High School,
in Saranac Lake, NY. . . fifty and a half years dominated by faraway places, varied experiences, multi-hued cultures. Returning for the reunion next weekend, with the prospect of revisiting people I saw nearly every day of my life from the time I turned 9 until shortly after my 17th birthday, I am flooded with nostalgia, and that nostalgia reminds me of something I have never shared with my hometown: My deep, warm gratitude.
My family – the Swetts – arrived in Saranac Lake, at the end of the third day of the new year in 1957, in a small caravan, in the dead of night, at the height of a blizzard.
My father drove a truck loaded with furniture and appliances, with my brother David and my sister Helen sitting next to him in the cab, while my mother, who was 8 ½ months pregnant, drove the family car, loaded with clothes and household items, leaving barely enough room for me on the passenger side of the front seat, where I was stationed with orders to hold onto my over-excited 15-month-old brother Alfred.
Actually, I hardly held him. I spent most of our eight-hour journey from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, grasping at him as he maintained perpetual motion, climbing me, attempting to sit on mom’s non-existent lap, rolling the windows down and wailing to be allowed out of the car. We drove slowly over the snowy country roads – the interstates were rude forerunners of what they are today – and he did not settle down until after we had stopped to eat at a diner in Rutledge, Vermont, when he fell asleep in my arms. For the last two hours of the trip, I was in increasing pain, terrified to move or to do anything more strenuous than lightly breathe, lest my nightmare be reawakened.
The falling snow became blinding just as we reached the village, and when we got to at the foot of the mile-long hill that would take us to our rented home atop Rockledge Road, we stopped to reconnoiter and emerged from the cars, stiff and sore and, immediately, most horribly cold. Colder than any of us had ever been before.
Years later, my mother would regularly quip, “Yes, living in Saranac Lake, we have two seasons: winter and the 4th of July.” Which may have been hyperbole, but it rings true as I remember that moment.
Standing there where East Pine and Pine Streets meet, getting our first feel of our new home, all I could think was that we couldn’t live there. It was just too, too cold.
Truth is – and you can look this up – the temperatures officially reached 36o below zero that night, and WNBZ Radio reported the next morning that in our corner of the town, high on our hill overlooking Moody Pond in the shadow of venerable Mount Baker, it was actually as much as ten degrees colder than the official report.
The relief of being outdoors after what seemed like endless hours’ sitting in a cramped, smelly vehicle, wore off in an instant. What lay ahead felt daunting. The hill was icy, and the snow was relentless; in order to assess the best way to navigate his way up the hill, Dad had to walk up the hill a ways to find a route in, and still he wasn’t sure what surrounded him. Both vehicles’ motors cranked noisily, struggling to stay alive, and I could feel my toes and fingers, lips and nose separating themselves from my body.
My father, holding my barefoot 3-year-old sister Helen in his arms, decided to look in the glove compartment for a flashlight and absent-mindedly put the little girl down in the snow. She shrieked, and I picked her up and put her back in the car, all the time fighting back tears of absolute terror.
Drained from the trip and weary of crying children, my mother looked at me and shook her head disparagingly. Reading my expression, she said, “It’ll be all right. You’ll learn to ski. You’ll wear winter clothing. We will be fine.” And with that she got back into the driver’s seat and waited for my father to lead the way to the end of our journey at the top of the driveway.
Sure enough, on the second day in our new house, because we were still out of school for winter vacation, we all took a break from the unpacking and returned to that long, steep road, this time with a pair of skis Mom had found in the basement. They were old style wooden skis with leather bindings, which required no special boots. “Today,” she had announced at breakfast. “You will have your first ski lesson.” The other kids were delighted to engage in a new sport, but I was more interested to know where she had learned such a thing. And I couldn’t help noticing that at the moment she made the announcement, she glowed with a youthful exuberance I hardly recognized.
“How do you know how to ski, Mommy?” I asked her.
“I skied a lot in my childhood. A lot.”
“In Vienna?” I asked incredulously.
“Not exactly,” she replied. “But not far away. In the Alps, a place very much like where we are now.
