Friday, May 25, 2012

My Hometown

Disclaimer: This post has absolutely nothing to do with autism. I was just in a mood to reflect.I guess this is more for me than anyone else. Thanks for bearing with me! 

Gilberville's covered bridge
I didn't notice for the first 7 or 8 years we lived in our current house. For whatever reason the thought never crossed my mind. It wasn't until I was sitting out on the back deck one night and heard the smack of an aluminum bat and cheers from the crowd up at the ballfield behind our house that I saw. I looked at the slope of the grass hill leading up to the ball field and the landscaping on the hill in our neighbor's yard. Their shed. The smattering of evergreen trees. The garden. In a flash I saw for the first time that I had felt at home when we visited this house looking to buy because it was a near-replica of my grandmother's backyard. Something about hearing the crowd cheer as someone ran the bases brought back a very distinct memory: of basil in my grandmother's garden, cartwheels done barefoot on her back lawn; hanging from the branches of trees getting sticky from pitch and singing the theme song from "The Greatest American Hero," and climbing the hill in those same perpetually summer-bare feet to watch the Gilbertville kids play Wheelwright or Hardwick or New Braintree.

My grandmother's house was one of my favorite places in the world. She lived up the street from us until I was 10. We both lived in row houses of four apartments -- my grandmother was the landlady of her house, though, and had an extra room built on that looked out onto our dead end street and the trails that led up to the ball field. This was my childhood. This was Gilberville, Massachusetts.
The abandoned mill...which had the post office in the front (right) 
Gilbertville is in the middle of nowhere, at least by densely-populated southern New England standards. It's in central Massachusetts, not far from the Quabbin Reservoir, which, when created in the 1930s to provide drinking water for Boston, flooded and ended the existence of four towns. We would often go to the Quabbin to walk or to slide down the great grassy hills of the Windsor dam there on cardboard boxes.

Gilbertville is one town over from Ware (Where? Ware!) was the joke told ad nauseum when I was a kid. Ware was a downright bustling metroplis compared to our town, having stop lights and even a McDonalds and a few pizza places. Gilbertville was a village or section of a larger town, Hardwick, but was not Hardwick. Hardwick was where the rich people and farmers lived. Hardwick had the pretty, quintessential town green and agricultural fair every August that claimed to be the nation's oldest. Hardwick was nice, and Gilbertville was, well, not as nice. At least that's the way my parents made it sound. Gilberville was a town for the working class, full of many families of Polish or French Canadian descent, with an abandoned mill with broken windows and more bars then churches, restaurants, or really anything else.
The main road through town

I didn't see those things, of course. Gilberville was what I knew and what I loved. I think most kids feel that way about the place where they grew up, about their "stomping grounds." Kids see with different eyes.

This is what I saw. This is what I lived. This is what I knew.

I knew that my town had an actual covered bridge that was a little creepy to cross but beautiful nonetheless, even with the missing boards here and there before it was renovated. We had abandoned railroad tracks and a penny candy store where I could get little wax paper bags of Swedish fish and the gothic-looking tiny library full of Nancy Drew mysteries. Gilbertville had "The Bugle," actually a tiny mountain (really a hill, at 1000 feet) called Mount Dougal, that you could hike up with squished sandwiches in brown bags and sit on the cliff and look down at the town below. 

Gilbertville had the lower elementary school and the upper elementary school and those old guys who used to sit in lawn chairs across the street every day when school got out so they could watch the kids and remember what it was like to be young.

Gilberville had cow fields complete with a rumored angry bull and trails in the back woods that supposedly led to old indian caves and "The Pool," a pond no one could swim in anymore but where I had won a fishing derby at age 5.

Gilberville had a tiny post office where my grandfather had been postmaster before he died in the late 1970s. Everyone in town had their own box in the office, and how I loved to go in there and see all of the mail sitting in neat piles behind all the little windows, waiting to be picked up.
My beloved library

In Gilbertville, I had my best friend (a boy) across the street, forts under the pricker bushes and an imaginary house in the spot where a few crab apple trees grew closely together. These were the days when parents still let their kids roam through backyards and down the street and even across town without someone fretting about weirdos or something terrible happening. No one wore bike helmets, but we did once lie down (several of us little ones) in the middle of my quiet street so that the big kid next door could attempt a jump a bike over us. Someone was always hitting a ball into Old Lady Novak's yard, and she was always opening her door and yelling. A game of hide and seek was almost undoubtedly going to crop up if we were all together for very long.

This was Gilberville, where every Halloween the kids in town dressed up and paraded around the American Legion while the judges watched and awarded best costume prizes. This was Gilberville,  staunchly Democratic Gilberville, where my grandmother kept piles and piles of newspapers on JFK and RFK in her attic and my dad was once yelled at on election day at the same American Legion for holding up signs for the Republican senate candidate challenging Ted Kennedy.

Protestant church in town
"Your father is turning over in his grave!" one of the town selectmen yelled over at him.

This was Gilbertville, with its one Catholic church and one Protestant church. My parents had left both and become decidedly charasmatic christians. That was in part what finally led to our leaving the town, when I was 10. They just felt they didn't belong anymore. Maybe I felt that way too.

A part of me will always be there. A part of me cannot think of summer without seeing my childhood self look out the window after being put to bed while it was still light outside and watching the bigger kids skateboard down our street listening to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" blaring from someone's window. A part of me cannot think of winter without recalling the sound of snowplows in the middle of the night, and the way they would push huge mounds of snow to the end of our street. In the morning we'd grab our sleds to go sliding (not "sledding," in Gilberville it was always called "sliding"). We'd tackle those two hills behind my grandmother's house, hills that ended with the giant snow piles that served as ideal ramps, sending us flying sometimes five or more feet into the air before we landed.

From the top of the Bugle
One afternoon, being alone at the top of the hill when everyone else had already whisked their sleds down to the bottom. I flopped down in the snow and looked out at the stillness of the ballfield. I listened to the silence that comes only with freshly fallen snow. And I told myself to remember this. Something in me whispered that the moment was worth remembering.

I took a drive back to Gilberville about a year ago. My grandmother is long gone now and the the town seemed to have an extra layer of grime. Nonna's back yard had become not much more than a big driveway with cars everywhere and junk seemed to be building up everywhere...overflowing out of trash bins and on porches and spilling out of garages.

You just can't go back. Childhood resides as a place in your mind. When I remember that, I know that Gilberville is not just the down and out place it seemed to be when I visited. It's not the trap my parents sometimes felt it was when they were young. It's the place where I learned to read and ride a bike. It was full of adventure and first friends and first steps. It tweaks my heart the way you feel about your oldest friends or close family, the ones who know all of your secrets and all of your stories and don't even care how many times you come back and revisit them.


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Ham549 said...

Is the abanded mill still there? I'm interested in photographing abandoned buildings.

Ham549 said...

Is the abanded mill still there? I'm interested in photographing abandoned buildings.