Finding Blessings in the Town I Fled: Returning Home After 40 Years
The first time I drove up Main Street in Ashburnham, Massachusetts on my way to my little fixer-upper cottage (little cottage but big fixes, it turns out), I saw a Black Lives Matter protest on the lawn of the Town Hall. There were about twenty people participating and, I believe, they were all white folks, but still. It was something.
When I turned the corner to Route 101, my road, I saw iconic pink flamingoes in a front yard and a Pride flag hanging prominently on the porch. Nearby, another house had a BLM sign. Another house had a Biden/Harris sign.
It was September 2020, thirty-five years to the month that I had left New England for the promise of New York City, and forty years since I’d been a teenager in this town, readying myself to go off to college.
My elderly parents and my sister still live in the town, so I had never completely left, visiting on holidays and such. But I also never looked at it as a resident since I was eighteen and, frankly, never thought I would again.
The pandemic brought me an opportunity to buy my parents’ lakeside cottage, and when I realized the mortgage and car payment would be less than my rent in Brooklyn, I arrived at a decision I never thought I’d make. I said goodbye to New York and hello to the town I had fled forty years before.
High school had been a horrific experience for me. I had been slammed into lockers, ridiculed on teams during gym class, rejected by nine girls I had invited to the junior prom (I didn’t bother trying for the senior), mocked for my high voice and goody-two-shoes ways, and had my glasses smashed by a snowball fired at my face.
All these years later, could I make this work somehow?
The first thing I learned was, to paraphrase Butterfly McQueen, “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout fixin’ houses!” It had fallen into disrepair in recent years and I had never been especially handy with home repairs to begin with.
It was a seasonal house that I was racing to winterize before the brutal cold months came in. I missed by a day. The Closing was delayed again and again (thus not freeing up money for the big repairs). I finally closed on January 25th. On January 26th, the water pump froze and cracked, and I pushed open the door to the crawl space in ten-degree weather to see water spraying all over the place.
I left my beloved New York for this?
The town may be in liberal Massachusetts, but it is a pocket of conservatism. To be sure, there were Trump signs on lawns and in windows (even long after the election), but those flamingoes and Pride flags and BLM protests and signs gave me hope. Now in my late fifties, I had a longer view of things — and I was seeing that, even here, things had changed.
I have just a small sliver of land, but I put up a bird feeder and marvel at the variety of species that drop by for a snack. I watch a pair of chipmunks play on the steps and stonewall as I sip morning coffee on the front patio. Suddenly, I am Annie Dillard.
Best of all? The back deck. I replaced the graying old one with a more expansive one in the spring, which has already become a hotspot for family and friends. But even when I’m alone, which is most of the time, it draws me like a magnet at all times of day. The view of the lake — just a dozen feet from my deck — is pretty much the same every day, and yet never quite the same. Gazing at it becomes a meditation.
The view faces west, and one never tires of the sunset. My parents enjoyed it almost daily, six months out of the year for twenty years. Now, because I own it, they still come up to see it a few times a week. We often play a game of Scrabble, a decades-long tradition. We mark the passage of time, evening by evening, game by game.
My high-energy New York metabolism slows. Daily gratitude creeps in. Can I find happiness without a measurable, tangible accomplishment? Or will I actually accomplish more once I become friends with this peace?
My friend Kim, whom I’ve known since childhood, lives on the other side of the lake. She will pop in every once in a while, sometimes unannounced. It’s part of the charm of small town life. Her life is so different than mine. She’s a cool grandma who has recently taken in foster kids with her husband. Kim has always loved the town.
I’ve started attending a church that bravely put a Pride flag out as a welcome to all. Apparently, there was some backlash among the membership, and a few long-time members left. If you know churches, you know this happens with every changing of the guard. There are fewer than twenty parishioners who attend weekly this summer, but the building has been sold and the owner is planning to build an Arts Center. I’ve already spoken to the owner and she’s excited to have my input on this.
Is it possible that all my thirty-five years in New York, where I flirted with success several times, only to be left disappointed, will be the experience needed to launch an Arts Center in my hometown? Will that be my long-sought purpose?
Home may be where the heart is, but that heart is often wounded. I’ve been wounded in Ashburnham. In New York, too.
But I’m making my entrance again, with my usual flair. The town is not quite the same. But neither am I.
Watch out, Ashburnham.