It is so good to get back. I'd say "get back home," but I am not sure where home is right now. I am partly in the city, partly in the house in upstate New York where I lived while writing my memoir
. When I left on the dreaded BOOK TOUR, five weeks ago, it was not quite winter, not quite spring, and wholly the only ugly time in this crease of the world between the Catskills and the Adirondacks. The trees were anorexic skeletons; the mountains were still melting mud that the dogs carried into the house. Even in the dark I knew that the world had changed. The air smelled like lilacs. This morning I awoke to a lush, green world. And, thanks to woman who takes care of them when I am gone, I also awoke to three bathed and fluffy Bearded Collies (Betty Lou, who is 17; her daughter Phoebe, who is 11; and her
daughter, Tootsie, who is 3). Anything is better than a hotel room, but a well-coiffed Beardie is better than sex.
This place had been a weekend house. But then, after a year of trying to juggle an oversized New York City life, I came here to write my memoir. That meant a weekend-marriage, day-old newspapers and really bad groceries. The closest grocery store is twelve miles away and there should be a law against it. And yet, as my soon-to-be-ex-husband said when he bought me this house: "It's as close to Ohio as we can get without leaving New York State." The City is who I became; this little town is a lot like where I came from.
This is not the first small town I've called home. I lived in Amherst, Mass., in my early twenties, and then in Provincetown on the end of Cape Cod; both places held me and shaped me and I like to think I gave back to each in some way, as well. For better or worse ? for a long time it felt definitely worse ? this small town upstate reminded me of why I left Ohio in the first place. I am too big to fit neatly into small places: within weeks of buying our house on Main Street, we were the designated Yuppie Scum of the Helderberg Mountains. Our efforts to contribute ? we helped the children start a lemonade stand and raise the money to put on a week-long drama camp in this little village of 150 souls ? were seen as attempts at hostile takeovers. People hated our dogs, our cats, our Volvo station wagon (old as it is), and most especially, the small mini-quiches that I contributed to the annual library cocktail party the first year.
"If you could just bring chips and dip from the grocery in the future, that would be very helpful," said the librarian.
Tell me my husband's been unfaithful, tell me my dog died, but don't tell a woman who cooks for LUV to bring store-boughts to a fundraising cocktail party on the library lawn. If the real estate market hadn't been soft, we would have sold and gotten the heck out of here. As it was, there were also people who embraced us, the dogs were very happy, and I had a sense of the place as a teacher: what is it that I have to learn from having my charms rebuffed? It turned out to be one of the smartest questions I ever asked. But that took a while. At first, there was the weirdness on Mondays ? the weeks between weekends in this town were all but unknown to me ? the silence, the movie theater one hour a way, the aging, pesticide-ridden produce in the grocery store, the shortness of the days in these mountains, the deepness of the snow. Everything seemed mean. I closed the shutters in my kitchen and turned inward.
There was a lot of work to do on the house, an 1802 row house that was basically falling down. I wrote all day. But as evening approached, I began to work on the house. It was unremarkable at first ? a sanded floor here, some caulking, a little bit of weatherizing, a painted room there. But gradually, my evening activities took on the white heat of my daytime ones. The real work of making something with my hands, something that people could actually see and appreciate ? or eat ? was the perfect counterpoint to the lonely work of writing a book.
The meals that I cooked began drifting back through time, past today's sleek, minimalist food, to Italian food, to Nouvelle cuisine, to hippie food, all the way back to Midwestern back-of-the-box cooking. I was cooking ? and so did my home improvement projects. I'd turned my study into the sort of room I'd dreamed of as a child, turned the kitchen into a replica of the kitchen my father had grown up in, and turned the living room into a small version of the grand drawing room that my mother had grown up in before I realized what was happening. I was building dioramas of whatever reality I was inhabiting ? my parents' lives, then my own early life, then my adolescence and early adulthood. It was all unconscious. In fact, it was sort of woo-woo. I never saw the kitchen my father grew up in; upon seeing a picture of my dark blue kitchen with its big farm table and its stainless cook-stove, my father's last living sibling said: "Why, that's exactly like the kitchen we grew up in."
(I write about this in the current issue of House & Garden magazine. It's not online, but you can probably still get ahold of a copy if you want.)
It was weird. But one of the things that happens when you write a memoir is that the boundaries between the past and the present get porous. The Irish say this happens around death and other significant events and they describe it as "times when the air is thin." The air was thin for a couple years up here in the mountains. Building the inside of my house was my way of fortifying myself from the small town hostility that swirled around outside of it. Eventually, I had to go back outside, though. There was the farmers market, there was the garden that needed to be pruned and brought back to life, the stone walls that I learned to build. Eventually there were new people to pick on in town. Eventually there was a moment in which I was standing in my kitchen and realized that I would finish my book, I would leave this place, I would return to my life. Only then did I realize that the town had taught me the limits of living for the mirror that others hold up. Only then did I realize that my parents had lived in a neighborhood where their loud, raucous family was a pariah and that, for a while, I relived their humiliation and their pain in my own small town. The other thing that happens when you write a memoir is that you relive your life.
Last week, I gave a reading to benefit the local library in this little town. The community center was packed. Before I read, I thanked them for teaching me a brutal lesson. I had to stop and pull myself together before I began reading. I was overwhelmed with gratitude to the place and I was also, perhaps for the first time in my life, aware of a a certain grit: my own.
On the road recently, I stopped to visit a friend in east Tennessee. She didn't have room for another guest, so she put me in a cabin that belongs to Senator Lamar Alexander. There, on the log cabin wall, was a framed scarp of old embroidery. Childish stitching of a little framed-house, naïve lettering: "Home is Where you Start from."
When you write ? or cook or decorate ? you get to start again and again.