No problem, to move from the Northfield mountains, pure granite, from a town of 317, to a Midwestern city of 7 million built on a swamp. What, really, were they thinking? If we were going to go urban, my parents figured we might as well bypass the suburbs and do it up right. Without much discussion, as was her way, my grandmother purchased a brownstone for us on the upscale block of Roslyn Place near the Jesse Layton School. Minty, we called my grandmother, dollar signs blinking in our eyes. It was I, as a toddler, who parsed Grandmother Gardener down to the essential component. It goes without saying that we all wanted to be as close as we could to the aging matriarch, she who ruled with her iron hand from Lake Bluff, Illinois.
As far as the Jesse Layton parents went, the school was basically a front for the Democratic Party, for rich bleeding-heart liberals. If Kevin Shaw couldn't live on a racially balanced street, at least he was given free reign to teach as he pleased, to turn out little socialists from his class to his heart's desire, with the understanding, of course, that the firebrands would someday settle down and become responsible Democrats. Although his salary was modest, he believed his position at Layton had many elements of the dream job.
My mother, for her part, was interested in moving back home to the Midwest because of the cold and snow of the Vermont winters and the mud of the Vermont springs and the black flies of the Vermont summers. Not to mention all year round the warp we lived in, somewhere between the hardscrabble life of the real Vermonters and the artiste vacationers, giddy with their views and the mountain air and their leisure. My mother was ready to leave all of it, and it was a fine time, because the band she played in had gone through a difficult period and split up. She was free of them. Not least, I think she believed that if we stayed in Vermont, her tomboy daughter would one day take off into the hills with nothing on but a loincloth, nothing but her bare hands and sharp new canines to get herself some bloody grub.
Many friends expressed sympathy for us both before and after the move. They had the idea that Elvira and I were being wrenched away from Eden, taking that long fall from the fragrant warm garden to the gritty gray world where, it is true, Elvira would have to wear clothes. Fully dressed and in a brownstone, we would be cramped. Outside we would be in danger from both the careless ways of the rich and the careless ways of the poor. Chicago would be beautiful in a man-made way, but the splendor would hardly be noticeable because of the exhaust and the grime and the noise and the litter. The natives jogged with their dogs and could not break their strides to clean up after them; it was no better, probably, than a medieval city, the chamber pots being emptied out of windows right into the street. And there would be people, people everywhere. That would be the worst of it, I thought, the feeling that you were always in some- one's company. But I got tired of what seemed like pity, and I did want to point out to the chorus that Wellington, Vermont, was hardly Shangri-La, that at the church suppers in Wellington you could get a hot dish with beets called red flannel hash. Furthermore, the librarian, Mrs. Hegley, based on her extensive knowledge of her neighbor's moral behavior, either excused her patrons their fines or did not. My father had been a selectman, and I had heard enough of his conversations about the difficulty in getting monies for the school, for the library, for much of anything beyond snow removal within a week of a storm. Both my parents, I knew, worried about my education and my sensibility in a community where I was the only boy in school during deer-hunting season.
All this is not to say that Wellington wasn't a good place and that I don't still miss it. I was taken from Vermont before I could think to want to leave it myself, and so for me Wellington is the ideal, my old backyard there my deepest sense of home. Right away after the move I longed for it, in spite of the fact that I'd been in a conspicuous position, the kid of a proselytizing socialist schoolteacher and a city-slicker piano-playing mother. To make matters worse, we had no television, not that, as my mother used to say, I didn't absorb most everything I needed to understand about our culture by respiring. Inhale, I got The Simpsons, exhale Beavis and Butt-head; inhale Letterman, exhale MTV, every single song, every single leer. When we finally did get a television, when we moved to Chicago, I watched it that first summer, up in my parents' room, without moving from the bed.
Excerpted from Disobedience by Jane Hamilton. Copyright© 2000 by Jane Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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