There are about a half-a-dozen “I almost lived there” cities that sit in my memory like books unread on a shelf in a library I no longer have a membership card to. Two suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts; Jersey City, New Jersey; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Nashville, Tennessee.
Each one of those place-names sounds to me like a bullet whistling past my head, an anecdote of a disaster that I did not have to watch unfold in front of my eyes as if I was a bystander in my life instead of a participant. I had quite a few disasters in the places in which I actually resided; and, yes, I might have found recovery in any one of those fine cities and be celebrating many more years of recovery than I now have, but I did not. Life is perfect where I reside, even in its many imperfections. I may have made a lot of errors, but no mistakes.
Oh! and California. I had a few job interviews with newspapers in the Bay Area. It was the late 1990s and several friends and acquaintances had moved to the Golden State. (Matt Coleman, Some Memories.) By the late 1990s, several of them had moved back to New York, of course, but not all. I myself have yet to set foot west of Sedona, Arizona.
Wherever I moved, the fact of successfully landing a new job, which was always the spur for any change in residence for me, carried with it the idea that I was a success in this life and had no problems ticking away in my psyche. None. “Sometimes sooner, sometimes later,” as the saying goes, this hubris that masqueraded as self-knowledge always resulted in the loss of employment, change of address, loss of friends.
For 41 of the 46 years that I have spent unraveling what had been a perfect spool back on Day 1, I have lived in upstate New York. New York is a large state and most of it is “upstate” in that most of it is not New York City. My personal swath of upstate is a band about 90 minutes (by car or train; longer on foot) north of the city. Poughkeepsie. Narrowsburg. Hyde Park. New Paltz. Goshen.
Where is home? My mother is from Poughkeepsie, and so was her father; her mother was from Brooklyn and her parents from Pinsk, which is now in Byelorussia but has been within the borders of a number of countries. My relatives just called it the “Old Country.” Being Jewish, the name of the country sometimes did not matter and sometimes mattered to a nearly lethal degree. Around 1902, my great-grandfather left, followed by my great-grandmother and their baby son, a great-uncle to me who died two decades before I appeared. A young woman and a baby traveled across Europe; her passport is still in the family—it was stamped in Germany, in France, in England, and then in Ellis Island. She never learned much English, even though she lived for almost 50 years in Brooklyn and then Poughkeepsie.
I once set foot in nearby Minsk and found myself feeling less stirred than I felt I ought to feel, which I suppose is an emotion unto itself.
My father is from Vermont and so was his mother; his father was from Massachusetts, in a part that looked like Vermont anyway. Most anyone with my last name, Aldrich, is related if they can trace their family histories back to Massachusetts in the 1600s. The first Aldrich came from England and was a founder of Mendon, Massachusetts. His birthplace is sometimes given as Derbyshire, England, and sometimes as Little Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, which are nowhere near one another and were no closer together in the 1630s when he left than they are now. From my father’s and my own genealogical research, it seems quite likely we are descended from that Aldrich, wherever he was from. (Derbyshire is in the north, in the East Midlands; Hertfordshire is the county just north of London. I want it to be Little Berkhamsted because of the name. Strangely, Little Berkhamsted is all the way across Hertforshire from Berkhamsted. That must be a story.) Someday I will stand where the Aldrich family came from and feel something.
The states in red in the map at top are those I have at least breathed a sigh in. In some I had a place I called “home.” I carried me wherever I went, so too often I was what needed to be changed. Change came, in upstate New York and inside me, so now I can live anywhere. Pinsk? Little Berkhamsted?
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