I am feeling particularly sentimental this new year and I am feeling particularly grateful to have been born and raised in the tiny town of Johnsburg, in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, on the west bank of the Hudson River. I’ve been gone for twenty years, but I recently decided to plant a root back in my hometown, one that will provide nourishment for decades to come. I’ve lived in two big cities and two other small towns, but nothing compares to the village where I was raised.
Covering 200 square miles, the town of Johnsburg is home to approximately 2,400 people who live in approximately 1,000 households. Population statistics ebb and flow a little, but the average population density of 12 people per square mile has held fairly steady during my lifetime. There are two gas stations and one traffic light and nothing is open twenty-four hours. You can walk the full length of main street in twenty minutes or less (depending on how many people you stop and visit with) and there’s one school where approximately 350 students, in grades K-12, are all educated under the same roof.
When I graduated from Johnsburg Central School, I couldn’t wait to leave and there were times, as a teenager, when I was so sick of everyone knowing my name that I wished I’d been born into a more metropolitan family. I named my cat Cosmopolitan but the only traveling I did was in the library and when I did leave, I felt wholely inadequate next to my more urban peers. Little did I know just how well my village had raised me, or how well my childhood prepared me for everything that lay ahead. Little did I know just how lucky I was.
Now, I feel sorry for my more urban peers and now, I feel deeply privileged to have been born and raised an Adirondack girl. But when my husband and I decided to buy a house in Johnsburg, I could not have imagined the well of pride into which I would tap.
I will admit to a moment of panic as I prepared for a flight from LA to NY to look at houses, and when my husband pooh-poohed my house-buying anxiety I did not take it kindly. In fact, I accused him and his entire of gender of infuriating pie-in-the-sky thinking when some things, like buying a house, are famously not easy. Thankfully, my husband diffused what could have been a lovely marital spat when he explained what he meant. He told me buying a house in my hometown would be easy. He told me my town would take care of me. He told me my town would welcome me and there would be people who had known me and my parents our whole lives who would be there to help. He reminded me what it was like when my brother died, how the whole town rallied to support my grief stricken family. And I knew when he said that that he wasn’t kidding. His sincerity dulled my anxiety and thankfully, my husband was right.
Despite everyone’s advice to shop around for the best mortgage, I decided go local with everything. My realtor was a friend of my mom’s who goes to church with my dad. My lawyer was the lawyer I worked for when I was fifteen. And I got my mortgage at the local bank which has changed management many times but has always been the only bank in town. I arrived in town on a Sunday and by Thursday at noon, I had an offer accepted on the first house I saw. And I have never felt like I was in better hands.
I did call my husband and admit he had been entirely right but even on that day, with an accepted offer in hand, I couldn’t have imagined the nostalgia-filled adventure I had embarked up. For most people, buying a home represents a new chapter in life, and it’s often a process filled with strangers. But for me, buying a home was a trip down memory lane.
I reminisced with my lawyer and his wife about when their first son was a baby and I was his first babysitter and before that when he was running for District Attorney. I heard about the parties my lawyer and insurance agent used to attend together when they were teenagers, and before I decided to go with Stevenson Insurance, I called the bank’s insurance company for a quote only to realize I was talking to a woman from three towns over whose children grew up riding my Aunt Wanda’s school bus. Then there was the moment when my realtor and I put two-and-two together and realized my Aunt Marion was a dear friend of hers at the nursing home in the years before she died.
I got the scoop on the drilled well from Davey Wolfe down at Stewart’s and my Dad confirmed his cousin Pinky did a lot of the renovations on the house. Now, Pinky has retired so people told me to call Gerry Knickerbocker who, in my mind, was still just Georgia and Becky’s little brother. Later I found out that Rusty Leigh and his dad put the roof on my house, years ago, with a little help from old George Dunkley. Of course, if you know Rusty Leigh, it’s better if you hear him tell the story.
I ran into endless people in town, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years and I made countless trips to the hardware store with my Dad in tow. I reminisced with the two Kathy’s at Foothills Antiques about my older sister, Beth, and the days back when she was a teenage waitress at the Copperfield Inn and I ran into an old Warren County Sheriff friend from back in the days when I was teenage convenience store worker. The look on my Gramma Volcheck’s face when I told her I was buying a house in Johnsburg was priceless and when I got my first visit from Bobby Austin it made me feel like my maternal grandparents Bob and Bella Dunkley were actually somehow in the room. I was reminded of them again when I brought some bread up to my new neighbors, George and Judy Dunkley. They are our new neighbors but they have been family forever.
I was proud as hell when one of my more recently transplanted neighbors said, “Oh, you’re a real local,” and I was momentarily but deeply embarrassed when another neighbor asked if we were from New Jersey. The plates on our rental car made me realize old prejudices die hard but I couldn’t be prouder to be bringing some more Dunkley blood back to Cleveland Road.
My family rallied to fill the house with all the things we needed and they did it the we always do it in the Adirondacks, when there’s some kind of hole in someone’s life that needs to be filled. They rummaged through attics and basements and cleaned out their own cupboards and closets and surprisingly little money was spent considering the pile of belongings we were gifted upon arrival. My dad gave me back the beds he made for my sister and me when we were kids and I ended up with the Electrolux vacuum cleaner my parents bought when I was seven. It was a major family purchase from a traveling salesman, more thirty years ago, but where I grew up people understand quality and really take care of their things.
Where I grew up, people also really take care of each other and so many people took such good care of me during my first seventeen years on this earth that I could spend the rest of my life writing thank you cards. They didn’t leave me ill prepared. They didn’t protect me from the hard lessons life is bound to teach us all. They didn’t coddle me or fail to teach me the all the things I needed to know in order to venture out into big cities and thrive despite the rat race. They taught me that money doesn’t make you happy and they taught me to make time for the simple pleasures in life like a table full of friends and a home cooked meal on the table. They taught me how to do things and in doing so over and over again, they taught me how to teach myself things when they were no longer around. They taught me to take care of my neighbors and they taught me family is both the family you’re born with and the friends you choose and you bend over backwards for both because we’re all so lucky to have each other.
You don’t get to pick where your born and you don’t get to choose your family, but I got particularly lucky on both fronts. I was born into a family with deep roots in the Adirondacks and the older I get the more clearly I see the fingerprints of my upbringing on myself. I see the village that raised me in the way I live my life albeit now more urban and anonymous. I see the lessons I learned in the decisions I make and I try never to forget what really matters in life. I try to work as hard as my parents did when they were my age and I give them all the credit when someone compliments my work ethic.
Now, I have an opportunity to make my parents as proud of me as I am of where they raised me. I promise to take wonderful care of this little piece of heaven on the Mill Creek and I promise to be a good neighbor. I promise to come home and visit more often and I promise to remember the roots which have always nourished my life, no matter how far I’ve traveled.
Many thanks to the Adirondacks and many thanks to all of the people in the tiny town of Johnsburg who made me the person I am today.