My Roots Are Showing.
Recently it has dawned on me that I am a throwback to a much earlier time. I think I was unaware to the extent I was influenced by my early childhood connections to aunts and uncles from an era long since departed. As the years go past I feel these connections and recognize that they do not resemble anything in my current life.
The geography of Northern New York–above the Adirondacks–is a place where the earth flattens out as it steadily rolls from the mountain range’s high peaks region to the St. Lawrence River bordering Ontario. On a clear day you can see for miles and miles driving the back roads up there, the landscape rolling away from your eye, the silver thread of the shining river on the horizon far off in the distance. The town in which my parents grew up was the home of Almanzo Wilder, husband of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the book she wrote of his early life called “Farmer Boy” is practically the only reference that anyone would connect to tiny Burke, NY.
I thought of this area as a place out of time, or at least a place that felt 30 or 40 years behind whatever year we were in. This place still has active evidence of family farms, a tiny town far away from the tourist trade. The farms, dairy or cropped based (once mostly potatoes), were sold over the last decades to Amish families looking for affordable land to work and farm living their private lives in a place where they would be free to be with others who shared the same beliefs. I was long absent by the time these land exchanges were happening but perhaps the Amish were right in that the area was an easier fit than other possibilities.
What I remember from my childhood was a sense of shared values, of neighborly concerns and real help if that was what was needed. I was dimly aware that the price of such deeply rooted connection might be traces of intolerance to “other” which I first came to understand from road trips to visit my cousins just a bit north. The drive was through Native American [Mohawk/Akwesasne] “Reservation” land. I remember looking out of the backseat car window and seeing animated young, brown skinned men carrying lacrosse sticks. This was long before lacrosse had been adopted (culturally appropriated?) by New England’s private schools and eventually most of the high schools in northern latitudes. Lacrosse back then was the Native American sacred sport in a society where the struggles were centered on dirt poor poverty and maintaining their own language and identity while surrounded by deep prejudice from the culture that hemmed them in.
My memories of family center on my father, a storyteller by nature, who filled dinner table gatherings with of tales of working in the woods (those Adirondacks) and the characters he knew doing such work. My aunt’s husband, Karl Pond, build roads through those mountains when road building was not done by engineers, but by local talent. My Dad always said you could tell Karl had built a section of road because he knew how to build a curve which you could feel behind the wheel of your car. One summer by aunt joined him living in a shack in the woods spending her days gathering balsam needles for the Christmas present pillows she made. Mine was made of purple cloth and I kept it for years, the sweet, woodsy scent fading slowly over time.
I am wandering down memory lane now because I have begun to notice how out of step I am with current mores or values. Only though contrast have I come to realize how deeply I absorbed what I learned from sitting at those kitchen tables listening to their history and their stories. Now it is I who is out of step with the times, it I who longs for that particular kind of decency and caring. I do not intend to “whitewash” the memories as that term fits way too well describing other unpleasant aspects of those times which were very far from perfect.
I guess if you live long enough your memories begin to clash with the world that surrounds you which often becomes so alien. At what point do we begin to separate ourselves? In a Best Buy store a number of years ago I realized that I did not know what many of the consumer goods offered on their shelves actually did. As I considered myself reasonably tech savvy at the time it was a moment of real shock. Now I find separations daily. I feel old yet occasionally pleased that I can remember that long ago time, when I felt in tune with those around me, content in trusting that I belonged, trusting that my world made sense and that people in it were essentially decent and fair. My memories are bridge to nowhere as all connections to that time are lost.
Reflections: A History of Burke, NY: https://burkeny.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Reflections.pdf
Akwesasne: St. Regis Mohawk Reservation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Regis_Mohawk_Reservation
Traditional Lacrosse: https://akwesasne.travel/traditional-lacrosse/