Monday, August 25, 2008

Same Ax Twice

Maybe I should have used the title ‘Same River Twice’, as in you can’t swim in the same river twice, but I love the story of the ‘same ax twice’, so there it is.

There once was an elderly farmer. Holding up his ax he once told a visitor ‘I love this ax. I’ve had it since I was a boy, more than 50 years, and in that time I have had to replace the ax head twice and the shaft three times .‘ The point of course is that there is nothing left of the ax the farmer had as a boy even though to him it is the same ax he has always used.

This is the long-lost northern brother of the regular poster to this blog. It has been more than a year since I have posted an entry and a lot has happened in that time. However, since my bro has recently referenced the fact that I have moved back to our hometown I will share a few thoughts about that.

Moving back here has been very strange. I left this town in 1977 pretty well certain that I would never be back. I was profoundly depressed and angry at the world, although I did not know it at the time. Anyone remember Paul Simon’s song ‘My Little Town’? “There’s nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.” That is pretty much how I felt about this place. And yet…. The decades rolled by and I moved around quite a bit – seven years in southern Illinois, a year in Ashland, Oregon, four years in Fresno, six years in Santa Cruz, and seven years in Vermont. During that time I did quite a bit on the depression and anger fronts. Friends noted that I was something of a nester. Whenever I moved to a place I tried to make it home. I would learn the history, become familiar with the neighborhoods, etc. I once dated a woman who was hesitant to take me back to the town she grew up in because she was afraid that after 2 days there I would know it better than she did. I took that as a complement.

I also visited my hometown from time to time and while I felt a connection to the place that was fairly satisfying at a deep level I couldn’t picture being back here. “When it rains there’s a rainbow, but all of the colors are black. It’s not that the colors aren’t there, its just imagination they lack, everything’s the same back in my little town.” After all, the town I grew up with was a mill town whose main characteristic was diminishing opportunities. Every year the list of factories that were closing or cutting back grew – Scott and Williams, Carpenter and Patterson and Allen Rogers are just three that come to mind. There are no major colleges – just one 2 year technical college – and almost no white collar economy. The area has a fairly sizable tourist economy but what good is that? What was a self-styled intellectual nerd to do? “…back in my little town I never was nothing, just my father’s son, saving my money, dreaming of glory, twitching like the finger on the trigger of a gun.”

So I left, traveled, more or less lost the New England accent that I was so proud of (although it still is very pronounced when I am tired). And then, almost a year ago, I was offered a job in a town about ten miles from here. I had the chance to move back to My Little Town. I immediately knew that I wanted to do it but did not trust the motivation. I was reminded of an acquaintance from the Vermont days. She and her husband had just relocated to Vermont from Napa Valley. After spending many years developing their internet business and enjoying Napa they decided they needed a simpler lifestyle, so they moved their home and business to rural Vermont. A year later she told me that she regretted the decision. “It turns out that we didn’t need a move, we just needed a vacation.” Was that the way I would feel after a few months back in my hometown? Once the novelty of seeing the old places wore off would I be unsatisfied with living here?

I am happy to report that that is not the case. Linda, Evelyn and I have been here 5 months so far and we love it. There are logistical advantages that we all love. Our previous home has on a winding country road. Now that Evelyn is walking we are very happy to live where there are sidewalks. We are within 700 feet of a city park, ¼ mile of a city beach, and it is no longer a 20 mile (each way) drive to a good grocery store. True, it is no longer 3 miles to the nearest streetlight, but that is a sacrifice we have been happy to make. We still have fireflies in the back yard, so I guess we aren’t all that citified here.

And every day I love driving to work on the streets I know so well, passing the high school I graduated from, the library I did so many school reports in, the local grocery store that I shopped in and my parents shopped in before me, the beach I swam at when I was little. While in many ways it is not the same ax, I mean town, from my childhood it is the perfect place for a nester. The factories are gone, but while I was traveling the city fathers (some of whom are people I went to high school with) turned some of them into business parks, condos and a convention center. There is a new life in the little town.

One of the old textile mills has been renovated to include a concert space. We attended a few summer concerts there this year. It just blows me away that my grandparents worked in this mill. The other day I took Evelyn for a walk and showed her her grandfather's name on the local monument to WWII veterans, then took her across the street to show her her great-grandfather’s name on the WWI veteran’s monument. OK, so Evelyn is 2 and was more interested in the steps and fountain, but someday she will know that these names in bronze on these plaques are related to her.

Sunday was the 37th anniversary of my father’s death (see the profoundly depressed remark above). For the first time in many years I went to the cemetery to mark the anniversary. Evelyn and I walked the cemetery afterward, passing not only her grandparents but three of her great-grandparents and one of her great-great grandparents. It feels so good to me to be so rooted to this place that sometimes I can’t believe that I am descended from people who left their homes across the Atlantic to come here. Its good to be back.

It reminds me of another Paul Simon line “He sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity. He says Amen and Hallelujah.”


what a great post! growing up, i lived in a lot of towns, but one of them was quite small -- a mill town, as you say. i can't imagine going back there to live...but i have been writing a book about life there. still quite vivid after all these years.

i did, however, recently return to portland, oregon and i lived there several times during my youth. it is ever so wonderful to be back, to see some of these things from the past, all the time.

thanks for sharing!
If you recall, your bro was one of the ones who encouraged you to return. And you seemed pretty surprised by that at the time. ;)

Truth be told, I wouldn't mind moving back myself. If it didn't get cold in the winter.

Oh, and if it had a nice oceanfront beach.

Oh, and if it had palm trees. Have to have palm trees. :)

Great post!
Awesome post! I am so glad that everything is going so well for you, Linda and Evelyn.

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