Friday, May 23, 2014

Back to the back of beyond

Going up to my dad’s this past weekend got me thinking about when my family moved from New Jersey to Connecticut between my high school graduation and my first semester of college. My dad no longer lives in the same town that we relocated to that summer, because over the course of the ensuing year he and my mom decided they were going to get divorced, and so twelve months later Mom was back in the town in NJ we had just left and Dad was bouncing around from place to place in CT (with a brief detour to England). But all of those CT residences of Dad’s, including where he is now, were all basically within the same relatively small geographical area immediately north of New York City. And really, to me, it’s all the same.

Not coincidentally, the town where Dad lives now is the same town where his brother and sister and their families have lived for significantly longer; they had all been living there for a while that summer we moved. In fact, the day that we pulled up stakes we drove from NJ to our new house, but only stayed there for a few minutes. (I’m pretty sure that was the first time I ever saw the place; my parents had found it, visited it, and bought it over a series of weekend day trips when I was doing high school stuff back in NJ.) Rather than be underfoot as the movers unloaded the truck, we proceeded over to my aunt and uncle’s house. The stopover at our new house probably could have been skipped, but by doing it that way I got to learn the direct route from where we would be living to my aunt and uncle’s house, as opposed to taking the highway straight from NJ to my aunt and uncle’s house, which wouldn’t be the most direct approach once we were living closer.

And I expected I would be making that trip pretty often, and I turned out to be right about that. The aunt and uncle in question, my godparents, are the parents of my cousin who’s closest to me in age; he’s actually right between me and Little Bro, and the three of us always got along well, so much so that many a Christmas get-together ended with all of us trying to wheedle our parents into not splitting up the trio so soon. Can Cuz come back home with us? Or can Little Bro and I stay here at our aunt and uncle’s house a little longer, and you can come back for us in a few days? (They did actually give in to us once or twice, at that.) So moving to a town something like 20 minutes away from my cousin, now that I was old enough to have a driver’s license, was kind of a dream come true. We hung out a lot that summer.

On moving day, my dad drove the family minivan with my mom riding shotgun and Very Little Bro (age 4) riding in his car seat in the back. I drove the family’s other car, a little hatchback, with Little Bro riding shotgun with me, and we followed Dad because he knew where he was going. I really only remember two things distinctly about that trip. One is that at one point my dad rolled down his window and beckoned for me to pull up next to him, as we were traveling at speed on the multi-lane highway. I complied and when we were even he screamed at me “STAY ON MY TAIL!” Apparently I had been allowing a little too much distance between our bumpers and he was afraid that someone would cut me off, get between us, I’d lose sight of Dad and be hopelessly lost in southeast New York state where a wrong turn could easily take you into the bad parts of NYC.

The other thing I remember is that while we were driving from our new house to my cousin’s house it felt like we were in a completely different world. We were relocating all of about a two hour drive but we were coming from a fairly densely packed part of New Jersey, where the townships are stacked up contiguously and the only way to build something new is to tear down something old. That was where we grew up and that was all we really knew. The very concept of a town ending and the road passing through untamed woods on unincorporated land was utterly foreign. And yes we had visited our relatives many times but that was always with Dad driving and not much sightseeing in the surrounding area, just on and off the highway (and I was reading the entire trip anyway, as a rule). Following the backroads to our aunt and uncle’s house, it just felt incredibly rural, at least to me and Little Bro and our embarrassingly sheltered and limited perspective. The most we knew about rural communities came largely from watching the Dukes of Hazzard as little kids, so as we followed Dad on that last leg of the trip we were cracking jokes about being in the sticks for sure now, using horribly ill-informed redneck accents.

(And of course in retrospect I know a lot of this was defensiveness on our parts, as we had been uprooted from the place we had lived for eight years, the majority of our young lives, and now we were the outsiders in a new place and so we immediately cast ourselves as the civilized ones exiled to the boonies, because even if that wasn’t technically true that was how it felt.)

We drove at one point past a roadside shop that had a sign reading “Herb’s Electronics” and for no real reason I yelled out “Hooowee, Herb’s Electronics! If you didn’t get it at Herb’s, it probably ain’t stolen!” And Little Bro completely lost it, laughing like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.

(Again, I fully realize that was no doubt mostly nervous laughter, Little Bro has always been a little high-strung and inclined to keep it to himself, and cathartically displacing things is how he stays sane.)

Anyway, it all seems like a very long time ago now, which I suppose it was. Since then I’ve seen more parts of the country (and the world) and recognized that the vast and sprawling suburbs of New York City are pretty dang homogeneous, whatever color the license plates on the cars may be. And of course I married a girl from the South, who definitely does not draw distinctions between yankees from New Jersey and yankees from Connecticut. And to this day she teases me when we’re driving somewhere and I ask her what town we’re in, expecting there to be an actual answer because when one town ends the next immediately begins and therefore you’re always in one.

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