We Can Go Home Again
This year, as we celebrate the 10th Annual Beekman 1802 Harvest Festival, we invite you all to join us in this spirit of homecoming. Every vendor and artisan who has ever been part of our Beekman Neighborhood is welcomed back with open arms, and we look forward to what we’re sure we’ll be a joyful reunion.
For our Summer 2019 issue of our Almanac, we invited local writer Jennifer Taber VanDerwerken to share her story of coming back home to upstate New York.
We Can Go Home Again
By Jennifer Taber VanDerwerken
There is a well-known idiom which proclaims, rather grimly, “you can’t go home again.”
Three years ago this summer, I took a great gamble to find out if that was true. After fifteen years of life in other towns and cities, I moved myself and my young family back to Upstate New York, where I was born and raised.
I never meant to leave Upstate behind me. It just kind of happened. I went away to college, as many people do. I fell in love with someone there, as many people do, and that someone called a whole different part of the country home. The world gets bigger by degrees in this way, through new experiences and new relationships.
Like many young adults, my boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to try our post-college luck in New York City, a place of fresh starts and big dreams. We did a short-term stint, before a tragic loss on his side of the family and urban fatigue beckoned us to the Boston environs, where my husband was raised. We settled on Salem--yes that Salem. Wonderful and witchy.
Salem is where I became a publishing professional and a homeowner, a wife, and a mother. We were very happy there. But quietly, in the background as we built our life, a homesickness was growing inside me all the time.
I am the only child of two truly wonderful people. My leaving home never had anything to do with family. Rather, it was influenced by economic and career opportunities, the merging of lives with another person whose own needs and wishes had to be accounted for, and a little bit of happenstance.
Time passed, and before we knew it we were miles deep down a path we barely knew we had entered. I blinked, and I was raising two sons hundreds of miles away from some of the people who loved them best in the world. I was without the support and succor of my parents. And they were without me, their only child. It felt like everyone was missing out.
As my little boys grew, the drive eastward after weekends visiting my parents became harder and harder. I’d start to well up when we would hit the Berkshires and could no longer pick up the Albany radio stations. I’d torture myself by scouring the real estate listings in Saratoga County, with their affordable prices and excellent schools. I’d picture us hiking in the Adirondacks on fall weekends, summer picnics at Yaddo, ice cream runs to Stewarts, and what it might feel like to bump into a childhood friend at the grocery store. I longed for the small comfort of calling my mom on a hard day and having her swing by for a cup of tea. I wanted my Dad on the sidelines of my son’s soccer games. I wanted to be able to pop over with soup when they got the flu, or help shovel their driveway after the first bad storm of the season. I wanted that ever-elusive sense of belonging, to both people and a place.
When I finally voiced my ache for Upstate New York to my husband, it was not without reservation. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to uproot an entire life and leave the community we had grown to love in our decade in Salem. There were a lot of tears, a lot of kitchen table conversations, and a lot of math. Ultimately, we decided the benefits of the move far outweighed the cons and the temporary stress, and we made our plans.
We bought a rambling fixer-upper in a quiet town in Saratoga County. The day our moving pod was dropped in our new driveway, a car full of family showed up to unload it with us, unprompted. My father called in favors to help us renovate, replumbed our bathroom on his hands and knees alongside my husband. My mom was there to whisk the boys away on the long afternoons we stripped wallpaper and pulled up carpet. We planted vegetable gardens. We planted roots.
Three years into my own homecoming adventure, I think I have my rebuttal to that woeful expression about the impossibility of returning to where you come from.
Yes, you can go home again. You can journey back to your native land and bring with you all that you have seen and learned in your time away. You can offer a richer, more worldly version of yourself to it, and make it better. What you cannot do is go back in time, which is really what that idiom is trying to teach us. I did not return to Upstate New York hoping to find the place I had left at 18 as if it had stood still in my time away, preserved in a sepia-toned photograph.
The home of my childhood does not exist, just as the person I was then does not exist. We have both grown and changed, been formed by new experiences and shaped by new people in the intervening years. What a privilege it is to live here now, and see this place I love through two lenses. It will always be as familiar to me as my own name, comforting in its sameness, totally knowable and known. And it is also new, fresh and exciting, blossoming with young, ambitious creative citizens determined to usher in an Upstate renaissance. I am both the hometown kid who can give you shortcut directions, and the enthusiastic tourist who is constantly seeking new wonders and hidden gems.
But the most pervasive emotion I feel at the end of each day is a welcome stillness. The bones of me are settled in this idyllic, friendly, beautiful part of the world. My people are here. I’m home again.