(Days Thirteen through Fifteen) The Hudson River Valley

I have legal documents to prove I was born in the village of Websterin southeastern Massachusetts, in 1956, and that I enrolled the second grade in the New Boston, New Hampshire, Central School in the fall of 1963. The complex migrations of the intervening years–the Statt family Völkerwanderung–are as mysterious to me today as any second century migration is to European historians. The witnesses are all dead: father and mother, aunts and uncles, brother and sister. And I only am escaped to tell…

Fine NGS Interactive Map of the Hudson River Valley
Fine NGS Interactive Map of the Hudson River Valley

We spent my first few years here. The Hudson River Valley is the setting of my earliest memories; the familiar landscape of many of my dreams. The houses we rented that short decade dotted the map of Putnam County, New York: Mahopac, Croton Falls, Lake Carmel, Peekskill.  Low-ceilinged stone cottages; overhanging cedars and oaks; a faint smell of damp clay from a muddy stream–a kill— leading to a wide slow-flowing river.  The scent of mud in the leafy woods would be familiar enough for me to smell “home” here right away.  I haven’t been this way for fifty years; in the third week of May I’ll be walking through, moving at a pace that will try my sense of smell.

Erickson's Ice Cream Parlor and Marina
Erickson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Marina

Elizabeth Wheeler, my mother’s mother, lived on Lake Mahopac, in a apartment above Erickson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Marina, and we spent a lot of time there, eating, swimming and playing in boats. When my father was away, Grandma drove us–my mom, my brother, my sister and me–to Bear Mountain, Sterling Forest, Boscobel or the Croton Falls Reservoir for outings. At this time, my father was frequently incarcerated and institutionalized, in punishment for dark sexual crimes, which I didn’t understand then, of course, but even today I’m not sure what he did or with whom. My sister Sarah was born here in 1959 and died within six months; the cause was obscure. For my parents, it was no picnic.

W300px-Bear_Mtn_Bridge_crope did eat a lot of picnic lunches in the parks in those days. Crossing the Bear Mountain Bridge–a bridge built in 1924: in 1920 Herbert Welsh had to cross the on a “ferry that carried us over the lordly river…Let it be noted by the indolent among my readers that this was the only occasion in our long journey when we trusted to any artificial means of transportation.”–crossing the handsome Bear Mountain Bridge,  my brother John and I, in the back seat of Grandma’s Valiant, sang the first song I ever learned by heart:

The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.

As a child I was pretty sure that the mountain that befuddled the bear must be Bear Mountain. This children’s song worried me to the bone. It spoke to a deep disappointment that I was feeling already, having lost my little sister, and wondering where Daddy was.  Four years old, I was aware our family was somehow amiss. All that I could hear, was a lyric that warned things might stay that way. The bear spoke to me of darkness, silence, and solitude: the dusky woods, the somber Hudson, and me, alone. That hopeless loneliness still haunts me, the fear that maybe I won’t find a pot of gold, or blue birds flying, on the other side of the mountain.

I think of this time and place as my Unheimliche Heimat (1995), a phrase I borrow from W.G. Sebald’s 1995 book of essays about postwar Austrian literature.  “Strange homeland” works as a translation, but misses the pun on “un-homely home,” and also Sigmund Freud’s well-known translation of  “unheimlich” as “uncanny,” Freud says the uncanny is “that class of the terrifying that leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The English theater director Katie Mitchell, speaking in the film  Patience: After Sebald, has said, “the most uncanny place is one’s own home.” I will see what I can see.

 

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