I grew up in a part of Massachusetts that is closer to New York state than to Boston. It is called the Berkshires. I feel that it is very arbitrary that I am from there but then I also feel that it is significant. “Significant how?” is a question I ask myself every time I return, which is not often because my parents now live in eastern Massachusetts, which, frankly, feels like a bit of a betrayal.
Moby Dick was written in the Berkshires. The sled accident in Ethan Frome happened on a hill right near the house I grew up in, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville gave each other handjobs down the road, under the shade and cover of maple trees. What else. James Taylor sought help at a mental institution here called the Austen Riggs Center. Nicole Miller, famous designer of ties and black dresses, went to my high school, Lenox Memorial High School. My high school art teacher once told me that Nicole Miller was “truly an extremely talented young woman.” His assessment of my work was not as kind: “You have less natural drawing aptitude than anyone I have ever seen in my life,” he told me, as I beamed with pride.
I went back a few weekends ago. I was in New York City and decided to rendezvous with my parents there, at the home of a family friend. I took Metro North. Metro North from New York City up to New York state (about an hour’s drive from Berkshire County) is my absolute favorite journey of all time. I like the little towns—a row of stores near the train, backgrounded by steep hills covered with houses, some austere, some grand, some a bit sad. I love going past the sprawling old abandoned mental institution in Pawling. I feel absolutely cozy on this train, very much myself, wanting for nothing.
For the train that goes way the hell up into New York state, you change to a dinky diesel at a station called Southeast. I have no idea where it is. In fact, if you gave me an outline of New York State and asked me to draw this train line I would be quite lost.
I befriended a woman on the platform who was going up to her country house with her son. She told me their house was in Connecticut, which I could have guessed. She said her husband was a real estate developer. I had the same feeling I always have when someone tells me their husband is a real estate developer, which is, “Why didn’t I marry a real estate developer?” followed by, “You probably wouldn’t want to be married to a real estate developer,” followed by, “Well, why not?” followed by, “A real estate developer probably wouldn’t be attracted to you.” Then I cut myself off.
Her son was swimming around in a big blue parka and didn’t seem to be terribly engaged with the world. Before I started talking to her, I heard her ask him what his favorite subject was in school. He scowled and retreated into his parka.
“We are looking at private schools in Brooklyn,” she told me after we’d talked a bit.
I mentioned the only school I could think of in Brooklyn and she said, “Oh no, we aren’t artistic and talented enough for that,” and then, very quickly, she added, “I mean we are certainly artistic and talented, but not that artistic and talented.” The blue parka did not seem to take any notice of our conversation.
I borrowed her portable iPhone charger, and she actually scolded me for not having charged my phone the night before. I am serious. She basically was like, “You’re an idiot for not charging your phone,” and I was like “Ok, lady I get it!” She told me about her work with at-risk youth and I thought about what would happen to her son if you just put him in a field and were like “Bye,” how he too would suddenly be “at risk.”
She said, “It must have been so wonderful growing up in the Berkshires. It’s so beautiful and there is so much culture.”
Just smile and say yes, just smile and say yes, just smile and say yes, I thought.
Instead I said, “I have to say that the charms of the Berkshires never managed to quite penetrate my consciousness and the fact that people vacation there is a source of perpetual bafflement.”
Miraculously, we recovered from this and spent the rest of the trip talking about wine.
My parents are both 80. My dad looks like a combination of Tab Hunter and George H.W. Bush. My mom looks like a combination of Katy Perry and Camille Paglia. We embraced in the way that New Englanders embrace, quickly, with very little pressing together of bodies, and then we went to this hipster restaurant in Hillsdale. The place had wooden floors and lots of natural light and thought-out salads. My soup needed a lot of salt. There were lots of young men with beards wearing leather boots, and older couples reading each other things about Donald Trump out of the New York Times. Everyone looked like they were from the city. My dad told us when he was a kid his mom and his mom’s boyfriend used to take him to a bar in a hotel down the road. My dad grew up in bars all over this area, just sitting there while his mother and her boyfriend drank. There was a year-long period, just after World War II ended, when they had dinner almost every night in the same saloon in Hudson. He remembers it all as hugely fun.
An older couple sat next to us. The space was cramped and the wife kept bitching about it, and her husband kept saying, “Anita. Anita. What do you want me to do?” The whole time they were complaining they were unlacing their hiking boots. It took them forever. Then they each put on sneakers, which also took awhile. Then a bigger table opened up and Anita stood up and said, “Oh, thank God,” and made a beeline to take it, her sneakers still untied. Her husband stayed behind to tie his, and my mother, who will start a conversation with a potted plant, turned to him. “Do you mind my asking why you’re taking off boots and putting on sneakers?”
The man sat up and took a deep breath. He was short and bald with big bags under his eyes and a weary smirk.
“We are going from our upstate home to our downstate home, and these are our upstate shoes,” he said, holding up his hiking boots, “and these,” he said, spreading his feet and looking meaningfully down at his sneakers, “are our downstate shoes.” He shrugged and went to join his wife.
