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.
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.
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.
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.