Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Back To The Land

The Land

They say you can never go home again. I know better than to try. Although I attended seven schools and lived in six different places in the 15 years I lived in Rockland County, New York, there is no place for me there. No family, no family homestead, just memories of time and space. California captured me forty years ago, and still holds me in her clutches, but when I revisit the old stomping grounds I am still stunned and humbled by the familiar smells and sounds and sights.

You can take the girl out of the County, but you can’t take the County out of the girl. I avoid going back. You really have to be in the right mindset. There are so many memories, so much love and so much loss. My reaction is as unpredictable as any sort of grieving I’ve ever experienced. As I’ve gotten older I’m better at allowing myself to feel loss, which makes me less afraid of the feelings that burble up. I’m grateful for the change.

I approached this trip to the County by car from New Jersey. As I saw the sign for “Suffern” I surprised myself by crying a little as I drove. The first house I moved to, as a toddler from Michigan, and the last house, The Red House, were both on Grandview Avenue. I couldn’t find either of them, but I did stop in front of one of my four elementary schools.

Because I have no home to go back to, I’m a little obsessed by visiting places I inhabited as a child. When I sat in that parking lot in front of Grandview School I remembered “Little Wendy” walking through those doors and going to the auditorium in first and second grade.

I also found my special tree, “Mr. Shag” and wrapped my arms around him, sighing deeply. Sadly, there was a mean “No Trespassing” sign posted on him, but I still love him just as much. He was my happy place when I moved to Haverstraw Road.
My tree, Mr. Shag.

The years in Stony Point were bright and beautiful as well as dark and stormy. In fourth grade I met Erika and she became my best friend. I became part of her family. I became part of her. When I met Erika she lived in an artists’ community called Gate Hill Co-op, also known as “The Land”. Her parents were one of the founding families of this unique community and Erika lived in a house that was built specifically for them.
Connected by Black Mountain College, fueled by the vision and financial backing of Paul Williams, the homes were all different, built from experimental materials. With over 100 acres and within commuting distance to New York City, the community featured or was connected to, many important artists in multiple disciplines. Karen Karnes Pottery, Sari Dienes, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Stan Vanderbeek and Vera Williams, to name a few.

Caldecott Winner Vera Williams wrote "A Chair For My Mother"
Erika and I didn’t care about any of that. We had sleepovers and ran around in the woods and went skinny-dipping at the waterfalls. One time we visited another house on The Land, The Folley house. Sean was in our class at school and he had two older brothers, Paul and Kevin. Paul LOVED animals and their house crawled with them. I remember a pet raccoon and two gigantic boas loose in the bathroom.

Erika & her Mom, Betsy, 1976
Erika & Me in Cape Cod 1976
Erika moved to another part of the County, but we stayed friends. I didn’t go the Land much anymore until I was fifteen and ended up living there for a year – in the Folley house! Every trip to the bathroom reminded me of those snakes. It was a sad year, in ways. I was invited to live there because things were bad at home, but it was also a very special time for me. I lived with Joan and Bob and took care of baby Benny while Joan made her incredible leather clothing.

Little Benny at The Land 1973
There was always something fascinating going on. I went into NYC to see a show by Yoko Ono. There were poker games, parties, art shows and music, music, music in the dome. Our neighbor was Sari Dienes and one night she did an interactive art project, “Zilches”, which involved lighting pieces of plastic on fire in the snow.

I loved The Land best in the snow. The steep hill, which bisected the property, was superb for sledding and Stefan and Max and I would sled until after dark many nights. There is nothing quieter than the silence in the snow in the country. Spectacular.

I didn’t really belong at The Land, but being home was worse. I definitely didn’t belong there. It was a connected/disconnected time for me, full of angst and coming of age. I was lucky Joan took me under her wing when I needed saving and we are friends to this day.

I moved to Rockland in 1960 because my father, Lynn Partridge, was recruited from Michigan to start the Unitarian Church in Pomona. We literally built it from the ground up, in a manner similar to the homes at The Land – concrete, steel beams, flat, simple planes with lots of windows to let nature inside. I married another Ben there in 1980 while the October foliage blazed around us.

Eventually The Unitarian Church also housed an alternative school, Skunk Hollow, which some of the kids from The Land attended. I like visiting the church because on the door of the library there is a plaque commemorating my brother, Jeffie, who died in 1960. The last time I was there he had a rock in the garden, as well. These are his only visible memorials and I so appreciate it.

It’s been 60 years since The Land was begun and at least thirty since I’ve been there myself. I already had plans to visit Allie in Manhattan, so I borrowed a car and made the trek to the country. The annual picnic also featured a historical presentation by Mark. It was wonderful to see Erika and her parents and other familiar faces.

With Betsy in 2015
The rain was relentless, but spirits were good and it meant so much to some of the founding members, now 85 and 88 years old. I heard several of them comment that they would never see some of these people again. Bah! They’ll be back next year with bells on. 

The weather washed away any possibility of me dancing in the field with flowers in my hair. Those days are gone, anyway. It’s visions of the future that inspire me. Thinking about the next generation, anticipating grandchildren, creating whatever will be my legacy.

Mark & Betsy
I’ve found “Memory Lane”, as my mother calls it, to be a confusing place. Remembering and not remembering are such powerful countervailing forces, and often you honestly don’t know whether you want to remember or forget. Remember or not, you can never really go back to The Land.

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