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Old House

When I was small, my parents both worked in New York City–my father was an early systems analyst, and my mother was a proofreader. To tell the truth, my mother wasn't cut out for the job of full-time mommy, so they made a radical decision for the mid-60s, and shipped me upstate to my grandmother, who lived in Walden, NY.

Her house was on Main Street, which really was a Main Street–a long hill with our neighbor the Presbyterian church at the top and the bank at the bottom. Along the way was the Woolworth's, which was still a 5 & 10 cent store. The local beauty parlor was at the foot of the hill around the corner from the bank, and so my Gaga and I made the trip about once a week. I would run or skip ahead of her as fast as I could down the hill, and turn around at the telephone pole at the bottom, to wait for her more stately progress with her cane.

Walden was like most little upstate towns: almost all white; and I am not. So it wasn't too surprising that one afternoon this outing turned sour. A bunch of older kids started to follow me down the hill. (I was three or four; they were about eight.) I could hear their whispering and giggles; I could feel their hostility burning through my back. I was terrified.

But I instinctively refused to give them the satisfaction of my panic. I didn't look behind me, but continued down to the telephone pole, my heart hammering. There, I turned around as usual and faced them–with my eyes shut–to wait for some piece of future that was a blank grey of anticipated horror. But I was stoic Tiger Lily. No blood in the water for those nasty little sharks.

Then there came a wonderful screaming. My 75-year-old Gaga came thundering down the hill, brandishing her cane. I wanted that cane to break their bones; they sensed doom too, and slunk off. She gathered me up and I began to cry hysterically. It took a long time for me to be brave enough to leave Gaga's side when we went downtown after that.

But when I was alone in what to me was a huge backyard, it was heaven: Rosebushes and beds of tulip and hyacinth; my tricycle and the jungle gym my dad put up for me. (My favorite part was the post-hole digger and pouring the magical cement.)

And when it snowed, it covered the quiet streets as snow should always do; I would look out at it through the dusty-smelling lace curtains and watch the whiteness turning everything into a something else from a tale of wonder. And when bundled into the inevitable snowsuit and boots, even with less movement than an astronaut, the snow came over my knees. It didn't do that again until I moved to Wisconsin as an adult; I spent the rest of my childhood thinking about Walden as a Golden Age.

Fifteen or sixteen years later, I was on a trip with some friends, and we passed the sign on the New York Thruway. So I coaxed, and there we went. Main Street was, of course, easy to find. The bank was still there, and so was the church. (I think Woolworth's might have been gone.) And there was my grandmother's house.

It was a big staggering eyesore, with clapboards held together with chunks of peeling paint–just another rental house in just another small town in upstate New York. And when I went around back to the backyard, I was stunned at how tiny it was. I was in tears; partly from missing my Gaga, and partly from how shoddy the reality behind the magic was.

Thirty years later, heaven alone knows what it's like–and I refuse to Google to find out. Maybe it's gone the way of the kids around the telephone pole. But I prefer to think that the snow still makes a Christmas card that a toddler can take for granted, because that's what a small safe world is. That's what we need our small towns to be, peeling paint notwithstanding.

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