They say you can never go home again, but I can come closer than most, when I return to the village of Horseheads, New York. Oh, the winding gravel road that led to my uncle’s farm has been paved, and many cherished buildings and people have vanished, but the small town spirit of the place remains. These are tough farm folk who would give you the shirt from their backs but don’t want to hear you whine.
There was a complaint yesterday in the local newspaper, the Star Gazette, about sending children to school in 18 below zero weather. One reader’s comments summarized the rest. “Suck it up buttercup.”
Horseheads is a place unto itself and must be experienced to be believed.
On my last trip I stopped at the Jubilee Market on Westinghouse Road, where a sweet old woman I had never met walked away from her cart, turned me around and slipped frail little hands in mine. “Can you believe how cold my hands are?” She said, completely baffled. “My circulation must be off. I can’t seem to get them warm. What do you think?”
I smiled. “Yep, kind of cold, all right. Do you have gloves?” She moved even closer. “No, don’t need gloves.”
“Maybe if you rub them together for awhile, they’ll warm up,” I continued. “Try sticking them in your pocket. That might help.” She gazed into space for a moment, trying to figure out how to shop with her hands in her pockets. “Well, good luck,” I said, moving down the aisle. I glanced over my shoulder, enjoying her complete lack of boundaries and innocent air.
We met again at the checkout or maybe she was waiting for me there. This time she placed her right hand against my cheek. “Can you believe it?” She continued, “Still cold.” I was the long-time trusted friend she had never met. “Yep, still cold.”
The checker was busy going through my items one comment at a time. “Why ya buying aspirin? Ya got a headache? My cousin gets headaches and has one heck of a time getting rid of them. She likes Advil better. Have you tried Advil? She swears by it. And Drano? Got a little clogged drain at home, huh? Better be more careful with what you put down there. You’re not shoving food scraps down the pipes are ya? Don’t do that. My husband worked as a plumber for awhile. Believe me when I tell you that nobody in town knows more about clogged drains than he does. He just retired but still goes out on service calls, you know, for friends. And neighbors sometimes, not that neighbors are not friends. Are these yours too? I’m surprised to see you buying feminine products. You look well into menopause to me. These must be for someone else. Is your daughter with you, waiting in the car maybe, or did ya leave her at home?”
I grabbed the bag and left, wanting to tell her I was just visiting, and that none of the items were for me, but that would have taken another twenty minutes of explaining ancestral lineage, which I was not willing to do.
My next stop was the graveyard to visit the men in my family. My eyes welled with tears as I stood by the cold stone slabs that marked their lives. I searched my pockets for tissue but found none. Another old woman stood near a grave a few yards away. I asked if I could borrow a tissue and she furrowed her brow. “Use your jacket. That’s what I do.” Then demonstrated by running her nose the length of her sleeve.
My Aunt Ethel was typical of these coarse women, having her hair cut in the local barber shop, closing her coat with a giant safety pin and traipsing about in tall rubber boots covered in mud and cow manure.
Her words still ring in my mind: “When you go off to that fancy boarding school, don’t go giving yourself airs. Don’t come home callin’ cow shit, manure.”
And another favorite when I struggled with writing essays in school. “Honey, just put the hay down where the cows can get it, then you’ll be just fine.”