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This column by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the September 8, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Some people think they have to spend lots of money and travel several
time zones away on their summer vacation in order to witness an exotic
culture teeming with human curiosities. All I need to do is drive five
hours northwest to Trumansburg, NY (near Cornell, somewhere worthy of
a National Geographic special, or even a reality TV show. Home to my
She is a brain with two legs who writes for the Cornell Law Journal,
reviews children’s books for Publishers Weekly, and edits the
dissertations of Cornell students for whom English is a second
language. My brother-in-law wrote a little book called "The Internet
for Dummies," which has been translated into a billion languages. He
is also the mayor of Trumansburg.
Every summer my son and I trek to Trumansburg (population 1,800 and
not a stoplight in sight) mostly to get a fix of Sarah, my niece, who
is seven months younger than Mackenzie and his bosom buddy. But I go
too to revel in the otherworldliness of the town.
Trumansburg is the granola version of Lake Wobegon, where, as those of
you who listen to "A Prairie Home Companion" know, all the men are
good-looking, all the women are strong, and all the children are above
average. In Trumansburg, all the men have highly unusual jobs: the
owner of Gothic Eves, the B&B where we stayed, used to get paid to
climb trees in the forest and check their condition, and now he works
in rice and tomato genetics; another guy makes classical guitars,
which he sells for $6,000 apiece, and has a two-year backlog of orders
from around the world.
All the women breastfeed their children until the first day of
kindergarten (that is, unless they home school, when the breastfeeding
end date blurs). And none of the children watch television, but
instead actually play outside, ride their bikes, climb trees, and even
start their own businesses, like the eight-year-old daughter of the
B&B owner, who started Wicked Windows, a window-cleaning business. The
town is so small that when Santa comes around on Christmas Eve on his
fire engine, he actually gives every child a present.
My sister knows everybody’s name and waves wildly to them all from her
decrepit Toyota minivan with 175,000 miles on it as we drive to visit
the same places, which is comforting – the Ithaca Science Center, a
fabulous hands-on museum where my niece knows the names of all of the
snakes; the Trumansburg Nature Center, which has a five-story tree
house that some Ithaca high school kids built as a project; and the
perfectly-named coffee shop, Gimme Coffee!.
At Gothic Eves, my son fell in love with the rope swing in the
backyard and the collection of National Geographic magazines neatly
filling a wall of bookshelves in our room – every issue dating back
to the 1930s. Rose, the wife of the forest-rice-tomato guy, told
Mackenzie if he woke up early he could come out here and play on the
swing . He looked at her oddly, as if she had a large growth on the
side of her face. "Do you have a TV?" he asked tentatively. "No,
dear," she replied, with the lilt of Glinda the Good Witch. "We talked
to our daughters about it, and they decided there really wasn’t
anything worth watching." "What do they do in the morning," my son
asked. "They read books," she said. "And play on the swing." "Oh," he
said, rather quietly.
In Trumansburg for four nights, Mackenzie and I quickly fell into a
bedtime routine. Sans television, he would pull a National Geographic
off the shelf and crawl into his twin bed . He would lose himself in
the scientific explanation of Saturn’s rings (or maybe it just looked
that way and he was surreptitiously perusing a story about natives on
a Pacific island with photographs of topless women suckling their
infants). I would settle with a book into my king-sized bed, under a
quilt I imagined had served as the homogenous glue among the members
of some quilting bee who deftly stitched away the trials and
tribulations of colicky babies and chickens that wouldn’t lay enough
As we read silently, a honeysuckle breeze blew in the window, and we
could hear the chamber music of August’s crickets, loud and strong
after their June and July rehearsals and on rainy nights, and the
whoosh of car tires along a wet, slick Main Street.
On our last night, in the middle of the night, I awoke to feel a small
body, with a belly as warm as a puppy’s crawl into bed next to me. "I
had a nightmare," Mackenzie said in the tiniest of voices, his eyes
wild and worried. "The worst one in my whole life." "Do you want to
tell me about it?" "No." Then, a moment later, "It was about a pack of
bears that were very flexible and persistent, and they jumped out from
trees to attack me." Since when had he used words like flexible and
persistent? "It’s all over now," I said, "Go back to sleep," hearing
myself whisper the words my mother had whispered to me and that I felt
sure the mothers who had made the quilt we now laid under had
whispered to their children generations ago.
A couple of nights after we returned home, we lay reading, just as we
had in Trumansburg, me curled up with my novel, he with a new book his
grandmother had given him for his birthday. All of a sudden he said
brightly, "Mom, I like this book. I’m already on chapter four."
I thought about the fact that you can walk down my sister’s street and
run into any one of her neighbors – like the family who adopted seven
children and has a sign in their yard that says "Miller’s Ark" or the
archeologist who works on old local Indian artifacts. And that my son
hadn’t watched television or used a computer in five days.
Mackenzie interrupted my reverie, in which I was conjuring up how the
Rongovian Embassy, a Trumansburg restaurant where families come to
hear bluegrass or zydeco on a Saturday night, would look on the cover
of Conde Nast Traveler. "Mom, did you know there are tribes who dye
their babies red?" "How do you know that?" "I read it in National
Geographic. They dye their babies red for good health." Noting my
raised eyebrow, which he interpreted as, "Is it permanent?", he added,
"It’s vegetable dye. It comes off in about three days. Oh, yeah, and
the women are naked from the waist up."
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