Once More to the Lake … Again

Deep in the winter of 1957, my father moved our family to Saranac Lake, NY. A remote village burrowed snugly into the heart of the high peaks area of the Adirondack Mountains. The town turned out to be the first place where we actually stayed for more than two years. We had spent the previous nine years zigzagging the country, and somehow this was the place where my dad accepted my mother’s ultimatum: “Move again, and you move without me.”

I was miserable. Nine years old, a misfit newcomer in a closed environment, I felt stuck there. As soon Paul Simon’s voice found its way to my staticky radio, I adopted his song as my private theme. I was a rock. The granite mountains that stood steadfast on the periphery of my town were my fortress steep and mighty. Misery was the tomb in which I hid. Melancholy became me.

Saranac Lake, NY “The Little City in the Adirondacks.”

Except in the autumn.

One Sunday of every Fall, my parents would trundle their expanding brood off on a leaf-sighting tour. It was an increasingly ambitious endeavor as the family grew. I identify each of the passing years by the car we drove and the name of the youngest child.

When we arrived in Saranac Lake, my mother led our mini-caravan in our Pontiac Star Chief. That had been comfortable enough when Helen was the baby, and I was oldest of three. But by the time we got stuck at the bottom of Rockledge Road in the blizzard that welcomed us to town, the car was bulging at the seams. Mom was 8 ½ months pregnant with my fifth sibling Sarah, whose birth inspired my grandfather to give us his used Buick Roadmaster. Our autumnal jaunts were increasingly trying – crowded together in the frigate-like automobile, we fought with one another for a view out of the thickening fog on the windows that were simultaneously cooled on the outside by the early pre-winter fridigity and warmed on the inside by our multiple breaths. The ever-expanding brood acted out their frustration, showed their disdain for destination-less vehicle trips by crawling all over the adults and older kids. Someone inevitably suffered a bump on the head falling against the metal panels, diving headfirst from the backseat into the metal console in the front. Screaming and whining provided the soundtrack until, by the grace of Heaven, one or more fell asleep. Anyone seeking to escape the fray by finding a position on top of coatwear and picnic food between the parents in the front seat was likely to be frequently pummeled by dad’s fist as he shifted gears.

Ampersand Bay, Saranac Lake, NY

Rain or shine, Mom chose the Sunday that the colors had reached their peak and designated it as our day of exploration. Dad drove, and she navigated. Out the Forest Home road, under a canopy of rich golds and browns, the playful gray clouds darting among the rays of mottled sunshine. Twisting along Bayside Street or Pinehurst Road, he’d stop at Ampersand Bay. Everyone – even my hyperactive middle brother – was awed to silence by the dancing redgoldpurpleblue branches,bending gracefully over the lake then bowing back to the evergreens with whom they partnered.

“Go to Tupper, Daddy. Take us to Tupper,” we inevitably begged. And he headed back to town then west on the Lapan Highway to follow Route 3, past Crescent Bay and over the bridge with Lower Saranac on both sides of us. How is it possible this is the same lake we were just admiring in Ampersand Bay. It seemed so very far from where we rode now.

I loved those rides. To escape the noise, the presence of the crowd on my lap and at my feet, I opened my window. Oldest child privilege – I always had a window. So long as no one commanded me to close it, I sat with my arm across the wet base, my head on my arm, the wind and rain and/or dew falling into my thick blonde hair now streaming wildly behind. I imagined myself in a kinetoscope, the light and dark flickers of color dancing across my eyelids.

The arrival in close succession of Elizabeth and John, Numbers 6 and 7, necessitated buying something bigger, and we spread out in our Volkswagen van. The adventure changed abruptly – it became a sedate, customary pilgrimage. Beautiful but not so challenging.

By then I was in high school, and my escape was imminent. College. New York City. Freedom. I savored the final family forays. The Fall of my senior year, as we dutifully took our places in the roomy van, I put my head against the glass of my window and cried silently. I was sure this would be our last trip.

I felt a sting of nostalgia. Unwelcomed. After all, I wanted to believe, as teenagers do, that leaving home meant leaving my woes. Putting this closely knotted community behind was liberation from a kind of incarceration I wanted to remember as torture for the rest of my life.

