In our circles


Dearest You,

Here we are again.

Since I last wrote she did, indeed, go to college, and had a fantastic first year, and a happy summer, and now she’s back there again, a sophomore and doing well. We miss her like crazy, especially on the weekends, and on the weekdays, and the mornings, and oh yes the evenings. Which is to say, we’re really happy she’s there, and we really miss her being here.

So everything is normal, right?

Somewhere online this week I saw a poem about those bittersweet days of letting your semi-grown child make the first steps into adulthood. I didn’t care for the poem much, but one comment in reply to it has had me wondering. “That feeling when children start leaving, almost never spoken about…”

Wait? Is that true? Does no one speak about this? Surely that commentor doesn’t live anywhere near this house, where the topic of her awayness is never far from our lips. Are we weird to miss her? Are we strange to not see this as an opportunity to party without the kid? I think not.

But I didn’t come here to tell you about passing time. I wanted to tell you about our trip this August, a jagged loop of nearly 3,000 miles between Vermont and Michigan, where we visited the past. Wait, maybe I did come here to tell you about passing time.

The Loop

Note: The mileage on this map doesn’t account for all the side trips and back-and-forths and retracings that accumulated another five hundred or so miles on the odometer.

It all started with the possibility of a Maddalena family reunion in Jackson, MI. It had been probably about twelve years since the last time we were all gathered together in one spot, so we packed the Honda, downloaded the 60+ hour Sherlock Holmes audiobook (narrated brilliantly by Stephen Fry), dropped off the dog, and headed west.

Though this was to be a trip of revisiting the past, we included a few firsts, starting with dinner a few hours into our drive at Man of Kent in Hoosick, NY, a pub we’ve passed on nearly every drive to Michigan and often wondered about. It didn’t disappoint. It was filled with Friday night locals, the plates were heaping with good food, and the taps were brimming with all kinds of beer.

We pushed on late into the evening until we reached Little Falls, NY. After discovering that the local chain motel was fully booked, we found ourselves in an enormous suite of comfortable rooms in the quirky and friendly Canal Side Inn, which also houses an exceptionally good French restaurant (so we’ve read; we were too late for dinner).

At breakfast at the very surly greasy spoon next door the following morning, we realized exactly why the Inn is called “Canal Side.” We were dining on rubbery eggs and canned fruit salad just steps away from the Erie Canal. So, after repacking the car, we took a walk past the Mowhawk River (where H spied a gorgeous little brown mink playing on the rocks) to the trail that follows the Canal up to lovely Lock 17.

On our walk we saw egrets, a great blue heron, a flotilla of ducks, wildflowers, a rabbit, and M saw a giant fish leap out of the canal. It was a quite peaceful and beautiful walk, and good to shake out our legs before the next 10 hours on the road.

Then we were back into the car to finish the drive to Michigan by way of Pennsylvania and Ohio, with Mr. Fry and Conan Doyle as our entertainment.

The reunion the next day was perfect, if a little hot. We were hot all week really. It was August. In Michigan. During a generally hot summer. During a generally hot year. What did we expect?

We gathered under the roof of a big picnic pavilion that included a kitchen, ceiling fans, and a bathroom. We laughed and ate and talked the afternoon away. We welcomed the newest member of the family, thirteen-month-old Adrian. He won’t remember a minute of our passing him from sweaty hug to hug, but maybe someday he’ll go hunting through his past and find this photo of his very hot and happy family.

Reunion Selfie

While in Michigan, we spent much longed for time with M’s parents, catching up, recommending each other books, admiring H’s new birthday hat, and just appreciating being together.

At St. John Cemetery, H found the graves of her great grandparents (thank you We spent a glorious, relaxing afternoon on Otter lake in Bob and Sal’s new boat. We spent another glorious evening with Adam and Liz, eating a fantastic diner at The Knickerbocker in Grand Rapids, and spending the rest of the evening playing Ticket to Ride while laughing and eating outrageously good cupcakes in their beautiful new house.

And we finally visited the John K. King bookstore, a huge warehouse of used books in Detroit that we’ve known about for years but had never managed to get to until now. It was hot. Oh yes it was hot. And also wonderful. And though I told myself the last thing in the world I needed was another book, I bought one. Of course I did. M and H did us proud as well. We left with a John K. King cloth tote bag filled with books for us and others.

Also while in Michigan we got snacks at Zingerman’s (how could we not?), ate breakfast the Roxy Cafe, ate a sort of sad dinner at a Mexican restaurant whose menus were on iPads running out of power and whose cleaning staff decided to wash the floors with a strong bleach solution while were still eating, and ate at Chinese buffet that featured frogs legs among the other more typical Chinese dishes. We laughed a lot about it all.

Then we said our goodbyes and bundled ourselves and Mr. Fry back into the car for a drive through Ohio, across the Ohio river and into West Virginia to visit to dear friends in Charleston. We were 30-odd years overdue for a visit to their home, but they held no grudges. They greeted us warmly, cooked us a fantastic meal, then sped us over to their favorite bookstore so we could see it before it closed for the evening. Then back to the house in time to catch a beautiful sunset, eat dessert, and spend the evening talking about everything—past, present, and future—while cuddling Bode the Jack Russell terrier.

