Thursday, October 31, 2013

America the Beautiful

I come from New England; that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Granted, New York is actually one of the Mid-Atlantic States but, as I lived very close to the boarder of Massachusetts, the land, the people, the traditions and the seasons in the area where I grew up were influenced more by New England than the industrial megalopolis stretching between New York City and Washington, DC.

What? Not New England enough for you?
And New England, for three or four weeks of the year, is arguably the prettiest place on Earth. We managed to be there for two of them; it was wonderful.

The weather for the second week was stunning; classic October weather with blue skies and golden trees glowing in the sunshine. There is no other sight on earth quite as charming.

Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies...
The first week was grey and murky, but that only added to the allure, lending a brooding atmosphere to the countryside. With the woodlands shrouded in mist, you could imagine yourself back in colonial times, and might expect to see the Headless Horseman ride out of the gloom, holding a glowing pumpkin aloft.

(I am about to go off on what could be the longest parenthetical aside in history, but seeing as how it is Halloween, it isn’t totally off-topic, so bear with me.

The Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane and all that are from a story titled, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that takes place in Sleepy Hollow, New York, a small village just outside of Tarry Town. However, the actual events that led to Washington Irving writing that story took place not a mile and a half from where I grew up. According to a notation by Irving himself, the character of Ichabod Crane was based on a schoolteacher named Jesse Merwin, whom Irving befriended in Kinderhook, New York, in 1809.

For the sake of the youngsters among you, allow me to point out that Ichabod Crane was not:

  •           A detective from New York City
  •           A time-travelling uber-spy for George Washington
  •           Jeff Goldblum in a tricorn hat
Will the real Ichabod Crane, please sit down!.
Ichabod Crane, in the original story, is a school teacher and he is not the hero of the tale. Ichabod is conceited, conniving, self-serving, gluttonous, and not especially kind to children.

Additionally, the Headless Horseman was not one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, nor was he an actual apparition. It was, instead, Brom Bones attempting to scare Ichabod—quite successfully, as it turned out—into giving up his quest for the lovely, and wealthy, Katrina Van Tassel’s hand, leaving Brom free to marry her, which he does.

According to local legend, the event that sparked the story was a practical joke played on Mr. Merwin as he made his way home from the Van Allen house to his home on Merwin Lake Road one evening.

Just sayin'

The fact that the story itself was set further down the Hudson Valley gives Sleepy Hollow and Tarry Town the right to claim the story as their own—as well as to benefit from the tourist dollars this generates—but it does not detract from the fact that the genesis of the tale took place within two miles of my boyhood home.

After all, I went to Ichabod Crane Central School, we have the Ichabod Crane Motel on Route 9H, the Ichabod Crane School House historic site and we used to have Sleepy Hollow Carpets just outside of Kinderhook but then they turned it into an Elk’s Lodge.

And if that doesn’t convince you that the Legend of Sleepy Hollow actually started within walking distance of my home, have a look at my brother’s back.

He won't mind; this is his Facebook Profile photo
Would anyone do this to themselves if the story behind it weren’t true?)

But back to beautiful New York.

On our first morning there, we went to see the Blessing of the Hounds in Old Chatham, which was just down the road from where we were staying. It was a good reintroduction to local life and allowed me to steep myself in the culture I had left behind.

Yeah, we do fox hunting in America. What of it?
And then we took in the countryside. At that time of year, you can literally go anywhere, look from the top of any hill and be amazed at what you see. Gosh, the trees! I'd about forgotten what a proper autumn looked like; it can truly take your breath away.

A random hill outside of Ryder's Mills

A popular overlook near Old Chatham.

A random shot out of my car window while driving outside of Nassau.

The Thatcher Park Overlook.

A random lane outside of Schodack.
The main purpose of the trip, however was to play with the grandboys, and we managed to do quite a bit of this.

It is strange, seeing oneself as a father, and a grandfather, but there was my boy—my youngest—with a wife and a mortgage and two tow-headed toddlers running around the yard, jumping in piles of leaves and asking to be pushed on the swings. But I look at all of this as an outsider and if it wasn't for the fact that my sons and grandsons bear a striking resemblance to me when I was their age, I might assume I had nothing at all to do with them.

Allie and my wife with the G-boys in a corn maze.

Obligatory jumping-in-a-pile-of-leaves shot

Obligatory jumping-in-a-pile-of-leaves shot

The G-boys: Charlie and Mitch

My boy, Mitch, with his boys, Charlie (on lap) and Mitch
So, while we had a lovely time, it was also strange, and it left me feeling introspective. Autumn, for me, was always a time of reflection and mild melancholy. There is beauty, but also an underlying sadness, in watching the leaves burst into color and then fall to the ground; the year is ending, the cycle is closing and the long winter will soon cover the land, holding it in frozen limbo, waiting for the next cycle.

And this year, in addition to this autumnal melancholy, I felt the weight of nostalgia and the looming presence of what was no longer there. The familiar rituals of going to my dad's house, or visiting my cousin, or stopping in to see old friends are all out of reach now. We went on several long and rambling rides over country roads through stunning scenery but at each bend, it seemed, I was met by a memory of what once was, and it saddened me to realize I could no longer truly feel at home in my home.

I love it there; it is so pretty, so welcoming, so warming, but I don’t think I could ever go back, not to live. There are too many ghosts.

I wish I could credit this photo, but I forgot where I nicked it from.


  1. Mrs Baum12:59 PM

    Ahem. Resident spellchecker here. Two definitions for you - 1. Glutinous = sticky or gluey in texture. 2. Gluttonous = greedy. I assume you meant Ichabod Crane was the latter!

    Yes, I know. I can't resist the occasional bit of pedantry. Just be thankful for all the times I do resist!

    Autumn looks beautiful over there; much more so than here. If only we got some sun here, we'd have a decent stab at the beauty thing too, but alas it's just kind of wet.

    Your grandchildren are very cute. It must be weird only seeing them occasionally.

    1. Good catch! As always, I am indebted to you. Thanks for reading, and caring ;)

  2. Great post and lovely photos. We get some good trees but right now it's a bit wet.

  3. I sometimes think of my immigrant ancestors and wonder if they ever felt "at home" in this country. All of my grandparents came from Europe--my parents didn't even speak English when they started school. With a considerable portion of the world population always in flux, it seems that having deep roots is a not always desirable or necessary. On the other hand, my dad was in construction and we moved on a regular basis. This makes me wonder if I might have been a more secure person if my childhood had been less nomadic. There is no single place that I nostalgically consider my childhood home. So, I don't know if I should envy you or not. Hmmm...

    1. I suppose my ancestors were nomads, as well. They moved all over northern England before going to the US, and then moved between Philadelphia and NY a few times. I, however, grew up in the same house and always lived in the same area so I feel an unusually strong attachment to it. As my friend pointed out to me, "it gets into your DNA"

  4. Hi! I found you (I think) from Separated by a Common Language, and I'm reading along....
    I put your last "nicked" photo into google image search, and you'll be astounded to know that it appears to be of the University of New England...
    I don't usually shout,
    here: for example...

    1. Wow, NSW looks a lot like New England! Still, it's a nice picture.

  5. Yes, well, it's the University of New England. There's a reason both places are called that, I suspect, that is not ENTIRELY owing to who bestowed the name and when. Both gorgeous places, especially in autumn. If you travel skillfully, you can spend twice as much time every year in a New England autumn...!