September 2015 Community Reporter Column
“You Can’t Go Home Again?” You Can if You are Emily in OUR TOWN…
I grew up a poor Baptist preacher’s kid living my teen years on a hill by a creek in the backwoods of Central New York on a dirt road three miles from the nearest neighbor and a ten-mile bus ride to Marathon Central High School. Our house, a fixer-upper with a screen porch and a bank of Myrtle out front, held my family of seven. In the winter we huddled close to the space heater in the living room where the TV offered me the thrilling close up view of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and my first glimpse of Barbra Streisand with her amazing voice and her unlikely looks. We lived in three bedrooms divided by two by four framing with blankets tacked for privacy. At night I tucked my baby sister into bed in her crib in Mom and Dad’s room, put my hard-earned Barbra Streisand LP on the portable record player and sang my sister and myself into a peaceful state I remember to this day. During the few years we lived on the country hill we expanded our luxuries from an outhouse to an indoor bathroom with a shower, moved from collecting water in milk jugs from the creek to a pump in the yard to indoor plumbing and a window with a view over the kitchen sink.
I remember my Mom posted an index card on the kitchen wall. It was a Bible verse from Isaiah. “…they who wait … shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” I pondered those words and contemplated the majestic nature of eagles as I overheard my mother crying behind the blanketed walls of her bedroom.
The year I was sixteen was a year of great discovery and epiphany for me. My mom gave me James Baldwin’s GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN and Evelyn Smith’s STRANGE FRUIT. My English teacher gave me Truman Capote’s OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS. That same English teacher picked me to play Emily Gibbs/Webb in Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN. The tiny local newspaper described my performance as bringing down the house and leaving not a dry eye in the place. I can still feel myself in that alternate universe I lived in the months I rehearsed Emily and the two nights I was her returning to life in the cemetery at Grover’s Corners.
I left New York after that and graduated high school in a steel mill town in Ohio the following year. I married a boy I’d met in the New York Hills and we drove our 1963 VW Bug to Saint Paul, Minnesota where I’ve lived and done all my growing up.
I went home this month to the beautiful Finger Lakes Area and the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. I took in the roadside array of wildflowers, remembering I had picked the daisies and buttercups for my wedding flowers. I watched an Eagle soar overhead and close by on a road through those breathtaking hills. I burst into songs and giggles with my sister and brother who still call New York home.
I remembered the lines I spoke as Emily in 1966 and realized, not for the first time, how precious it is to pay attention to life as we live it. I think I can go home again. I think I did. But, as always, the beauty of home as we live day to day in our frantic blindness and reaching for more can escape us. Over and over again on this latest journey home I found myself repeating Emily’s words:
“Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?” Thornton Wilder, OUR TOWN