Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I Can't Tell if My Past is Over

Experts call it "age regression therapy."

I simply call it "exploring my early past."

It's an early past - my childhood - that wasn't exceptional in any particular way.  And I don't say that like it's a good or bad thing, one way or the other.  Exceptional can be beneficial, of course, but it can also be disastrous.  So I'm not complaining when I say that my childhood wasn't exceptional.

I'm serious!  I'm not complaining.  Now that I'm older, anyway.

I was born in Brooklyn, but raised until junior high in a little, withering village in upstate New York called Cleveland.  It was an environment where it didn't matter that I didn't have an extraordinary family, because I don't think anybody else in humble Cleveland had one, either.

I wasn't privileged by massive wealth, or cosseted by the effusive deference of others.  But neither did I ever go hungry, either, or without any of life's other basics.

Well, actually, "life's basics" is a relative term, isn't it?  We didn't have a television until I went to kindergarten and came home asking who Mr. Rogers was!  My Mom's parents in Maine didn't have a television, nor did my Dad's mother and sister back in Brooklyn.  So ours was the first set in our immediate family - and it was a tiny black and white!

OK, so maybe we were extraordinary.  But not exactly in a way I enjoyed, at least as a young kid.

My earliest memories are of living with my parents and brother in an old farmhouse with tons of antique furniture, six bedrooms, a large playroom, but only one bathroom.  Just down Beach Road from our farmhouse was - no, not a beach - but Cleveland proper, which was populated by about 1,000 people, amongst whom, as I've said, neither prestige nor abject poverty abounded.  Some pockets of town were more run-down than others, while a number of folks kept their properties in fine shape.  But nobody's home was  particularly ostentatious or extravagant.  Things seemed mostly ordinary, quiet, and average for our rural corner of this planet.  I remember when a girl in one of my classes in elementary school told us her parents had purchased a microwave oven - it was like the space age had finally arrived in backwater Cleveland!

That can seem like many worlds away from me today.

Over these more recent years, as I've struggled with chronic clinical depression, I've had therapists warn me against trying to find reasons for present problems in past experiences.  So I've never sat on anybody's couch and wandered down memory's dark, crooked lanes, delving into hidden crevices of obscure pain or misinterpreted events.

And maybe I shouldn't now.

Hey:  I'm exercising my memory.  Exercise is good, right?

Nevertheless, I'm finding myself being drawn mysteriously, inexorably, to my past, and particularly, my childhood before we moved here to Texas.  That was a time, when I was actually living it, I distinctly remember not appreciating.  I didn't think I liked the rural life, not having neighbors in close proximity, the darkness of the country nights, or not having stores or restaurants nearby.  But then again, how many kids appreciate their childhood in the moment, however grand or boring it was?

And, when considering lifespans, childhood really is but a moment of it, isn't it?

Our old farmstead was comprised of acres of fields that, by the time my parents purchased the place, were almost all overgrown by trees.  That one-bathroom, two-story, wood farmhouse wielded a commanding presence at the top of a small hillock, but in retrospect, I realize it was the two massive pine trees flanking its facade that gave the otherwise plain and unadorned house its gravitas.

Well, those grand trees, and the hand-built stone wall that ran along the country road down in front of the property.  That wall was old when we lived there, and it's still standing today, a testament to old-fashioned engineering and sweat equity.  All of those stones and rocks likely had been culled from the fields across the road, back when settlers were plowing up the land to create the Empire State's agricultural heyday.  When we lived there, the small garden Dad carved out of a field that had succumbed back to forestland was the first vegetable cultivation seen on that property in generations.

There were no other houses in sight of our house, and at nighttime, I remember feeling very much alone, isolated from whatever civilization was out there.  Not only were there no streetlights, but my parents would never waste electricity by leaving a porch light on throughout the night.  Maybe it was the spooky Hardy Boys mysteries I read, but I didn't like riding along those old, narrow country roads at night, with only our headlights - usually the headlights of our VW buses (which I loathed!) - as illumination.  How Mom and Dad could find their way along those black, back-country pathways I couldn't figure out.

Even today, I can remember how oppressive that dark air was.  And I don't like driving on unlit roads at night.

Our nearest neighbors, about a quarter-mile away, were an elderly chain-smoking couple in bad health who were raising two of their granddaughters, who were the ages of my brother and me.  The next-nearest neighbors were another elderly couple who lived in an attractive stone house, and drove one of those futuristic-looking Oldsmobile Toronado coupes.  The husband, a gregarious, short, and overweight war veteran, had only one eye, which often unnerved me, despite his consistently jovial nature.

Then we had a German psychiatrist and his tall, blond wife who owned a majestic stone barn nearby that they rechristened a "castle."  The stone barn's soaring roof had burned away years before, and the structure was in a constant state of salvage as the Germans tried to make it a tourist destination.

