The resident flock of turkeys was feeding along the hedgerow when we went out the road yesterday afternoon. There were fifteen or so, and they stalked away from us after staring at the car for few seconds, lifting their bare legs out of the snow. There are a lot of game birds on the fields and overhead: big Vs of geese over the Erie Canal, the Chenango River, and in the stubbled cornfields, where these distant cousins also strike their unmistakable silhouettes against the whiteness.
The land here feels as if it's reverting to colonial times. There's a wildness born of neglect, decay, and poverty that I've never experienced in my half-century of living and coming back here, and it seems like we should be out along the hedgerows and edges of the forest ourselves, with a bow or a musket, bagging our own Thanksgiving dinner instead of buying it, plucked and dressed and plastic-packaged, at the supermarket. Even that is becoming more difficult as grocery stores in the small towns close one after another, forcing already-stretched families into their too-large cars and pickups to drive twenty miles to the nearest mall with its WalMart, Price-Chopper, and J.C.Penney's.
At Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday noon, I listened to my extended family talk about their lives. Nothing is becoming easier. Central and upstate New York are even more depressed after the last eight years of Washington's failed trickle-down policies and years of ballooning state government. Now, educational programs like the one my cousin works in, which seeks to identify and help kids at risk of dropping out, are threatened - short term thinking at its best. She told me the grant money is getting tighter and tighter. There's the perennial problem of the vast discrepancy between rural upstate needs, and those of New York City and its suburbs, but the programs are often administered by city bureaucrats with no experience of upstate rural life. She told me about a visit to the county program by an administrator from the city this fall. "We ran her around all day, from Bainbridge to South Otselic" (at opposite corners of the county)"to show her just how far apart the programs are, and that there's no bus system, no anything. We'd been trying to explain this in our reports. At the end of the day, she finally got it. But that's no guarantee that we'll get our funding renewed."
Meanwhile, regular classroom teachers struggle with a combination of discipline, drug, and attitude problems that were virtually unknown when I was young here. Everyone is worried about how they'll pay their bills, fuel their cars to drive to their jobs, scattered all over the county -- if they're lucky enough to have jobs at all. It's not a very happy-seeming place these days.
Last night we went to visit two of our close friends. A. has worked since college for a company that moved its headquarters to a midwestern city a number of years ago, and in 2009 will be closing its local facilities completely. She doesn't know what she'll do at that point. Her husband, H., is a painter, lawyer, and local historian; his grandparents and mine were friends. A. and I were very close since sixth grade, and all of us were Episcopalians who sang in the church choir; later the three of us all went to the same university, though at different years. Since their marriage, A. and H. have always been a touchstone for me back home, and to some extent are the eyes through which I can imagine what my own life might have been like if I'd stayed there.
My father and A.'s mother, both widowed and in their 80s now, were also at dinner last night, and we all sat and talked, over wine, Thanksgiving leftovers, and some new and old photographs, about our current lives and our intertwining family roots. There was a new kitten to play with, and a large cageful of birds, and two fishtanks with brightly-colored koi, and through the large windows we watched two does amble across the meadow beyond their pond and garden just before dusk. A. and her mother had been making potholders, the old fashioned way, with a metal frame and stretchy cotton loops, and as we talked I hooked one myself, for my dad, because earlier in the day I'd made him throw out a worn-through patchwork potholder I'd made years ago for my mother. Binding off the last loop, I looked around the table at the familiar faces -- older, but still very much ourselves -- moving from happy laughter to indignation to concentration, and then erupting in warm delight again. The next day we'd be heading back to the city, A. to her job in town and H. downstairs to his studio, or outside for another day stacking wood for the winter. Politics and economics would play out around us, but we'd all carry on.