There are rich folk, there are poor folk, who imagine they are wise,
And they’re very quick to shatter all the little family ties.
But it’s bitterness they harvest, and it’s empty joy they find,
For the children that are wisest are the stick-together kind.
-Edgar Guest, 1917
Joel was driving through the downpour fast, his warm four-wheel drive confidently flying through sheets of water that would make a lesser car hydroplane. Joel is our town historian, concerned with preserving the past. His hair is white and he wears neatly pressed slacks and pastel or nautical shirts, and loves his town, family, tabby cat named Andy, and my mother. He likes to tag horseshoe crabs and then set them free, and has written a book attempting to prove that a prominent minister from our town accused of murdering a “simple-minded” girl in the 1800s was actually innocent. (He has since decided that he was, in fact, guilty.) I was asking him questions from the backseat to distract myself from what I was convinced was my imminent death – there was no reason to be driving this fast. Anyway, there was a chance he would be proposing to my mom any day now, and I wanted to make sure I’d asked him everything that needed to be asked, like any good journalist and daughter should.
He goes, “I think marriage should be between a man and a woman.”
“I think they’re missing something.”
“It’s hard to explain.” Then we almost hydroplaned. The next day I confronted my mom about this deeply upsetting conversation.
“The only thing they’re missing is THEIR RIGHTS!” I said indignantly as we walked together towards a beach. “ Your SISTER is gay and married and has the most meaningful life ever! How can you let him say things like that?” My mom batted her hand like there was a bug near her ear.
“I think I understand what he is saying,” she said. “I think raising children – “
“Gay people can ADOPT children, Mom! And you can be perfectly happy without children!”
Later, I went to a spongy patch of land, murky and weedy, to clear my head. It is land that cannot be built on and was consequently made into a wildlife preserve. Marshes used to be destroyed on a regular basis because no one remembered how secretly full of life they are. This saved one near the apartment complex I grew up in with my twin sister and mom seems dead until you listen at night to the chorus of crickets and frogs unseen. The road that borders the preserved marshland is twisted and unlit; past dusk, deer stare shell shocked into the headlights.
When Joel visited an art gallery in Cape Cod, he told me he would have bought one of the scenic images but would rather buy images of Greenville, Connecticut, our hometown, to hang around his house. That’s one way that he and I differ. If I were to draw Greenville, I would probably use only straight lines, primary colors bordered with black sharpie. Because in middle school I would spend two hours on Sunday nights uncurling my hair with hot irons that steamed the bathroom with a sickly burning smell and left my hair limp and still, and stayed straight, to my delight, for days. I watched television when I got home from school. I wrote sad journal entries while the mothers of Greenville (not mine) played tennis.
Greenville is a town, Joel will gladly tell you, that has been marinating in history since before the puritans grimly and barely survived their first winter here: the school mascot is controversially an Indian. There are plaques on the doors visible from the roads that remind everyone just how old these houses really are, and once a young man died of heat stroke while carrying the coffin of his grandfather a few miles to the cemetery. There are churches, cute bookstores and cafes, and a grassy town green with many war memorials, where sheep used to graze but now teenagers smoke and hang out, but only at night, like moths gathering clandestinely in the moonlight. These young people are, I suppose, hazy-happy, angry and in love. I never really hung out on the town green at night. The town is sleepy and motionless by nine – there is nothing to keep Greenville awake, though I slept fitfully.
One time Joel drove me and my friend Erin Eggy to our chorus concert, and he informed her that he knew the woman who used to own her house. “There used to be snakes in your basement!” Erin had a father who was a surgeon, who worked all day and rarely saw his daughter, and a mother who was a pediatrician, who worked all day and rarely saw Erin either. Erin’s house was chock-full of food in shiny packages, the kind that could be consumed by a kid whose parents weren’t around, so Erin was chubby and not the best student in part because her parents expected her do very well but could not help her with much. Behind her back, girls said things like “Those very expensive clothes Erin is wearing look awful on her. Not nice at all,” and she cried a lot and didn’t hang out or date much in high school. Once when I slept over at her house, I couldn’t sleep because we were in this glass porch in the back of the house with ceilings two stories high, and I felt unimportant and afraid in such a cavernous, empty place.
I wanted to tell Joel that small humiliations stick to you like specks of dust, insignificant until they’re not; until you’re gray, invisible, so he would understand that no place is perfect. I remember my second grade best friend’s lankiness, silky hair, sportiness, and how she was the most popular, the smartest, how my teacher loved her best. The most popular boy in the class liked her a lot, too – I remember him pinned in the gravel on the playground by his best friend, squirming wildly, panicked, while we stood around him, waiting for him to tell Molly he liked her. I remember a fifth grade friend who asked me every day if I really was her friend. You don’t like me because I’m black, isn’t that true? She was the only African-American in the school. I remember how much we all loved the kids who had grand birthday parties in their castle-like homes; we swam in heated pools, played video games and made sundaes, and the night after, I stared into the darkness and listened to my sister and mother breathing slowly in their sleep in the bedroom we shared, and wished for a castle please.
And in high school, I made friends who I didn’t have much in common with, and didn’t speak or laugh much. I cared passionately about some things – the books we read in English class and the music guitars and human voices can make – and cared little about most else. I figured that certain people would never be my friends so I didn’t let them near me. The summer after my junior year, I flew two thousand miles to a California wilderness, where I spent eight hours a day with eight other teenagers building trails with double jacks and rock bars and hiking to mountaintops with views that looked more like postcard backdrops than real places. That summer I felt deeply free from Greenville, Connecticut. I was a different person, time moved slowly and I changed – my life back “home” was insignificant in the face of this natural beauty, hard labor, and people with interesting pasts who seemed to love me already. Senior year was like lying in the sand serenely, waiting for high tide to come in and college to take me away – for good this time. Joel told me he was homesick when he went to Bowdoin and came back right after college. When he told me that, I felt a little heartless for wanting to leave forever.
Greenville is beautiful. The cute town houses, pottery barn teen bedrooms, fathers with briefcases, oceanfronts, trees and money are all so pristine. Joel’s quiet porch overlooks a marsh, the ocean, and a field with cows grazing. My mom and him spend every Friday night ordering take-out to eat on that porch, listening to crickets and feeling safe, and I am glad for them. But Mr. Powers, My U.S. history teacher, told us a story about a class of Greenville first graders who went on a field trip with two groups of first graders from elementary schools in nearby, far more diverse towns. According to Mr. Powers (who chuckled meanly as he told us this story), the class of Greenville children cried and huddled together while the other two classes happily intermingled, glad to meet new friends. Was he right? Was he right to tell this story? All I knew was I didn’t like Greenville much, either.
Joel has part of a poem written in 1917 by Edgar Guest called “The Stick-Together Families” hanging above the fireplace in the house where has lived since he was born:
The stick-together families are happier by far
Than the brothers and the sisters who take separate highways are.
The gladdest people living are the wholesome folk who make
A circle at the fireside that no power but death can break.
And the finest of conventions ever held beneath the sun
Are the little family gatherings when the busy day is done.
But I think Edgar was afraid of change and difference. This poem terrifies me because its rhymes disguise its harsh insularity. On a drive home from Massachusetts, Joel felt anxious to be back in Greenville already. “I love getting back from vacations because being home feels so good,” he explained. I shook my head, unable to relate. Home was far away. Home is sun setting behind mountains, growing up and learning to write, love that breaks, and places I still have to see.