This will be another long one. It’s mainly for my nieces and nephews who need family stories to feed them, along with the Thanksgiving feast. I’m missing them today, but anyone’s welcome to read this. It's still about terroir.
|Summit of Mt Greykock, Adams, Massachusetts, USA|
Every time I smell fresh thyme, I’m instantly taken back to my grandmother’s house in the northern Berkshires of Massachusetts. I like to cook with it for this very reason (apart from its taste).
It’s such a powerfully evocative scent. There I am with my big brother and my cousin, Amy, and we’re lying on our sides, rolling down the grassy embankment together like logs, laughing hysterically, especially when we try to stand up again, dizzy. There must have been wild thyme growing there. After so many trips down the hill, it’s in me now. . . in my nose, in my memory bank, running through my veins. My brother, Casey, recently told me he has the same reaction to the scent of thyme. So there it is, not only connecting us to the land, but to each other.
I’m feeling a bit homesick today. It’s Thanksgiving in the United States and my family is together, and I’m missing it. If there, I’d spend all day cooking for them, which I love. I’d be making the gravy, which they love—with some thyme, of course, and rosemary—but I’m in Sicily, enjoying an espresso. There are worse places I could be, for sure. I’m thankful for where I am, even though I’m feeling the distance today.
But I’m thinking that this is terroir, too. This sense of home in me.
I have to confess that when I think of “home”, it’s never been New Jersey, where I’ve lived for a number of years, and spent much of my childhood.
Home has always been New England—to some extent, Vermont. But really, it’s always been Adams, Massachusetts, specifically.
Even as a child, I felt such gratitude that somehow I had been able to know this place, and felt sad for those who didn’t.
It shaped me spiritually. I’m sure of this.
When I played in the pastures behind my grandmother’s house, with my brother and cousin and friends; when we climbed the stone cliffs in Turners Woods; when the family went for picnics and we built dams in the river for a swimming hole, it was not water flowing there. It was love—that big love, running through all things but often hidden from our sight, our senses. I could feel it wash over me and through me, and I felt such privilege. I felt cradled by this Big Love.
My mother grew up there in the Berkshires. My grandmother, too.
The terroir of Adams, in my grandmother’s youth, included the steady rumble of countless textile mills in the valley between two mountain ranges (my friends out in the American west will laugh that I call them mountains).
She once told me that on Sundays, when the mills would shut down for a few hours for everyone to go to church, the valley’s sound was transformed. The stillness was startling.
It was almost the opposite in my childhood, with nearly all the mills shut down for years. I knew a stillness there that I learned to take into myself when I needed it. The land there gave me that.
But occasionally, because of the lime quarry on the mountainside in North Adams, I’d be shaken as the explosion of dynamite shook the whole valley and left its scars on the place I loved.
At 7 years old this pained me, to watch this industry carry away, bit by bit, pieces of this mountain I loved as ardently as any lover might. It was like bits of my heart being carted off by the Pfizer corporation. I was so afraid of it—the sound, but also the destruction. I asked my uncle Joe “When will they stop? Will they keep blasting until it’s all gone?”
Eventually they did stop. My mountain is still there (yes, it’s my mountain). But so is that white wound of the lime terraces, that scar.
I lived on the summit of my mountain one summer, while working for an environmental organization. At night, when work was through, I loved to go sit on a point that overlooked Adams. I knew the place so well that even at night I could find my grandmother's house by counting the street lamps that moved up the unique curve of her street. By day, I could easily find it and look over the pine tree planted when I was born, by then a giant. My uncle called it "That tree you were born under."
My uncle Joe was like a second father to me. He loved this place like I did, and he understood my love for it, deeply I think. After work, he’d come to the house to pick me up. We’d drive through the hills, up to the farms on Walling Road, some of which still remain, surprisingly. We’d feed the horses there, then drive on toward Hollerich’s dairy farm, and Stafford Hill, where stands the small stone tower, a war memorial my grandfather helped build.
When my family moved to New Jersey when I was 8, my uncle knew how much I suffered over it, being ripped from this place. He would send me clippings from the newspaper about Adams, about Mt Greylock and the latest round of developers trying to exploit her for profit (and failing, thankfully). Articles about the mudslide that changed the mountain’s face overnight, articles about the return of the wild turkeys and the black bears due to conservation efforts. I devoured these words like love letters from my mountain. My uncle helped keep the place alive in me, helped me to keep feeling it, even as I tried to make sense of all the “rock gardens” in our new town, nearly treeless on an over-developed barrier island, lifeless in the winter, and loud, manic in the summer.
