The Thinker

Homing Instinct

I’ve been planning our trip to Canada in late August. We’ve been meaning to do a Canadian vacation for years. But it seems we always found more desirable vacation destinations (Arizona, Hawaii, Yellowstone) to hit first. Now we are getting around to it.

My daughter Rosie has already been to Montreal with her French class. As a top French student (and someone who professes to want to live in France) it took no arm-twisting to get her to agree. But we will only spend a couple days in French speaking Quebec. The bulk of our vacation will be spent in Ontario. Most of it will be in Toronto, but we will also spend a couple days in Stratford. This city is renown for its season of plays and musicals, many with a Shakespearean bent. As theater sluts it is a natural destination, but Toronto also offers theatrical possibilities.

I am sure I will enjoy visiting Canada. We have traveled across Ontario before on our way to Michigan and have seen Niagara Falls. But perhaps the most interesting part for me will be the way stops coming and going. Because between Virginia and Canada lies New York State. And as someone who spent his formative years in upstate New York, the state still has the call of home.

My family has wholly vacated New York State. At one time there were ten of us living under one roof in Endwell (a town near Binghamton) and now we are all scattered elsewhere. There are not even any old neighbors or friends that I know about still living in my old neighborhood. Nonetheless the lure is powerful. I made an overnight foray to Endwell in 1982 and spent a few hours there in 1995. More recently in 2001 my sister Mary and I spent a couple days there with our children. This was the best of the three experiences for me since I had time to visit old haunts and neighborhoods. Having Mary there was also invaluable since she we could trade memories.

This time I hope to at least spend an evening near Endwell. But I also hope to return to the city of my birth. I haven’t been there since I left it in January 1963. I was born in Schenectady and spent my first six years across the Mohawk River in a modest and overcrowded house in nearby Scotia. I must have had fun growing up there but my memories of the place are scattered and dim. Schenectady will be a place to spend the night en route to Montreal. But hopefully I will at least have a chance to see my old house and elementary school.

Altogether between Scotia (1957-1963) and Endwell (1963-1972) I spent nearly sixteen years living in upstate New York. I moved to the Washington area in 1978 after graduating college, so in reality I’ve spent most of my life here. In many ways I do feel at home here in the Washington area. The climate here is not bad and the growing season starts early and lingers late. I’ve never lived in a place where spring has been so colorful. And yet the lure of my birth state is palpable. It makes no sense but as soon as I cross into New York State a feeling of peace and contentment washes over me. Everything feels right. Everything looks right. I am home.

I often wonder if life makes me an early widower whether I would choose to move back to New York State. I doubt I could arm twist my wife into relocating there. She’s from the Midwest so she would prefer to retire there. For her home is a place where you buy “pop” at the store instead of “soda”, the people are perceived to be uniformly friendly and the land is flat as a pancake.

There are plenty of good reasons I can think of why I should pick other places to retire. Lake effect snow is certainly a compelling reason to hither thee elsewhere; I remember two feet or more of snow in one storm were not uncommon. Temperature is another. While Washington is more benign, New York State gets cold. It’s rare in DC to see a temperature below zero. In New York State it is not all that unusual to wake up to -10 or -20 during the height of winter. And there were other negative aspects of living in the Southern Tier that I had forgotten. The Binghamton area is basically in Appalachia. Its economy was in the toilet when we lived there and it has not improved. Unlike Northern Virginia, which is in a constant state of change (go away for five years and you may not recognize the place), the Triple Cities are stuck in a time warp. Except today the Endicott Johnson shoe factories are closed, and IBM seems to have only a token presence in downtown Endicott. There doesn’t appear to be any substantial industry left. Real estate is dirt cheap. Boarded up, poorly maintained and abandoned houses are plentiful. In addition I’m not too hot on softening my own water. And until I returned during the summer in 2001 I had forgotten about the gnats. The valley is overrun with them. Had I arrived in the spring I would have also recalled the return of black fly season. The Binghamton area also had the reputation of being the second most overcast city in the country right behind Seattle. I guess I wouldn’t have to worry about contracting skin cancer.

No, there is no reason to live there again. Except, of course, the rolling green hills that abound everywhere, the lovely omnipresent maple trees and the intoxicating sound they make in the breeze. There is also the closeness of nature. In Virginia you have to drive to see serious nature. In Endwell if it’s not outside your back door it is at most a mile or two away. It’s hard to separate nostalgia from fact sometimes, but Endwell was to me very much what the Shire was for Tolkien’s hobbits. It still is that way.

I could choose other places to live in New York State that hopefully would have the same appeal but without so many of the detractions of the Southern Tier. But most likely we won’t retire anywhere and we will stay in living here in Northern Virginia. I suspect while I would enjoy the sense of comfort from living in my home state again, it would quickly wear thin. I’d miss the vibrancy of living in the DC area. I’d miss the diversity, the craziness, the many opportunities to enjoy the arts, and even the lack of traffic would eventually feel deeply disturbing. I’m not sure I was born to relax. A lady I know who claims some psychic powers once told me as much.

But perhaps I will be a frequent visitor, and rent a regular summer cottage in my home state. That may be enough.

Some pictures of Endwell from my 2001 trip can be found here.


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