Lived Here Long Enough…
I remember calling a moving company when my husband and I were preparing to move here. The man on the other end of the phone said, “That’s pretty far north! Is it even settled up there yet?” I admit that as the twenty-something-year-old wife of a newly minted history professor, I was wondering the same thing. Potsdam, New York seemed a very long way from friends and family in the western United States. But we came anyway, and the moving van eventually found us. After more than thirty years, I’ve lived here long enough to be well and truly settled myself, and I’ve been made aware that there’s an entire settled country between me and the North Pole.
Not that we don’t get cold here—a colleague and friend of mine, the poet Richard Londraville, contemplated St. Lawrence County weather in a poem called “Northing.” Musing about why people come to this long-wintered place, he said, among other things, “Forty below keeps the riff-raff out.” Maybe that’s true. But I’ve lived here long enough to have discovered most of the folks here are hardy and hard-working, and the riff-raffery, according to the locals, is more likely to be composed of people like me who have arrived only recently, say within a generation or two. At least now I know how to correctly mis-pronounce “Madrid” when referring to a village a few miles from Potsdam. If you pronounce it like the one in Spain, someone is sure to give you a look, and say, “You’re not from here, are you?”
We talk a lot about the weather. I suppose we pride ourselves on our ability not only to cope with the cold, but often to revel in it. After a while, though, we start to notice that winter is bracketed on one end by the kind of autumn that breeds breath-taking photographs of the sort that show up in travel agency windows, and our four college campuses look like on-location sets for movies like The Way We Were. It’s bracketed on the other end by early spring snow that weighs down the branches of crab apple trees, and then melts away under blue skies that can only be described as “brilliant.” I’ve lived here long enough to determine that a seagull flying against that blue is more a signal of coming spring than the traditional robin. I’ve also learned, walking on country roadsides where old snow competes with newly greening flora, to appreciate local farmer-poet Linda Greenwood’s celebration of “the fragrance of evaporating winter.”
I’ve lived here long enough to have birthed my children and buried my husband. I could have left here long ago, after my husband died or after my children had grown up and moved away. Hard winters and late, but lovely, spring tulips don’t explain why I like it here, why I stay. There are, after all, “ a million Potsdams,” as Galen Pletcher, retired Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Potsdam, once said in a sermon at the UU Church. I might offer reasons. I might mention that I delight in the fact that, as far away from “everything” as we are, I have nevertheless had a conversation with former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the home of SUNY Potsdam’s president, have listened to Itzak Perleman and Wynton Marsalis in performances at Hosmer Hall, have attended readings by poets like Naomi Sihab Nye and Billy Collins in Sykes Common on the SLU campus, and have shaken Hillary Clinton’s hand. I like the way little slices of “everything” find their way to us in this North Country. But it doesn’t explain why I’m still here.
I could say that I stay because I’ve been through a lot here, because I’ve forged deep friendships, because my work is here, because on Saturday nights I play Scrabble with a Native American poet who lives just down the street. I could say that I stay here because I still live in the first house I ever owned, the house my children were born into, and that’s a rare thing that deserves its due. Or even because, after long winters and late springs, we get soft green summer days and warm firefly evenings that renew us.
Yes, I could give you reasons. But I’ve lived here long enough to know that pinning this down, really being able to say what it means to live here, or why I’ve stayed, when even the likes of Richard Londraville have retired to Florida, will require my living here a while longer. Writer Stephanie Dowrick has said, in the context of living with grief and loss, “You grow into your scars, and they grow into you.” It could be that I’ve lived in this North Country long enough that I’ve grown into its comforts and splendors as well as its scars. And they, in the course of these last thirty years, have grown into me.