Anyone who follows the Grip knows that I've lived in Southeast Asia for more than a decade. Throughout the previous two decades, however, my DH and I resided in a rural town in western Massachusetts, in a fabulous, idiosyncratic eighteenth century building on the banks of a small river. Rock-strewn, hilly and heavily forested, our town sheltered sixth-generation farmers whose names showed up in its Colonial-era graveyards as well as professors from the surrounding universities. We had no commercial establishments aside from the food co-op two miles down the road; every weekend I'd drive half an hour into Amherst to stock up on groceries for the week. We could not have lived there without a four-wheel drive vehicle, since our steep, tree-shaded driveway turned into a sloping sheet of ice too slippery to walk on for much of the winter. Indeed, we had to have two cars, because we'd be totally isolated if our sole vehicle broke down.
New England has a harsh beauty, which I truly appreciated when I lived there. Those decades were happy, or so I thought. My DH and I worked on the house, building decks, renovating bathrooms, installing a new well pump. We cut down trees and planted herb gardens. We hosted visitors from more civilized locales and threw legendary parties. We had dear friends. We had adventures, including those of a sexual sort, exploring swinging and polyamory. We were young, in love, full of energy.
These days, we get back to the U.S. every year or two, for business and to see family and friends, usually in April which is brutally hot in our adopted country. In fact, I am in the U.S. as I write this. We almost always schedule one night in our old area, to see our accountant and our mail forwarding people. This year, though, we spent several days in our old haunts.
We saw a film at a 1920's cinema we used to frequent, one of those grand establishments that seated nearly two thousand people before it was carved up into an eight screen “multiplex” in the seventies so that it could survive. We ate at restaurants that used to be our favorites. We drove the winding roads that once were so familiar we could almost traverse them in our sleep —or at least in the sleet or snow.
Not much in the region has changed. I discovered, though, that I have. Instead of feeling the warmth of nostalgia, I experienced a weird sense of disconnection. I could remember the woman I'd been back then, but I couldn't really identify with her. She might as well have been a character in a novel.
How could I have spent so much time driving everywhere? Especially in what was often such dreadful weather! Certainly, the woods still held a stark grace, even without a shred of green, but everything seemed so remote from everything else! Now I walk five minutes to a twenty-four-hour supermarket, ten minutes to the post office. The dry cleaner is literally just outside the door of my apartment building. I hop on the subway and in a quarter of an hour I'm at a shopping center or a movie theater or a museum or a historical site.
No snow tires. No auto insurance. No need to be concerned about how to get home after having a glass of wine with dinner.
I get tired thinking about how difficult life was back then.
Then I feel embarrassed. Guess I've gotten soft and lazy. I used to be tough New England stock, but now I'm a tropical wimp. Still, I can't imagine moving back.
In some ways, I've become a ghost, just a shadow of the vibrant, passionate, self-reliant rural woman I was in those days. Yet I think I'm more at peace, less torn by worry and insecurity, than she was. Prowling those old locations, I had a sense of loss, but no desire to go back. I suppose that's a good thing, since that woman is truly gone. Longing for the past can eat you up inside. I'm ready to let the ghosts rest.