My complicated loyalty to county
I pledge allegiance to Chautauqua County and here’s why. I was a very shy kid with a tendency to daydream and overeat. I never fit in very well with classmates and school was a hellish battle between me and my parents; they struggled because they couldn’t fix the problems for me and they didn’t like having to force upon me a day-after-day trauma. I think more than anything my parents wished they could normalize me and that conformity would lead to acceptance and ultimately to happiness.
My mom would offer to buy me the clothes with labels other kids were wearing. She tried to motivate me to lose weight with money. Considering that money was always tight, it was a very serious gesture. But I was stubborn, and never wanted to be normal, so I dug my heels in and resisted. I didn’t see any appeal in becoming like kids who I recognized as emotionally immature and spiritually bankrupt.
As a young adult, venturing downtown in search of acceptance – I didn’t feel welcome there either. Only people on the bleakest fringe could even notice I exist – people on drugs, people with vague disabilities, people with dysfunctional families, people struggling to protect their sexual orientation from hateful reactions. So it would seem, I have never received a very welcoming feeling here, why do I pledge my allegiance? I was never on a sports team, never went to prom, or the senior class trip, or graduation, never even had a real boyfriend until I was 23.
I was lucky to have, between both parents, a robust extended family who had lived here at least a couple generations, and for the most part, stayed here – lots of cousins, aunts, uncles, three grandparents. All the hot summer afternoons spent at places like the Stockton Fireman’s Grounds at a big family picnic, time seemed to slow to a sluggish, dreamy pace – it seems like I’ve spent eternity with a plate loaded with homemade potluck potato salads and charcoal blackened hot dogs, variously tuning in and out of the stunning amount of voices around me, having exclusive and sometimes even, if you’re lucky, scandalous conversations.
Through my youthful encounters at the big annual picnic, the borders of my memory have additional layers of measuring the passage of time – I’ve held the trembling hand of great-aunt Lil as she looked up with shining clear blue smiling eyes, and in my life watched her eclipse 100 years old and beyond, while still testifying her Christian mission to the very last. Though I don’t belong to any church, I saw something important in her faith.
My cousins provided friendship that I couldn’t find in my peers at school. They had gotten to know me before the age kids start to form ranks. I’ve also got family who died before I was born, but left a big impression in their absence. I have a reverence for the past and for the dead, as I’ve wondered about relatives who were Italian immigrants; when I knead homemade bread I think of being connected to a great-grandma I never met. I’ve wondered about my grandpa, who was a judge, and his son who died in Vietnam. I’ve wondered about pain, and how much pain a person can bear, and about why life seems so hard for some and so easy for others. I’ve felt that I was connected in history to my family and these towns, and that history had something important to tell me about how to live.
Some of my family is connected with the wild, with hunting, fishing, with turkeys and forage and known the names of trees. I’ve got family who like to gather at fires and their sense of God is something they carry with them at all times, privately, who maybe can’t even put into words how they feel.
When you have a diverse extended family, and you’re a kid, you notice that there are subtle differences in the protocol. What you can say and how to word it at one picnic, and what you can say and how, at another. All centered around a love of food and getting together – that seems universal. And it made me realize, that culture depends on where you’re sitting, and that I had to choose how I wanted to become, and that it was a serious and confusing undertaking.
Before I hit puberty, I liked to go with my dad during hunting season, and I remember once walking across great uncle Alvin’s pasture to the treeline. We might have stopped to talk on the porch and have a snack before we left. I remember a wind ornament that would twirl different colors. I remember it was a farm he spent time growing up with cousins working hard, but there were just a few cows left, and yet you could smell the history of the family in the very air of the house, maybe the wallpaper, maybe a perfume Aunt Bea had worn to church for years, I’m not sure what it was. But it made me think of the past and of my dad’s childhood-ghost-life, on the same land.
The sight of lace curtains blowing lightly in front of a screen window, can move me to tears. It reminds me of women, imaginary mothers, alternate imaginary versions of myself, my mom, grandmas, I don’t know why. Women I’ve known leave their essence in the careful way they choose and care for their curtains – a fading art. I’ve watched my grungy second-hand curtains blow away from the window and float back, and I wondered what they said about my soul.
Lindsay Morrison is a Forestville resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org