Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My "Guardian of Identity": the Family Home (Notes from Woodstock, New York)

My great-grandfather built this house in 1951 for himself and his wife; their two daughters were grown and married and raising kids of their own, so this 2-story house with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms was more than ample for their needs as retired grandparents. Neither of them probably suspected that my great-grandmother would live here for another 36 years, until she died at the age of 102-1/2. Now my grandmother lives here, and her longevity, rivalling that of her mother, makes me realize (with my genes) that I'm probably going to be on this planet for the long haul.

This house has so many unique features and loving details -- built-in cabinetry in almost every room, a breezeway where we used to eat all our meals in the summers; the original wallpaper(!). The house sits about 100 yards from a large stream; at night you can sit out on the back porch and hear that stream, with water rushing over countless mini-waterfalls, and you can see all the stars unlike anywhere else. For me this place is nothing less than perfect.

Close by is the town of Lake Hill -- it's not really a town, it's just a blip on the map, where everyone has to get their mail delivered to a P.O. box instead of home delivery. When my grandmother first moved there in 1972 (to be near her aging mother) she had a party line. (That's an old-fashioned kind of shared telephone line, for those who've never heard of it.) We used to walk to the post office every day to pick up the mail, a mile or so down the road.

I say every day, but really I mean just on the summer vacations when I was visiting, along with my parents and two brothers. I loved it when my parents would leave us kids there alone with Grandma for a week or so, and sometimes I got to stay myself, alone with my grandmother, who was (and still is) my most important role model. Whenever we stayed in Lake Hill -- during which we visited Woodstock almost daily -- we kids would spend hours every day roaming in the woods, picking wild blueberries and finding beaver dams; we would swim in the ice cold mountain streams, with which this part of the country is riddled. Grandma would set up a bed for me on her front porch (which was screened in), and I considered it a special treat to be able to sleep out there at nights.

My grandmother moved from Lake Hill into the Woodstock house in 1984 when her mother could no longer be alone. It's hard to believe that my great-grandmother died more than 20 years ago (1987), but since that time, this house has been the gathering place for my extended family. I've sometimes dreamed of growing old here myself, though it's hard to imagine how that would happen given my present circumstances.

Although I have never, ever actually lived in New York, I feel very close ties to the state. My father grew up here, as did my grandmother and my great-grandmother. Its natural beauty, its history and its culture all mean a lot to me. Woodstock (population: 6,241 acc. to Wikipedia) embodies my idea of a perfect rural life; it has all the cultural amenities of a city, thanks to its proximity to New York City, but all the unspoiled natural beauty of "the country." Of course, for most rural Americans, my description of Woodstock as "rural" would be laughable; after all, you can see your neighbors' houses, and you can walk to "downtown" (such as it is). But to me those attributes are highly desirable; I have no desire ever to feel isolated, or to be dependent on an automobile. Personally, I like community and walkability. If the function of a house is to remind us of who we are (acc. to Alain de Botton), then this house fulfills its function better than any other house I've lived in.

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