But what had happened was something I was only beginning to understand. Over the years, as the color and cool of my birthday season washed away my summer anxieties and prepared me for the thrill of winter, they also smoothed my edges. I found a way to fit in, to make friends, to be a part of the place we inhabited. To love my neighbors. I would miss it.

Not long after, my uncle died in Arizona, and his widow, my mother’s beloved older sister, begged my parents to move west. They did. I flitted about the country feeding my youthful wanderlust, the product of my father’s years before. New Mexico, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Europe. A few months here, a year there. I couldn’t settle in. I missed my Adirondack autumns.

Finally, New York City. Close enough. I loved the thrum of the air, the electricity in the sidewalk, and the proximity to Saranac Lake. In eight hours or less, I could be rocked in the bosom of the gentle slopes and dangle my feet in the invigorating cold of the glacial lakes. Then, in eight hours or less, I could be far away, immersed in a life I chose to pursue. I was happy. And then I got married.

Though I felt ancient by then from the multiple displacements, I was still young. My husband was even younger, and he had California Dreamin’ in his soul. We tried living there, hated it, and then, when I became pregnant with our first child, we migrated to Arizona to be close to my family. Far too far from the East.

What saved me from languishing in the West was that I loved to drive. Every summer from the time my first-born was two, I would trundle my kids into our car and drive east. My husband hated long road trips, which freed me to stay away as long as I wanted, without the pressure to be back for his work. He would fly and meet us somewhere along the way, visit our friends and family, see the eastern seaboard historical sites for a week, then fly back and leave the driving to me. Until the children’s calendars were regulated by their school year, I planned it so that we could be in Saranac Lake when the leaves began to turn.

Those years, too, I remember by the succession of cars I drove.

We made our first trip in an old Chevy Nova. Black interior, no air conditioning, but a fuel efficient engine and remarkable staying power. Two years later, Pregnant with child #3, barely fitting behind the wheel, I planned my trip in the same car. My mother, however, insisted that if I were hell bent on making the pilgrimmage, I should at least take her Honda, half the size of my Nova, and my youngest sister. “You’ll have a/c, and you won’t be alone.”

All the way across the country, my sister and I could not stop talking about getting back to the journey through the leaves. I wondered if my incredibly well-behaved son and daughter, then aged four and two and a half, seated contentedly in their carseats rarely complaining about anything, would appreciate the ride as my rambunctious siblings did.

Olf Forest Home Road, Saranac Lake, NY

I needn’t have worried. A few minutes along the Forest Home Road, my son warbled, “Mommy, I never saw anything so beautiful in all my life.” I had to stop the car so my sister and I could sob in one another’s arms. Lord we’d missed this place.

The next time we made the trip, I drove a Chevy Impala Wagon. Each of my daughters in their infant-toddler car seats occupied half of the second seat, while my son luxuriated across the “way back.” This time, my middle child, herself nearly 4, taunted her brother, and they sparred vocally then physically across the barrier between them. My baby wailed inconsolably until they stopped. I watched them in the rear view mirror.

How strange, I thought. This is more déjà vu than I’d anticipated. My children were my siblings, and I was my mother. Young and confused by the dichotomy of my emotions. Loving them wholly, craving some freedom. Wishing for time alone but never wanting them out of my sight. Seeking the relief of familiarity in the North Country and wondering how I could have survived such a closed system.

As I pulled over, stopped the car and took in the panorama of color, I felt bolted to the ground. I did not want to move. What was this feeling? I shook the confusion out of my head and breathed deeply. Ah, brisk autumn air. The sensation passed, and a few days later we were back in Arizona.

Each year, we repeated the scenario with less fighting, more talking. The confusion never passed.

Until last month. For my birthday, my son and his wife took their daughters and me to Saranac Lake. Autumn had just begun to tease the green leaves to shy hints of reds and oranges, browns and gold. The air was cold, wet, clean. The eight-year-old, fascinated by the concept of healing woods, breathed deeper and deeper, vowing to heal anything that might ail her. The ten-year-old was impatient to get out of the car and get on a paddle board. I, of course, insisted on a leaf tour.

Driving on the Forest Home Road, with rain threatening overhead, the muted colors waving at us from behind the cloud shadows, I leaned back and listened as my older granddaughter admonished her little sister in a tone that was decidedly authoritarian. The younger girl rejoined with a statement so venomous I laughed thinking how lucky we all are she’s a kid and not a snake. But as we came to a stop overlooking Ampersand Bay, they both hushed. Everyone in the car sat in quiet contemplation. The beauty of the lake, the sylvan panoply took our breaths away.

