I never thought that my children would be growing up within shouting distance of where I grew up.

I think this had to do, in part, with the nature of the age in which I came of age: The 1970s were a time in which Americans like me moved hither, thither and yon, at the apparent drop of a hat, and no one lived near anyone. The fact that I spent two-thirds of my childhood a ten minute walk from my grandparents’ house, the very house in which my mother grew up, was, upon reflection, kind of odd. Certainly unusual. Even for as small a town as Lake Bluff, Illinois.

But then I not only moved away, I  move away, taking root in Israel. And I never once considered moving back to the States, never considered raising children in any language but Hebrew, never thought I’d house them anywhere but in Tel Aviv (Kfar Saba, in a pinch).

When I applied to US graduate schools, it was only because I wanted the opportunity to live as an adult in America — not to move here. I applied up and down the East Coast and to the University of Chicago, because if I wasn’t going to be home, I at least wanted to be near family. Accepted at all the schools to which I applied , I chose the U of C not because I had grown up on Chicago’s North Shore, but because they paid my way. Again, there was no thought, whatsoever, that I should be looking at mortgage rates or school districts.

Even after I had my first baby I didn’t know we were staying. We were going to be home in time for the boy to start kindergarten in Israel, didn’t everybody know that? Honestly.

And so we come to yesterday, wherein I found myself a dozen years back in the States, driving north on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive with my two very American children, speaking English, listening to Fleetwood Mac, headed to my past.

We spent the morning tootling around Lake Bluff, with me saying things like “Oh, hey! I used to dig in these little hills hoping they were Indian burial mounds and I’d find an arrowhead!” and “That’s where your grandma and I both went to school!” and “Yep, that parking lot used to be my house!” And then we went apple picking (and if there is a more quintessentially Rockwellian/Midwestern/American-small-town activity than going apple picking on a breezy late September day, I don’t know what it might be) at the very orchard at which I used to pick apples.

My kids go on field trips to the same museums I went to. They swim in the same lake I swam in. They feel a special affinity to Abraham Lincoln, just like I did, and they are charmed and wowed by the same big city that has charmed and wowed me my entire life.

And having never expected it, the gift it has proven to be occasionally bowls me over.

My childhood was not easy. Lake Bluff was, for me, for my family, a point of salvation but (I have since realized) also the repository of ghosts and sorrows. The last time I was there I wound up fleeing, with an almost palpable sense of dogs nipping at my heels, or ghosts grabbing at my heart. I couldn’t get out quickly enough.

But yesterday, on a Norman Rockwell Saturday, the love of my life and I took our boy and girl to — a place. A nice place, but: a place. My stories were vaguely listened to, or genially ignored, as they should have been, given the age of my audience. Any rush of emotion I might have had was supplanted by the real needs of real people, people whose childhood is shaping up, so far, to be as Rockwellian as any Norman himself might have envisioned (knock on wood, hamsa aleichem!). The reality of the joyful life that I have built for myself is right now, and my past, it turns out, has passed.

All unexpected, my children share with me the cultural touchstones that shape my worldview — but they will never share the sorrows. There is nothing out-sized, or mythic, or existentially meaningful to the struggles of the bad years — they were just bad. And now they’re over.

And someday, please God, my children will tell their children: Your grandma used to dig here for arrowheads! And then they’ll pile in the car, and go pick apples.


  1. Lise

     /  September 26, 2010

    I’m so glad you went. There’s a lot of joy and beauty up there, too.

  2. As a kid these days, I’m surprised by your description of the 1970s being a time of families constantly moving. I’d been led to believe that up until the past decade or two it was standard practice for a person/family to get a job and plant roots in a single place, as opposed to all the job switching and mobility that goes on today.

    • dmf

       /  September 27, 2010

      at least for college grads there was a lot of moving around to get work experience and perhaps grad school (all often with kids/spouses in tow) and then perhaps they settled into homes/careers, unlike now where many of us gen-xers are still nomads into our 40’s with multiple grad degrees and no real expectations of job security. welcome to the future generation A.

    • John Casey

       /  September 28, 2010

      It was a lot more typical to work for one company then then it is now, but within companies there was a lot of mobility in the middle and upper management ranks. Once upon a time, IBM meant “I’ve Been Moved”, for example. People would come into work on a Monday, and the boss would say, ‘Next monday, your job is in Seattle. Promotion, more money, don’t forget to write”. And off they’d go.

  3. did you ever read “Crossing California?” It takes place in late 70’s Chicago…

  4. SWNC

     /  September 29, 2010

    Beautiful, just beautiful. My husband and I have both taken career hits by choosing to stay closer to our families and the places we grew up. It’s not a choice I regret. I lived two doors down from my aunt’s house, spent Sundays at Grandma’s, and grew up with a whole passel of cousins. I really want the same thing for my kids. It’s definitely possible to romanticize living close to family (Lord knows, mine can make me crazy) or having ties to home, but feeling so rooted gives me great strength. This is my home and these are my family, and I know this in my bones.

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