An Introduction to the North Hill Chronicles.
I wonder if you have a small town memory that lies in the back of your mind. And, whenever you think of that place, near or far, does it make your heart smile? Maybe there's a story you have heard, passed down from your father or your mother, or a grandparent, or even some kind old Sage you once heard musing about the good old day's way back when. You just can't put it out of your mind, I know. There are many who hold such stories, and many more who are eager to hear.
From my earliest remembrances as a young boy sitting at my father's feet I heard told countless tales of life on his Uncle's farm out in the Finger Lakes region. It is a place called Genesee Springs, and I never grew tired of those wonderful stories. I listened eagerly as he often reflected upon a time in his life spent milking cows, bailing hay, and plowing endless acres of fertile soil on a 1939 Ford 9N tractor. I could tell from the drifting of his voice and the moistness in his eyes that he wished he never left that place. But fate and circumstances dictated that life in Genesee Springs was not meant to be. The tragic event of his Uncles death and lost opportunity brought my Father and Mother back to Albany, then soon after down to New York, where along with three young daughters they lived in a modest basement apartment on W86th Street near Central Park while dad attended Columbia Medical College. Those were the lean years and the most trying of his life he would remember, but he never regretted it. He did his residency back in Albany at Saint Peters Hospital after which he hung out a shingle applying his skills as a General Practitioner and Surgeon. He had become well known for his gentleness and compassion. After another five children (eight in all), my Mother and Father decided they had had enough of city life and pulled up stakes and moved us all up to the forty-third parallel to the little town of North Hill. For my Father North Hill was a lot like Genesee Springs, and that suited him just fine. Another seven children in almost as many years would come to join us (fifteen in total). When asked by a local reporter how she managed when another child was born, my mother simply replied; "it was no trouble at all, I just put another potato in the pot."
My parents would live out their lives in that small town and had become accepted and loved as if they had been there all of their lives. Their contribution to a community of loggers, tanners, farmers, and a handful of eccentrics was boundless yet altruistic. Dad never wanted a pat on the back or honors bestowed on him. He just wanted people to be well. Healing and giving them hope is what really made him happy. My Father is gone now; his heart stopped beating while he slept peacefully convalescing from a long illness. I think it is the way he would have wanted to go. He left us filled with delightful memories that we often share with our own children as well as reminisce with one another as our Father and Mother did with us.
I often remember his stories about the village of Genesee Springs and its Opera House Movie Theater that only cost ten cents to see a show. And the Candy store where penny candy was actually a penny, He spoke fondly of the Rexall Drugstore with its soda fountain. The feed store co-op and the old hardware shop. The Men's store where Dad bought his first suit to wear on his first date with the first and only girl he had ever loved; my mother. He talked of Woolworths, the only department store for miles, and the local barber who only knew how to cut hair one way. It was nice if you were in the Marines he would say. He often ruminated of the people who lived there and how some were characters from the funny pages that made him laugh. But, he often referred to the people of Genesee Springs as the salt of the earth. He talked of how they too struggled and worked their land just like his uncle had.
Even today, I hear accounts of small town adventures from friends, acquaintances, even coworkers who had spent many summers of their youth, maybe at a grandmother's house in Podunk USA, or some lakeside village in a rented rustic cabin, or of roughing it along some mountain trail, camping in woods that are only best described by Frost and Thoreau. I have heard ramblings from urbanites and suburbanites of their desire for a simpler life filled with the kind of adventure that only a small town could offer, even if for only a week's stay. Every time I pass through one of those picturesque places set in a pastoral setting with a church steeple peeking above the trees and a Main Street filled with antiquated well-kept storefronts, and homes that date back to the gilded age I call my wife and declare ardently, "Honey! Pack your bags, we're moving." That has now become an instinctive reaction, I have become Pavlov's dog and places like Old Forge, Seneca Falls, or some little town in New England, or someplace off the beaten path driving through Anywhere, America rings the bell that brings me running salivating once again for that simple life I once knew in North Hill. Even the smell of manure becomes the siren call to come home. But, I am all too reminded of duty to self and loved ones. So I grudgingly return to the certainty of taxes and a mortgage which waits for no one, and I jump back on that hamster wheel of life my wife calls, "Reality." I do vow that one day though, I will return for a more permanent repose. But, for the time being I just while away my days in this crazy big city thinking on that wonderful place farther north that had consumed my formative years where now I am only able to spend a few weekends and holidays.
It was a time I spent exploring the farthest depths of North Hill's forests, picking blackberries along its rural roads. I swam its lake, fed by a cold underground spring that in certain spots would make my teeth chatter on a hot July day. And when I got my allowance very Saturday after chores, I ran as fast as I could to Sweet Thing's Candy Shoppe and then to Newberry's Five and Dime, straight to the back, down its ornate iron staircase to the basement where a virtual kingdom of toys and games were kept. I would grab packs of rolled caps for my pistol and balsa-wood gliders and run back up those stairs making a bee-line to the cash register. I would eagerly empty my pockets of coin and useless necessities that only young boys carried around. The girl at the counter would pick through my change and lint until she had the right amount; sometimes adding a few pennies from her own purse to make up the shortfall.
My days in that small town were always filled with imagination and adventure, I remember. It was and is a place that still occupies a huge part of my heart. It is not for only fair weather weekends where the sun is continuously shining and the fish are always biting. Not all the women are beautiful and the men hardworking. And no, not every child is born expected to exceed their potential, or into great wealth, or even in blissful wedlock for that matter. And not everyone is funny, but many I must admit sure are fun to watch. Far less than the laughter we experienced, tragedy has been known on occasion to visit us. Collectively we have watched great and terrible world events unfold before our very eyes over the years. But through it all we had a familial bond that tied us together; we so often closed ranks and leaned on one another for strength and solace. That is a rare commodity in these times. There is one thing though that rings true of all who have lived there, that if they ever leave, they almost always come home, to North Hill.