Twenty-five years ago today – on May 17, 1988 – more than 6,000 Ithacans documented their day for a project called “One Day in Ithaca.” Some of the entries were published in a book; all went to an archive at Cornell. It’s possible I participated; I can’t remember.
The town’s been asked to do the same thing again this year. I haven’t yet written up my entry, but I thought I would share what I scribbled after I got home from work.
As I reflect back on today, I can’t help but also reflect back on this day, twenty-five years ago, and re-imagine what I might have written. Just like an ink stain on a favorite sweater, and for reasons that have nothing to do with big hair or shoulder pads, 1988 enjoys some staying power for me – though, at the time, I didn’t know that. I was just trying to get through each day without embarrassing myself.
Tuesday, May 17, 1988
A few months ago, my parents moved us into an apartment on South Hill while we wait for builders to finish construction on our new house.
The apartment is a dump. Some of that can be blamed on the landlords, whom my dad refers to as “Larry, Darryl and Darryl” because they travel in a pack of three, and – just like their namesakes on the Bob Newhart show – only one of them speaks. The other two trudge through our apartment with mud-covered workboots and silently fix a few of the many problems.
But some of the dumpiness is our own doing. Our stuff is in storage, so we use black trashbags to cover the windows and sleep on flimsy cots from K-mart. The foam mattresses are about two inches thick and do nothing to protect us from the frame’s coils, which creak and sag under even a small amount of weight. I do not invite friends over. I am embarrassed by where we live. Also, I don’t have any friends.
No one looks back and thinks fondly about sixth grade, although I don’t know this yet because I don’t have the perspective of time and age. What I do know is that I’m not quite sure I belong at Dewitt Middle School.
I’m awkward. I’m awkward because 11 is an awkward time in life, and I’m awkward because up until last November, I attended a Catholic school and the rules were very different. Since we all wore uniforms, girls who were part of the cool crowd had few ways to differentiate themselves. They wore big, bold scrunchies in their hair and pushed their navy-blue, knee-high socks down to their ankles. I could somewhat adequately fake my way through each day.
But here, in public school, there are many ways for the cool kids to differentiate themselves from the dorks. I am even further behind the dorks in a category of my own creation. When I moved to this school, I didn’t know anything about pegging jeans – my one and only friend, Jessica, taught me how to do that. But that doesn’t really help my social standing because my mom says that jeans are too casual to wear to school. I wear coordinated outfits that involve corduroy pants, matching turtlenecks and sweaters with pictures of elephants and Boston terriers. In changing schools, I traded my Catholic schoolgirl uniform for a “clueless suburban mom” uniform.
(Next fall, as a seventh grader, I’ll attempt to flunk out in an effort to get my parents to realize their mistake and move me back. This plan will backfire horrifically as I am placed in remedial classes and have to spend two years clawing my way back into the honors classes where I belong.
But that is in the future. Today is Tuesday, May 17, 1988.)
It’s near the end of the school year. In choir practice, we stand up to sing and the girl sitting in the row behind me puts a cream cheese-covered bagel on my chair. I sit down on the bagel. Now I am “bagel-butt.”
I will tell no one about this incident – not even Jessica.
I hate this school. I hate these people. I just want to go back to my old school. My old life. My real home.
Friday, May 17, 2013
In my late-teens, after I’d graduated from high school and fled New York State, I looked down on peers of mine who still lived in Ithaca. I pitied those I felt had gotten stuck here because of economic reasons or family obligations; I assumed friends who said they chose to stay here were lying to themselves or everyone else.
The world is so much bigger than Ithaca, I’d say. There are so many thrilling places to see and extraordinary things to do. Why would anyone choose to stay here?
In time, my family moved away from Ithaca. There was little reason to ever come back. The next 16 years found me living in some of the best cities in America: Boston, Massachusetts; Boulder, Colorado; San Francisco, California.
Then my brother relocated back to the area. Some friends did the same thing. I found myself one August morning in 2007 on a red-eye from the West Coast, headed to Ithaca for a visit.
You know what it feels like after you get home after a long trip? I’m talking about literally the first 10 seconds after you unlock the front door, let it swing open, and drop your suitcase on the floor. Maybe you were traveling for work, or maybe you were doing something really awesome and fun, experiencing a new adventure every day. It doesn’t really matter – walking inside, those first 10 seconds… you smell your smells, you see your things, and every cell of your being knows that everything in the universe is okay because tonight you get to fall asleep in your own bed, under your own blankets, on your own pillow.
You know that feeling? That’s home.
That’s what I felt when my plane touched down at the Ithaca airport.
It’s been six years since I decided returning to Ithaca was the right thing to do, and it’s been three and a half years since I convinced my husband we should do it. The first part involved winning an internal argument about moving back to a place I thought I despised. The second part only happened after a lot of long conversations about how the winters aren’t that bad. And besides, he could take up fishing again. Wasn’t he always talking about taking up fishing again?
I start today like I start most days – by rolling over to hit snooze on the alarm clock and trying to ignore the cold, wet noses that poke my forehead to say hey hey! It’s time to eat! Hooray! It’s time to EAT! Our two cats have learned to leave my husband alone in the morning, since he is nocturnal and often doesn’t crawl into bed until a few minutes before sunrise. I saw the weather report before going to sleep last night, so I know he has been up most of the night preparing to fish. I don’t understand why so much preparation goes into a day of fishing, but I have learned not to ask too many questions for fear that I’ll get trapped in a hour-long one-sided “conversation” about the merits of bass fishing with biffle bugs versus topwater frogs.
I drive to work and am struck – as I frequently am – by how beautiful the landscape is this time of year. Spring offers so much hope, and everything looks bright and crisp and new. There is rarely a day that I drive to work that I don’t take a moment to appreciate Ithaca’s beauty. Even in the dead of winter when we haven’t seen the sun in weeks and dirty snow sits in piles along the road… I find a beauty in that, because it means that I live in a place with four distinct seasons. In California, most days were “pleasant.” Some were “very pleasant” and others were “a little less pleasant.” In Ithaca, the weather forces you to remember to live in the moment. Embrace that sunshine and warm breeze because it might snow tomorrow.
There are still things that bother me about how small Ithaca is. Sitting three tables away from me at lunch today is the mom of a former high school friend. I also can’t go to Wegmans without running into 15 people I know. As an introvert, there are times I really just want to blend in, quietly get my errands done and recharge alone in my head. It’s hard to do that when an old gym teacher wants to catch up in the bulk foods section.
But at the same time, there are perks to living in a small town. I’m reminded of that this afternoon on the Commons, when I am running behind and find that a stranger deposited a quarter into my meter so I wouldn’t get a ticket. Or maybe it wasn’t a stranger. Maybe it was someone who recognized my car and saw the blinking meter. Either way, it’s appreciated, and so I pop a quarter into the meter behind me.
My office on South Hill is a stone’s throw away from the trash-bag curtains/K-mart cot apartment. Sometimes I drive past Dewitt Middle School and remember that I was a bagel butt and wore elephant sweaters. But instead of pain, I feel gratitude. My history in Ithaca is what shaped me, and it helps me appreciate how far I’ve come.
The world is so much bigger than Ithaca. There are so many thrilling places to see and extraordinary things to do.
That’s why I leave from time to time. I have adventures, meet interesting people, collect crazy stories.
But – for now at least – Ithaca is the place I come back to.
This is home.