The old emotions crept up my spine and found their way to my stomach. The old conflict in a new skin. So many words to write. So little time. I want to get back to my desk. But I never want this moment to end.

It’s different now. The confusion has lifted. I’ll be leaving again. This time, I’ll have no choice. I sigh and feel a rustle of leaves flutter into the lake. I’d prefer to stay here with them.  

Here at home.

 

Pictures on Exhibition at a Reunion – Fictionalized Non Fiction in Three Parts: Part II

II. Dueling Hopes

It’s the first week of leaf season, and the color seems to pop before my eyes, every hour a new clump of reds, golds, purples – yes, honestly, in the Adirondacks, purples happen – and browns. The weather is phenomenal, hitting the 80s by day, dipping into the 40s by night; this place should be teeming with tourists, but our town is out of the way for casual weekend travelers from the cities. The Canadians, who keep the place humming in the summer time are gone now; more people might show up over Columbus Day Weekend, but for now, the town is bustling with once familiar faces now older and strange. Two classes from the small local high school are celebrating their fiftieth and sixtieth year reunions, and there aren’t a lot of rooms in town. Besides the returning graduates, there are hearty canoeists in town for a big race on the Saranac River.

nb90miler-98511

It’s a lucky break for the few local hoteliers and a bonus for some in Lake Placid as well. No rooms left at the few standing inns. A few of us got reservations in early and are staying at the little mom/pop place on the Lake in the middle of town. Well, not a lake, strictly speaking, but a dammed portion of the river, the gateway to 43 miles of open water, a system of rivers, lakes, locks and ponds protected by the State of New York, treasured by the locals. Except for July 4th weekend and possibly Labor Day weekend, there is never a crowd here.

Surprising as it seems to those of us who have explored the primeval forests, hiked the ancient switchbacks, swum in the sylvan pools, this is still an undeveloped sanctuary. Only climate change and abject poverty gnaw at the edges of perfection; acid rain used to dissolve the leaves off trees, poison the fish in the streams, melt the needles off the pines, but that’s under control now. The economy is less stable; there aren’t a lot of jobs here, and so it is that fracking proponents and amusements peddlers gain ever more momentum in their quest to invade the preserve.

A few of us have reserved early and have rooms in a long-standing mom/pop establishment. lakeflower It’s an old motel that should have been sold years ago. But since there are no plans to develop the town and entice investors, no buyers offer deliverance to the owners; they keep struggling along, falling behind on mortgage payments in the off-months and barely making it up in the tourist seasons.

Our motel has no staff. Marcy, the owner does her own cleaning, her own housekeeping, her own everything. Lacking an ice machine, she makes daily runs to a local store, where she buys bags of it that she doles out from her office. The beds are old style spring mattresses, worn and uncomfortable, stacked with pillows that are hard, unyielding. A musty odor lingers even when the windows are wide open; this building has weathered enough Adirondack winters and warded off enough Adirondack springtimes to have earned retirement. But still it goes on.

Marcy and her husband bought this place in the 1990’s, when they were young and full of plans to spruce the place up, make it profit. They would sculpt the beach area and bring in white sand, enlarge the pool and install a spa, build larger units, where visitors could stay for longer periods of time. But like any property subjected to the harshest of winters, this one needed constant repair; new construction, even cosmetic additions were given low priority. Survival was all they could sink their finances into. After her husband died, Marcy put the place on the market, but she said it would cost her money to sell it. So she held on.

And, like the town, like the preserve, like the sanctuary we all cherish, she continues to hold on, teetering on the edge of painful termination.

Mt. Baker


My life began here, well there,

on that sylvan floor below where my youth stretched out

in infinite languor, bathed in lingering half-light . . .
I stood here for the first time fifty years ago

and gazed downward, outward to the

layered folds of that Adirondack autumn,

anxiously hearing dreams call out from the peaks and the lakes and the rivers,

watching them open their arms to me, a  transplanted Massachusetts girl,

perched on a rockface fortress steep and mighty.
I see that waning October day so clearly, a day like today,

shimmering in the amber angles of a soon sinking sun.

