Our home is Ithaca, New York. It’s a small town, a perpetually young town between Cornell University and Ithaca College. Bumper stickers proclaim, “Ithaca is Gorges.” It’s true. At the south end of Cayuga Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes, Ithaca teems with frothing waterfalls and dramatic cliffs. Fractured rock continually crashes down these steep craggy gorges, occasionally smashing and rearranging the landscape.
To grow up in Ithaca is to be intimately familiar with Purity Ice Cream, the Stewart Park Carousel, swimming at Buttermilk Falls, and picking out pets at our local no-kill SPCA shelter. Teenagers in Ithaca attend the Winter ChiliFest, the Ithaca Festival, and the nearby Grass Roots Festival, yearly events that draw thousands to the region. Many teens dare to party on Cornell’s beer-flooded Slope Day, and sneak down to swim illegally at Second Dam, a popular swimming hole. They know their way around the ethnic eateries of Collegetown. Ithaca is environmentally, politically, socially, alternatively, and healthfully conscious. Bumper stickers peg Ithaca as “Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality.” It suits me. It’s the special place on earth where I fit in.
In 1976, I followed my first husband here when he landed a teaching job at Cornell. We bought land in the countryside and built a palatial home with a pond. There, I started Silk Oak, a small silkscreen-printing design business. I finally learned to drive. Too busy with our careers, we did not have children. After ten years we split, and I got most of the land. I built a small house and another pond. A few years later I married my plumber, the God of Heat and Hot Water. We made the house bigger, and had Greg and Marika. Then I gave away my 20-year-old home business so I could be with the children, to take them swimming, on vacations, to birthday parties and summer camps. No longer in need of the space for Silk Oak, we sold the house and built a third, smaller house with a third, smaller pond on the same land. And when that marriage fell apart, I paid a lot of money to have my second husband’s name erased from the piece of paper that said the house and the pond and the land once belonged to us both. But I couldn’t erase him completely. He was still the father of my two children.
I don’t believe you can own land, the land you live on, pay taxes on, and love. I believe the land owns you. The land I call home claimed me long ago. Here, high in the hills surrounding Ithaca, it feels secluded from the world but is only a five-minute drop down the hill to town. The green hills, the gravelly soil that tries to contain the ponds, the wind which causes frequent power outages. The woods and the abundant wildlife. The valley, and its view of Ithaca College where at each year’s end the dormitory windows are lit up to display the changing digits of the New Year. This land holds me when I’m home. It calls when I’m away. Wherever I travel, my inner GPS is set to the hill west of Ithaca, to Go Home.
To go home in the spring of 2008 was to follow the long driveway from the turn off State Highway 79, just over the crest of the hill after EcoVillage, our local intentional community. Home was the wreck we abandoned each weekday morning, fleeing to our schools. Marika’s was Ithaca High School where she was a senior; mine was Lehman Alternative Community School where, after years of subbing once the kids got older, I’d been hired as a special education teacher. Home was the sweet mess we gratefully returned to late each afternoon, to scurry away into our individual corners until dinnertime, our time together.
It was just Marika and myself then. My son Greg was in the army, always far away in Iraq or at Fort Lewis in Washington State. And there was Laurie. Our ever-present encyclopedia and sounding board, Laurie was always lodged in the phone, the landline. And in the message machine that still held a twelve-day-old recording of her singing Happy Birthday to Marika in her calm low voice, drawing out the final line. We always counted on Laurie for either a short version or a lengthy, but engaging, exposition of the truth. She always gave you choices. She could explain quantum physics in terms a preschooler would understand. She planted cannonballs in your gut, spouting twenty reasons to go see a primary caregiver about your searing pelvic pain. She made you cringe in horror describing the fish-flesh texture of tissue invaded by lymphoma. Or she could get you to relax in grateful relief, telling you the pain you were sure was ovarian cancer was most likely gas.
“Laur, is leukemia related to cancer?” I asked on that first night.
“What’s gonna happen to me?” Marika asked at the same time. Over the phone, sandwiched between Marika’s and my ears, Laurie said,
“Don’t you know anyone who has leukemia?” like everyone on earth has at least a dozen friends walking around hijacked by their white blood cells. Marika, in a squeaky voice on the verge of crying, said,
“Yeah. He died.”