My dad spent 30 minutes explaining to us that this wasn’t Upstate New York and I finally said, “Dad, no one gives a fuck. I am sure you’re right but seriously. Go over there and tell Anita this isn’t upstate New York. I dare you.”
We went to a fancy grocery store in Great Barrington. When we walked in this guy said hello to my parents. My mother said hello back, my father said, “I didn’t recognize you, you look so much older,” and then my mother asked him like 100 times why the hell he had said that and my dad kept saying, “I don’t know.”
We were staying in Stockbridge, at the home of a family friend, Will. His wife, who was one of those people everyone liked and knew, got sick and died very quickly three years ago. She was only sixty-eight. The last time I was here she was about to die and we said goodbye to her, forever. Then we went to another friend’s of my parents to watch the Super Bowl, a game which, to my amazement and horror, I enjoyed.
I took Will’s border terrier for a walk into downtown Stockbridge. The brick congregational church gave off so much sternness but also was so handsome and sturdy. So was the accompanying clock tower. I felt proud looking at them, which was so stupid because I had nothing to do with them. Then I was ashamed, partly for being proud of something I had nothing to do with and also for liking architecture like this which seems mostly about projecting one idea: we are white and we are assholes and also, behave. In the cemetery across the street the stones were austere and in neat rows. There were lots of Johns and Samuels and Emilys and Sarahs and Ezekiels. Dead New Englanders, I thought, I will one day be among you.
On the way back to the house, an old couple recognized the dog, or thought they did. “Flopsy,” they said (not the dog’s real name) and I said, “No, this is Mopsy” (also not real name). “Flopsy is no longer with us,” I explained.
“You mean Flopsy is dead,” the wife said, her tone chastizing, as if she were introducing me to the concept of mortality.
New Yorkers, I thought, summer people. “Bingo,” I said, “Dead. Have a nice weekend.”
My parents took naps and I went over to my friend Julie’s house. Well, not her house really, but her parents’ house. She was two years ahead of me and the prettiest girl in our whole school, and her sister, Zoe, was also incredibly hot, and a year older than me. I was obsessed with them when I was a young kid and when we actually became friends when we became teenagers, I had to adjust to not being obsessed with them, and thinking of them as normal people. My brother dated Julie. When he started going out with her I was like, you can’t go out with her, she is basically a movie star! But he did!
One night he went over to her house and brought me. I could not believe it was happening.
Then there was a thunderstorm, and Zoe, who was even more glamorous to me, mostly because in addition to being glamorous she was kind of mean, in a very attractive way, said “Let’s go out and watch it on the roof.” Truly, I was fucking terrified, because thunder and lightning terrify me, but I did not feel that I could say no to this opportunity. We went out on the flat roof and watched the storm. I told Zoe I was afraid the lightning might hit us. She laughed so hard. “Oh my God,” she said. “You’re such a chicken.” She tipped her angular face into the lightning-lit sky and laughed into the treetops, in 1982.
We had dinner at Will’s house. My father cooked. My mother used to cook, until about 1987, and then my dad started cooking. My father and I cook the same way: we buy meat or fish, we broil it or bake it with salt, possibly lemon, and then, we make a salad and that’s your dinner, also, here are some potatoes, boiled or roasted, for anyone who is not feeling fat. Tonight there were also tiny Brussels sprouts which I had bought for nine dollars because I thought I would never ever see Brussels sprouts this tiny and dear again. Then I realized that Berkshire County was practically paved with these things; they were everywhere.
Will has started to date. He is 70 and probably in love, or he has a very strong case of what a friend of mine calls mentionitis: when you are dating someone or just sadly obsessed with them and you just MENTION them all the time. We laughed about how people who are single when they are 30 or 40 think they will never go out with anyone ever again and also think that when they are no longer super young and perfect they will not have the same feelings they had when they were.
The next night we had dinner at another family friend’s house. My parents’ friends are all liberal NPR-listening Democrats, every last one of them. I swore before I went over there I was not going to talk about politics but then one of my parents’ friends confided in me that he can no longer listen to NPR. I told him that my boyfriend calls it “the voice of the empire” and he really liked that. Then, of course, someone asked me what I didn’t like about NPR and I said it was scrupulously nerdishly fair, like the reporters were all just trying to get gold stars for being more fair than the next one and the guy who hated NPR agreed with me and everyone else was like, “What are you talking about? I love NPR so much, I wish I could eat it and bathe in it and take it to Tanglewood to see Stephen Stills and Judy Collins.” My mother and the hostess got in a small fight about the salad, which, in a perverse way, I enjoyed.
The next day my parents drove me back to Wassaic and I took the train back to New York. On the way home I thought about Western Mass and drew these.
Above is the drawing of the sled accident in Ethan Frome.
Here is a drawing of Nicole Miller, LMHS 1975.
Here is a drawing of Herman Melville asking Nathaniel Hawthorne if he would like a handjob. I didn’t want to draw him giving him a hand job, not because that’s gross, but because it sounds too hard. (Same for drawing James Taylor talking to a therapist.)