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The Displaced Heart

by Julia Sneden

Recently I’ve been reading books by authors noted for their strong identification with place, people like Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers and Saul Bellow. I love them first and foremost because they are good writers, but also because their ability to convey a sense of place opens new worlds for me. Truth be told, I am jealous of them. I am altogether too comfortable in too many places in this world to identify myself with any one place.

I’m a child of nomads, or at least of younger sons of younger sons of younger sons. As far back as I can count, my male ancestors grew up and didn’t inherit the family farm or business or law firm. Deferring to their elder brothers, they set forth to make their own ways, marrying and taking their wives with them as they moved, first to the New World, and after that, in succeeding generations west from Connecticut to Vermont to Illinois to Wisconsin to Minnesota and the Dakota Territory, and finally to California. Stopped by the Pacific, they then spread out up and down the length of the Golden State and into Washington and Idaho.

It’s a very different story for my husband’s family. He is descended from people who ran a ferry across the Hudson River, from Dobbs Ferry to Sneden’s Landing, starting in the mid-1700’s. When his branch of the family moved up the hill from the river, they became known as “Snedens of the Field,” as opposed to “Snedens of the River,” but they never strayed far from the surrounding territory. He was the first to leave the area (in 1954), but even today, he remains firmly tied to his roots in New York/New Jersey.

On my father’s side, I’m actually a third generation Californian, something unusual for anyone as old as I am. I call myself a Californian even though I haven’t lived there in 40 years. But even when I was young, I partook, albeit vicariously, of life in other places. I was reared in a household that contained, in addition to parents and a sibling, two grandmothers, a great aunt, and later on a great uncle. Three of those (one grandmother and her sister and brother) were preacher’s kids, brought up in rectories in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As so often happens in families, the oldest (my Great Aunt Martha) and the youngest (me) formed a special bond. I spent many hours sitting next to Aunt Martha’s leather armchair on a small, hand-carved stool called “the cricket,” upon which at least 5 generations of little girls in my family have sat. I listened to tales of her childhood spent on the prairie as I held the yarn she rewound, or helped to sort her thread drawer.

There was the story about the time my great grandfather got lost in a blizzard, wrapped himself in his buffalo robe, laid the reins down, and let the faithful missionary ponies find the way home. When he got there, his beard was frozen fast to the robe, and his eyes had frozen shut.

Another time there was a blizzard that struck while he was traveling to a distant town where he intended to hold service for one of his missions. It was dark, and there was a river that had to be crossed, but the snow was blowing so thickly that he could not see the bridge. Apparently, neither could the horse, because she refused to go forward. Certain that they were on the right road and at the bridge, he urged his horse forward. After much balking, the horse finally went on, and the young clergyman reached the house where he was going to stay.

“How did you get here?” the people asked.

“Over the bridge, of course,” he replied.

“The bridge washed out in the storm this afternoon,” they said.

In the morning, they stood on the bank and looked. The bridge was gone, except for three stringers: the horse had walked on the middle 4x6, and the wheels of the buggy just happened to fit the span between the other two.

Aunt Martha also had wonderful stories about the ferocious cold winters, when she and her sisters woke up to find the water in their washstand pitcher frozen solid. The girls slept three to the bed, huddled together under the quilts their mother had pieced. They told each other stories or sometimes sang to drown out the howling wind on those -40 º nights. And according to Aunt Martha, the summers were every bit as hot as the winters were cold. Such extremes of weather were hard to imagine, for a little girl living in temperate California, where a dusting of snow on the tops of distant coastal mountains was big news.

There were also tales of the great grasshopper plague that hit Minnesota in 1872, when clouds of insects would swarm so thickly that they cut off the sunlight. They would descend on a farmer’s field and strip it to the bare ground in a couple of hours. The boys in the missionary family played a game to see who could destroy the most grasshoppers. With one sweep of the hand, they would grasp as many as they could, and then drop them into a pail of water for counting. When the bishop came to visit, he joined the game and, with his huge hands, won easily.

According to Aunt Martha, wildflowers grew on the prairie, so tall and so thickly that you could just lean out of the buggy and gather them up by the armful.

I can tap into my memories of all those tales, and I can write of my California childhood, but today it is not easy to root my writings in any one place. Places have changed, as they will with time, and I have changed, too. My peripatetic existence has provided me with all sorts of places to love in addition to California, from the Hudson Valley where I spent my college years, to Chapel Hill, NC, the (then) small town where my stepfather taught, to the mountains of New Hampshire where my young family summered beside a glacial-scratch lake, to the Genesee Valley in western New York where many of my ancestors are buried, to the rugged, rocky coast of Northern California, to the flat Outer Banks of North Carolina, to the old, soft mountains of the Blue Ridge, to the young, steep peaks of the Sierra, to my three favorite cities: Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

The odd thing here is that I don’t feel rootless at all. I have absorbed each new setting with the same delight with which I absorbed Aunt Martha’s stories. No one would ever mistake me for a New Englander or a Southerner, but I have great appreciation for both those parts of America.

In some ways, it’s freeing not to be identified with a specific place. I wouldn’t dare to write about California today. It has been 40 years since I lived there. I can only recount what it was like once, back when I was a little girl living on a hilltop with San Francisco Bay spread out at her feet. Since then, my wanderings have doomed me never to be admired as a regional writer.

But the more I have read the work of writers from different places and differing backgrounds, the more I have come to appreciate that human beings are more like than unlike, across all boundaries of politics and time and religion. I don’t suppose it really matters if a writer can’t be called “regional” so long as the writing is true to the more universal regions of the human mind and heart.

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