But I was talking about Anna, my grandmother, wasn’t I?
Anna, would tell me stories of the valley on her back step when, in my young adulthood and during college, I would go visit her some weekends. She’d pour out her stories while I breathed in that wild thyme growing on the hill right next to us. The stories and the land are intertwined for me now.
She told me about my great-grandmother, Josie, who came on a ship from Poland, through Ellis Island, and landed here in this community of Polish and French immigrants. As I think of my pain in leaving Adams, which I could and did always return to, I imagine Josie’s pain at leaving a country and a family behind, to which she would never return.
She was only 16 years old. Her older sister was supposed to be the one going to America, but (if I remember the story correctly) they discovered her sister was pregnant, so there was a very-last-minute change of plans.
“Józefina, you’re going.”
I think of her courage and her pain. Sixteen years old, on a ship across an ocean, alone. A pilgrim, of sorts.
I think of how she landed in that town I love. I think of the ripples that spread out and lap against the shore of my own life, and on this day of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful.
Especially now that I make that journey in reverse.
And I think of making it permanent.
But more about that in a moment.
I’m remembering now, sitting with my grandmother Anna and complaining, bemoaning the stress of university life, the 20-something-year-old confusion of not knowing what would or should come next for me.
As a woman born in the very early 20th century, Anna had had few choices in life.
No matter what issues I might be facing, she would always repeat like a mantra, “Get your education. Get your education.”
This meant something coming from a woman who, when I foolishly asked what high school she’d graduated from, laughed and said “I graduated from the Berkshire Mills.” What a fool I was to complain in this company about having too many choices.
But she didn’t judge or condemn me for that. She listened, and then we sat for a few minutes just breathing, drinking some lemonade, looking out at Mt. Greylock, and the crab apple, pine, and maple trees in her yard. Then she spoke.
“You used to bring me furry yellow caterpillars off that tree when you were little.”
“I remember those,” I said.
Then there was another bit of silence before she said, as if to herself, “I wonder what they’re for.”
“The caterpillars?” I ask.
She nods in the affirmative. “Everything has a purpose,” she says.
Go find yours. I still feel her unspoken words in my heart, and she’s been gone for well over 15 years now.
A lot of people who shared the Berkshires with me are gone now. And each rests in the earth there, even if for years they, too, had to move away to other places.
There is a road through the small Berkshire hill towns to the east of Adams. It takes about an hour to reach the major highway that runs through a few New England States, north to south.
I think of it as The Road Home.
First, as a funeral procession, we drove my Uncle John home on that road many, many years ago. He’d lived in Holyoke for decades, but wanted to be buried at Home in Adams. In the Polish cemetery up on the hill overlooking the valley.
A couple of years ago, it was his daughter, my cousin, Amy, who used to roll down the grassy hill with me. Gone too young, from cancer.
Last year, it was her mother, Alice. My aunt, who also shared stories of Adams with me. She was a great repository of family history, and I miss sitting with her and listening. Even after a stroke, when she struggled to find words, she still remembered everything.
I know this road well. I would take it to Adams from my college on the coast of Massachusetts. I’d think of my family as I passed through the forests, through the stretch of maples and stone walls and pastures that my uncle loved.
At Amy’s funeral, on that journey I noticed how the road had changed in only a few years since I’d last driven on it. Trees and underbrush spilling out onto the shoulder, and the ponds made by beavers, encroaching on the asphalt.
Nature will always, always have her way, just as she did with my cousin.
Just as she will with me.
At the end of that road I would go to the cemetery and see them there, returned to the land . . .the family name carved on so many headstones. I think one day I would like to rest there with them, too. Buried over at the cemetery border, under the maples, pulled up by their roots and into their leaves where one day I might shout in my orange voice, “I was.”
And yet I am.
That place, that land—its stone walls, its rolling hills and pastures, its maple trees like fireworks exploding into autumn color, its smooth and pristine white silence after the blizzards—this place is inside me so profoundly that I think it is the ruler by which I measure all other places. How do they measure up to the Berkshires? How different or how alike are they?
I contemplate this now, as I think of this new continent where I find myself. As I think of staying here for a while . . . maybe a long while.
What happens when the road home isn’t just a road . . . but an ocean, wide and deep?
How do you carry a mountain across the waters?
I think of it, and my heart pounds, strong, like footsteps on a difficult and necessary journey.