By GEOFF KRONIK
East, west, and south, hardwood forests upholster hills named for their compass points, while to the north shines Cayuga, one of the Finger Lakes’ eleven glacial furrows. This is Ithaca, where, as it was when I grew up here forty years ago, the nearest Interstate is still thirty miles away. The aesthetic of those miles is rolling, agricultural, and often hardscrabble, with pro-fracking and “for sale” signs equally likely to appear on roadside barns. To drive to Ithaca is a commitment to the scenic route, metaphorically and visually, because there is neither a fast lane nor an unattractive one.
In Ithaca proper, “Natural Gas Means Jobs” placards disappear, and “Go Solar” bumper stickers adorn the hybrid cars that proliferate like a green invasion. As teenagers, a friend and I called the place Crunchytown, in retrospect a moniker less waggish than prescient: if you believe the local-organic-sustainable complex a recent phenomenon, then you never lived in Ithaca. You never ate at Moosewood, home of the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, or shopped the long-running Ithaca Farmer’s Market. You never got stoned in the hundred-foot gorges of Treman and Taughannock parks, and hiked their sunshot cataracts. To this day Ithaca is idyllic, almost Utopian, and for years I never wanted to go there again.
To blame bad memories on geography is to convict the innocent, but such are the powers of association. My father was a man whose genuinely appealing side was sabotaged by his authentic pleasure in cruelty, and life under him was often a choice between wanting to die or hoping he would. The former appealed enough for me to make secret, half-hearted attempts in seventh grade, one with cough medicine, another with rubbing alcohol. As for the latter, one day I brought home a failing report card, and with the equanimity that characterized him at the time, my father prostrated himself and screamed “I wish I were dead.” That I longed for his wish to be swiftly realized may not have been the effect he sought.
Years later, I would understand my father’s pathologies came from old hurts that he never revealed, and not, as he once informed me, because I existed. The insight was liberating, but not for Ithaca, which to me was inseparable from the violence and anxiety that occurred there.
In 2006 my father died of cancer, and though I felt an initial surge of relief, this would change at his memorial service a few months later. He was esteemed in his profession, as men who misbehave at home often are, and hearing how his colleagues missed him, I envied these people whose relations with him had been less personal than mine, whose occupational distance let them truly mourn him. In comparison my relief felt Pyrrhic, a victory I would gladly have traded for my father’s reforming at any point in his life, for a reprieve from treatment that had turned me vengeful. I would make that trade today, if I could. My mother left Ithaca in 2008, and as I helped her pack the house we had lived in, I felt my final duty to the town, and my remaining identity as a son of it, evaporate.
Like dreams, our memories can have their own unique color scheme that distinguishes them from reality. If sepia is the shade of nostalgia, then darkness was the tone of tables thrown over because dinner was cold, screams so proximal I had to wipe my face dry, and punishments so meticulously cruel that their larger motive could only have been delight. Nevertheless, during a span of years in which I did not visit Ithaca, to picture the town was to see light—jaundiced and suffocating, but light even so. Perhaps, as a film requires illumination, a realistic narrative needs both brightness and shadow, and for me to ignore the former was the failure of narration called agenda. For years I projected my youth onto an exclusively dark screen, but words from Primo Levi rebuff that approach: “Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable.”
A year ago, at my sister’s urging, I drove to Ithaca from my home in Boston for the first time in half a decade. As if the town was determined to acquit itself, pleasant memories met my arrival. There was Cornell, where dorm camaraderie replaced the oppression of home and books became the escape they still are. There was my high school, where I enjoyed a reasonable level of popularity, had sufficient attention from girls to be frustrated by its clothes-on limitations, and on the quarter-mile track in the adjacent stadium, learned the redemptive pleasures of physical accomplishment.
And finally there was our old house, in memory a place where fear ruled, but when I drove by now its yard was littered with the toys of the new owners’ children. I pictured my father shaking his head, but in a manner more ironic than censorious. His laughter pealed unbidden in my mind then, and I recalled nostalgically his sense of humor that when not used to wound, was peerless for its cleverness and wit. I looked at the house’s attached garage, and remembered our 1976 VW camper, in which my father, an avid traveler who seemed calmed by movement, drove us to forty states. I recalled family pictures from those trips, images in which our faces smiled, not perfectly happy but not perfectly unhappy either. Happy in the moment at least, and if I wanted an accurate reckoning, I had to acknowledge that many such snapshots were recorded.
We tend to think of revisionism as a glossing-over of shame and pain, but we are also capable of the intentionally dim view and its comfort of familiar gloom. For years I preferred the latter, but after revisiting Ithaca, that attitude felt mentally lazy. Was my father so brutal that I once, to his anger, joked that had he not been a Jew and forced to leave Vienna, he would have made a perfect Nazi? Yes, but did he also suggest a poem as a cure for teenage angst one day, and does Neruda’s “Walking Around” soothe me even now? Absolutely. I recently ran into an old friend who mentioned that my father, with perfect patience, had taught her to ice-skate when she was five. Is it possible that he also taught me a great many things, and with similar indulgence?
I will never solve mysteries of my father for which there are no clues, any more than I can perfectly know my own nature. But self-knowledge, even if approximate, demands reconciliation through honest reflection, not self-persuasion via the maintenance of convenient biases. I cannot condone my father’s unwillingness to address problems of which he was aware—he once bragged “I don’t need therapy, I cause others to need therapy”—but life is too messy to box up neatly, even so. Amidst the disarray I am trying to learn to miss my father, while simultaneously trying to forgive myself when I fail to do so. Both efforts are works in progress, as is my hometown of Ithaca, which I recently visited again. At check-in, the hotel clerk asked where I was from, and I said Boston.
Geoff Kronik lives in Brookline, MA and has an MFA from Warren Wilson College. His work has appeared previously in Dispatches, as well as in Salamander, SmokeLong Quarterly, Litro, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.