I hear my uncle’s voice echo from a distant past, “Walk quickly, children.

“The sun’ll be gone soon.  We could be lost.”

He was, after all, from New York City and a bit melodramatic about the woods.

There was plenty light left for us to find our way.
The New Year and my 10th birthday

had slipped together into the widening autumn darkness.

I was poised for womanhood, the new new year’s new fruit,

a wonder, I, and wondrous. thankful that the leaves rotting beneath my feet

were dry, and  that my birthday sneakers were unsmudged.

I felt them yearn with me to move on,

to descend the slopes into the future  that beckoned in glistening

splendor, suspended in the clean crisp air.

Instead, I thrust my head toward the clouds and shouted

“I’m here, world.  Look at me.  I made it to the top.”
Well, I’m back again, and there it is,

The same sparkling valley,

Where dreams still breathe in the anxious

afternoon of yet another Adirondack Autumn.

I leap downward, into the woods; no need now to stop and crow.

I descend willingly.

I’ve only minutes left,

But in a minute there’s still time

And plenty of light.

A Mother’s Day Gift to My Children – Part VII

Charlotte never went back to med school, though I imagined she would have liked to.  Being mother of seven children had supplanted any career goals, but she was clearly restless.  When I was in high school, our long, dark waits were enlivened by discussion of whatever books I was reading, whatever books she was reading, whatever cultural event we had managed to take in.  We looked at collections of Impressionists and Expressionists, listened to classical music, and we argued about what was better, what was strong, what stank.  From her I learned to dissect literature and analyze characters; from her I stole a profound love for words and music.  I never got her facility with science and math, and she never really understood what drove me, but we both looked forward to those discourses.  We were two lonely women encaved in our New York State tundra (we lived in a small town in the Adirondacks by then), finding commonalities through the arts.

Nested against Mt. Pisgah, deep in the woods over the Village of Saranac Lake, NY, our former home (the larger one, furthest left) is now an apartment complex, listed as “the historic Larom-Wells Cottage in Adirondack guideboooks. (Photo by Barbara Maat)

Our ties deepened over the years as we battled new storms.  Some required what seemed at the time like simple adjustments. My oldest brother was diagnosed with diabetes; another brother had multiple learning disorders.  But others caused major upheavals. Dad fell from a third story roof while installing storm windows one Thanksgiving, and he was unable to work for months; Mom went out on the truck for him, and I held down the fort at home.  Two years after Dad recovered, an unlicensed, drunk driver rammed into Mom’s car, and she was hospitalized just inches short of death’s door, remaining in bed and incapacitated for the better part of the next three years.

Mama had to rely on me in ways no mother wants to be dependent on a child, and she never resented me or ridiculed my mistakes as she had when I was less responsible for her; it was a time of great bonding.  I began to find a way of being released from some of the omnipresent family duties, and she began to realize she wanted more from her life.

Round Lake, An Adirondack Meditation

photo by Neil Van Patten

Pristine mountains, primeval sea of freshwonder
Embrace me now, where once –
(Never mind that now; begin again.)

Loons sigh in the distance, and
An osprey dances for his food
On a finger of fair sky
The color of blueberry popsicles,
The kind that made your tongue and teeth turn
Blue so that your mother didn’t like you to eat them.
(Funny – thinking about blueberries makes me smell blueberries. . .)

Perhaps the smell is not a memory but rather the
Ripening of real fruit that populates my island.
Or do I smell the outhouse
That periodically belches chemicals.
(. . . and how omnipresent the unseen humans really are!)

I wish I could paint, draw, re-create this verdant vision.
Alas, imprisoned in words, I am powerless,
Can merely, only stare in awe and wonder
At the multitude of textures
In the layers of mountains.
(Who’d’ve thought – so many shades of blue and green?)

The clouds soar by, laughing at me as they play.
At times they’re great white whales
Charging through the endless oceans.
In a moment they’ll be clowns in acrobatic performance,
Gymnasts hurtling over cushioned bars.
Look – one sailing just overhead has fused
With others and has formed a mammoth hand
(Like my father’s!)

Shielding me from the fiery and persistent sun
Which acquiesces to the threatening cloud.
And in the cool shade
A deerfly returns to bite me.
(Ouch!)