Our visit there was much too brief. We’d didn’t get to see enough of our friends or their beautiful city, but we had a schedule to keep and an Airbnb apartment rented for the night in Pittsburgh, so we gave friends and dog big hugs and much gratitude and then reunited with the highway north through the beautiful West Virginia hills.

While West Virginia was brand new territory for us, we and Pittsburgh have history. I lived there when I was very young, while my father worked for Mister Rogers and WQED and my mother studied for her Masters degree at the University of Pittsburgh. Many years later, M and I lived there while I was studying for my Masters at Pitt. Circles within circles. This was our first visit back in over 20 years.  And this time we had H.

Sure, there are plenty of jokes about Pittsburgh, and it used to be quite a dirty, smelly place when its factories were belching smoke and poison into the air, but Pittsburgh can be a really pretty city, and she shows off some one of her best views when you approach via a bridge from the south.

Our days in Pittsburgh were a flashback in altered states. There was so much we recognized, and so much that had changed. Things felt brighter and cleaner in places, more built up (“I remember when this was all abandoned lots!”), and more cosmopolitan. And then again, there were the run-down neighborhoods. The old falling apart garage behind the house we rented in the early 90s was just as decrepit as ever (and closer to our house than we’d remembered).

The infestation of pot holes seemed cured. But the stop signs on the entrance ramps to the highways remained. Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning stood exactly as it had when I was a student studying in its vaulted main floor, but the awful fast food restaurant in the basement had been replaced by a bright-looking cafe and state-of-the-art mail center.

The french fries at “The O” didn’t seem as good as we’d remembered (but, then, we’ve logged a lot of miles and eaten a lot of duck-fat-fried-artisanal french fries since the old Pittsburgh days), but now there are amazing, funky restaurants and a French bakery that makes magnificent yet affordable pastries.

The Strip district with its food stalls, fish markets, and tourist shops seemed busier and maybe a bit mall-ified and cleaned up, but also largely the same. The mung bean pancake stall was, in fact, on exactly the same corner where we left it 25 years ago, serving the same delicious hot food.

And, of course, there was Kennywood Park. Truth be told, this was one of the main things calling us back to Pittsburgh. Kennywood is where I learned to love roller coasters and we were excited for H to ride a classic wooden roller coaster while they still exist. Kennywood has three of these beauties, the Racer, the Jack Rabbit, and the Thunderbolt. We rode all three—the Thunderbolt twice—and they were just as much fun as they always were. It’s a relief to know that some gold things can stay.

While in Pittsburgh, we found the Colfax school, where I attended Kindergarten and some of first grade, where I learned to read (I remember that light bulb moment clearly), where I learned to love parachute day in gym class, and where I learned to loathe cafeteria tater tots. The school was closed for the summer, but M, being persistent and not at all shy, rang the bell and knocked on the door until the gracious principal welcomed us in and showed us the main hall and offices (much of the first floor was off limits because they were being cleaned and buffed in preparation for the new school year). Inside, I found the Kindergarten room (now a library and media room), exactly where I remembered it, almost 50 years later.

On our last day in Pittsburgh, we visited the paving stone my sister and I placed in memory of our mother. This is one of 10 memorials we’ve placed in her memory in locations that were meaningful to her. This one has a view of her graduate school stomping grounds.

And then we were on the road again, passing through the Squirrel Hill tunnel where, miraculously, no one slowed down (Pittsburgh, you have changed!), and then on to State College, where my personal circuit began in 1965 while my parents were students at Pennsylvania State University.

This was my first time back since we moved to Pittsburgh when I was four. I came armed with an address that is on a box of plastic cookie cutters my mother mail ordered when we lived in State College. I have no idea how the cookie cutters survived all these years , let alone the original cardboard box, let alone the mailing label on the box, but they did. And the cookie cutters led us to this house in State College, Pennsylvania, home of some of my earliest memories, including holding my baby sister when she was a newborn.

Whitehall house We stayed at Penn State long enough to get lunch and take some photos, but we were in a hustle to get home. H’s 19th birthday was the next day and one gift we could give her was waking up in her own bed on her birthday. We slid past Bellefonte, where I was born, then northeast through Pennsylvania, stopping briefly to ogle the immense Starrucca Viaduct in Lanesboro, and then for a pre-birthday steak dinner outside Albany, NY.

M finished the drive through the mountains to home in the rain. We were in our driveway at 1:30 am on August 12. We trundled the birthday girl into the house and decided to unpack the next day. We did that, and made birthday cake with swiss meringue buttercream, and did very little else.

Now we’ve been home for over a month. The hot summer is long gone. H is back at school again. Tomorrow is fall again. The big maple tree is scattering its leaves on the lawn again.

Here we are, looping around the year. Again and again and again. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to keep repeating the loop for a long long time. Sometimes we’ll even get a chance to spiral back, to follow the old paths at a different altitude where we can see the past from a distance with tenderness and love, without sadness or too much regret.

Meanwhile we get today, and friends and dogs and books and chocolate chip cookies and rainy afternoons and old movies and all the sweet memories.