One of the best customers of my Dad's employer lived nearby, too - he was the reason Dad's company moved us there from Brooklyn in the first place.  Mr. Haynes owned a bungalow-type house surrounded by immaculately-landscaped lawns, and he'd built an office annex in the back where his chain-smoking secretaries worked.  Even though he was a widower, Mr. Haynes always bought two identical black cars, and he had a large collection of pristine antiques, including samples of the green glass for which our village used to be well-known.

Back in the 19th Century, Cleveland had been a bustling place, with glass factories and wire factories providing most of the area's non-farm employment.  Cleveland was a bona-fide town in those days, with what was then a state-of-the-art municipal water system, a volunteer fire department with an iconic firehouse along the main drag, several churches, and one of the earliest public schools in that part of the state.  That school would evolve into Cleveland Elementary School, where I learned about Mr. Rogers and microwave ovens, and from which I graduated back in the 1970's, just before we moved to Texas.

This past September, Cleveland Elementary didn't open for the first time in its history.  And it probably won't open ever again.  The school district has closed it, citing declining student population numbers and a bleak prospect of Cleveland being able to reverse the situation anytime soon.  Another elementary school in the next town over already closed a few years ago for the same reasons.

Cleveland and its adjacent communities - or, what's left of them - sit on the north shore of Oneida Lake, New York State's largest in-state lake.  It's a scenic place - even as a kid, I could appreciate the lake's aesthetics, at least in the summertime!  And it's such a shallow lake, it freezes solid most winters.

Oneida Lake's entire north shore, however, has been mostly industrial throughout its White Man history, and as you probably know, New York State has pretty much let its industrial might evaporate.  Today, there are no jobs left along the north shore.  One small wire factory remains, but the glassworks have been gone for over a century.  We have some family friends still living outside of town, but all of their kids have left the area in search of jobs.  The only work the husband could find was at the Oneida Nation's casino, a half-hour away.

That casino, just outside the city of Oneida, didn't exist when we lived in the area, but like so many communities where casinos exist today, it's the only economic game in town.  Even if gambling really is only a poor man's tax.

Oneida's Native American tribes - the only people with money these days in that region - have begun buying vacant property along the north shore, but that's mostly because nobody else wants to.  Along the shoreline, some waterfront homes can still command a respectable price, but their buyers are usually retirees, or folks from suburban Syracuse an hour away, looking for a vacation home.

My Dad's employer moved us to Texas after his big customer in Cleveland, Mr. Haynes, passed away.  In retrospect, our family has been grateful that God allowed us to leave that area before the bottom really fell out of its economy.  Driving through a few years ago, Cleveland looked absolutely pitiful, with vacant land where big, rickety wood buildings used to sit.  Sure, most of those old structures had been empty long before we'd lived there, but seeing them gone only reinforced how commerce had left town, and wasn't planning on coming back.

Much has been made about how the taxes and cost of living in New York State have killed its small towns.  But frankly, the same thing is happening to small towns all across the country, including right here in the Lone Star State.  Only in Texas and other places, it's not high taxes and ridiculous costs of living that are sabotaging small towns.  It's the consolidation of commerce in bigger towns, coupled with our changing social preferences, in which urbanized areas are now desirable places to live.  Back when rural America was prime family-raising country, that was because cities were filthy, dangerous, polluted, and noisy.  Cities may still be those things to some people today, but even Detroit is a lot cleaner than it used to be.

When we moved to Texas, a family from Queens purchased our house to use as their summer getaway.  My parents were dubious, however, as to how much they'd be able to get away from New York City, three hundred miles to the south.  Sure, lots of affluent New Yorkers have second homes, but they're usually within an easier commuting distance than Cleveland, New York is.  And it's not like vacationing New Yorkers are warmly embraced in places like Cleveland, where nothing is even remotely cosmopolitan or urbane.

Well, it wasn't then, anyway.  Eventually, the Germans retired and moved away, and famed actor Adrien Brody bought their stone barn for a Spanish girlfriend of his at the time.

I'm not sure who owns the stone barn today, since Brody is no longer dating that woman, but while they were together, they reputedly hired designers from Giorgio Armani's firm to help redecorate the place.

That's pretty cosmopolitan, right?

Maybe if Brody and his Spanish flame had gotten married, set up housekeeping at the stone barn, and, in the fullness of time, produced little Brody-ites to populate their country manor, Cleveland Elementary School could have stayed open.

As it is, however, Cleveland is still utterly ordinary, if not a bit derelict.  And empty.  With little prospect for a reversal of fortune.

And I'm trying hard to not draw correlations with my own life!

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