We took turns skiing down the hill, hiking back up, laughing yelling to one another across the white silence. At some point, a woman emerged from a house in the middle of the hill. She walked up to my mother, and they began to talk, and in a few minutes, they embraced and lapsed into German. “Children,” my mother called excitedly. “Come met our neighbor Mrs. Koop.”
The Koops, who owned Temmings Jewelry, were from Switzerland; they spoke a German dialect I had a very hard time understanding, but my mother was clearly in her element. She had found a home. Which made the town feel homey to us as well. By the end of the day we had met most of the people on Rockledge Road; Bibbe Shapiro and I established a bond: we both loved theater.
The following month, in the building that now houses the administrative offices of North Country Community College, my mother gave birth to Sarah, the first of my three siblings born in Saranac Lake General Hospital. We watched the Winter Carnival fireworks from the hospital parking lot along with fellow townspeople, who were there either to visit hospitalized relatives and friends or to watch the spectacle from a distance. No one treated us as outsiders. We felt like locals.
School was a difficult adjustment, but in spring, I had a fight on the railroad tracks with Irene Walker, and that established me as an appropriate friend. The Whitson brothers let me cut through their path when I walked down to meet her to throw stones into Moody Pond, and through girl scouts, I met Suzy Hanks and Gail Gallagher. As members at the Methodist Church, we became part of the community. When John Pedroni soaked my blonde braids in black India ink, I wasn’t even angry because it was clear that what had transpired was more an act of initiation and welcome than anything else.
Clearly, as cold as the winter might be, the people of this little town were some of the warmest on earth.
We became well known in certain sectors of the community. Indeed, there was no missing us. Every Sunday, for example, with the consistency of a Swiss train, we arrived at the First United Methodist Church; but unlike that Swiss train, we were never on time. It was our habit to arrive ten to fifteen minutes after the minister made his welcoming address, just as the choir was putting away hymnals, the congregation rifling through prayer books looking for the Apostles Creed, and our entrance was grand. Eventually, there were nine of us, and we were never inconspicuous, marching down the aisle behind my parents like Biblical offspring – Carla, David, Helen, Alfred, Elizabeth and John.
Then, one snowy day in 1963, I was waiting for my mother to retrieve me from a singing lesson in Lake Clear when Marion Greibsch drove up instead. “Your mother’s been in a bit of an accident,” she told me kindly, and then she drove me home. That bit of an accident imprisoned my mother in a series of operations and casts for the next year and a half, and it was during that time that we truly understood how entirely we had been adopted as Saranac Lakers.
Marion must have made the first phone calls. Because even before the radio reported the news of the accident, food began to arrive at the door. One by one the people of Saranac Lake came by and left us casseroles, salads, breads, desserts; for the next four months we had more food than we knew what to do with. Every day someone called, every day someone stopped by. “We just want to know how your mom is today,” that someone would say cheerily. “And do you need anything?”
Of course, being 16, I simultaneously recognized the enormity of the charity being proffered and resented the fishbowl it placed me in. But looking back, I can now fully appreciate the care, the affection, even the love that prompted those gifts.
And there were so many gifts over the years. Gifts I have never acknowledged, gifts from so many people that to name any of them would be to insult the few I did not name. Suffice it to say that I’ve been around a few blocks by now, and I find it absolutely mind boggling how very much I took away from Saranac Lake fifty plus years ago.
I received a high school education that was nonpareil; I learned the art of self reliance while being nurtured in a vibrant example of communal interdependence that taught me the importance of collaboration. I may not have been popular, but I always knew I was respected, and today, all these years later, several of my classmates still number among my most trusted friends. Though it was far from perfect – black clouds hover over even the most idyllic of retreats – mine was a charmed life, and I am only embarrassed that it has taken me this long to proclaim my appreciation.
So please let me take this moment and these columns of space to acknowledge the giving, gracious people of Saranac Lake. The doctors, teachers, classmates, neighbors, librarians, shopkeepers, parents, custodians, police people, administrators, clergy, service providers . . . the caring folk who peopled this village that raised me.
And allow me to simply say thank you.
Carla Swett Stockton