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.

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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.

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Adieu and Fare Thee Well

The reunion is over. All Ninety-two revelers – members of the Saranac Lake High School and St. Pius X Classes of 1965 and their companions – who gathered for a weekend of reminiscence and re-acquaintance, have said goodbye and have gone back to whatever they were doing before. But we are changed, strengthened by the experience.

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The Voices and the Laughter. Photo by Olivia Rauss

It was a funny scene to watch ourselves when we first arrived. There were no prompts, no pictures of our former selves dangling from our necks, so we had to look into one another’s eyes, watch for gestures, listen carefully for vocal patterns to identify who was who and where we fit together. But once we did, oh how tightly we cleaved!

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John Pedroni, Robert Waite and Irene Walker sidle back to 1965 in song. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

We are a remarkable group. Un-clique-ish, without isolationist tendencies, we bonded to one another for the three days we visited – Thursday night dinner in a restaurant that was nonexistent when we lived there, Friday night dancing at the Moose Hall, Saturday morning gathering at our high school no longer a high school for a tour and a video journey through our town, Saturday afternoon attendance at the homecoming football game, and Saturday night feasting and blending our voices with the karaoke in songs we sang as youngsters. It was glorious.

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St. Pius X and SLHS Cheerleaders. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

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Sharing a special remembrance of a gone but not forgotten classmate with the children he left behind. . . . Photo by Olivia Rauss

But it was just a reunion, nothing really extraordinary about that. Classes gather every year to do what we did in Saranac Lake last weekend. So why do we think we’re so special?

Every time we got quiet, someone would comment on the thing about us that is remarkable. Here we were, fifty years later, a single town of kids whose elders sought to keep us apart for whatever reasons they could conjure by dividing us into two high schools, and despite the fact that we didn’t grow up dancing with one another, playing football on one another’s teams, playing or singing music together, here we were in our dotage clinging to one another.

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The Planning Committee. Photo by Olivia Rauss

Standing at the dais, co-emceeing the event, I looked around the room, and I could not see a single table segregated by school. Somehow, past the separation, past our years apart, we have become a family, and when we re-convene, when we come together to celebrate our past and lean in against our diminishing future, we do it as a single entity. We are a family of a sort.

I don’t know many schools whose members return to the kind of communion we share. Most people speak of having been with the people they were friends with in school, of being just as isolated from the rest as they felt as teenagers. But we hale and hearty children of Saranac Lake, at least those of us in the Class of ’65, are cut from a special cloth that binds us together with emotional Velcro.

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Old Friends, Final Breakfast of the Reunion. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

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Sisters. Photo by Olivia Rauss.

What gratitude I have for being part of that little universe. What immeasurable joy I take in being one of them, despite the enormous feeling of disconnect I wrapped myself in as a teenager. I am so glad I lived long enough to shed that mantle and accept this new one, the cloak of my classmates’ love.

A Simple Thank You, Home Town

Impossible as it seems, it’s now been fifty and a half years since I graduated from Saranac Lake High School,

6f51c8fdd1c0f0966b8bbbab55dd572fin 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.90387775

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.”14-3143.1L

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.

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And allow me to simply say thank you.

Sincerely,

Carla Swett Stockton

SLHS ‘65