Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Going Back to Mount Vernon, N.Y.

This is the house where I grew up;
sketch from a 1920s architectural journal

During the 1970s, A Separate Peace by John Knowles became a mainstay of the U.S. high school English curriculum. It is a tale of male adolescence, namely the complicated relationship between two boys who attend a New England college preparatory school. All of the action occurs on campus between the summers of 1942 and 1943.

A Separate Peace is sad and introspective. The death of one of the boys creates moral uncertainty against the backdrop of World War II. That probably explains the book’s continuing presence in the syllabus, although whether it merits that place is debatable. 

Regardless, its first sentence always had, for me, a singular resonance.

I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.

With this opening John Knowles performs the work of any good writer, which is to say he puts his arm around the reader and invites her in.

Of course the book isn’t about the school looking newer than the grown man recalled. It’s about the experience of revisiting the past. 

It reminds me of the late 1980s, returning to the area where I grew up, now with a husband and children.

The boys were a toddler and a baby. They would spend their childhood, and a bit more, in a place infinitely recognizable to me. They went to nursery school at the Mt. Vernon Y and children’s hour at the Mt. Vernon Public Library. Their favorite cookies came from a Mt. Vernon bakeshop. They ate their first pizza in Mt. Vernon.

Mt. Vernon Public Library, 1920s

Many times I showed them the house where I grew up and the houses where my friends had lived and the streets along which we walked everywhere.

They came to watch out for the gazebo in Hartley Park, which looks like an illustration in a children’s book, and the turret of the Victorian house where E.B. White kept a mouse when he was growing up in Mt. Vernon. They saw the sights!

Childhood home of author E. B. White,
Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

When the children were young, every tale I told would elicit enthusiasm. One of their favorites involved driving home from a friend’s house during the 1977 blackout.  

              When the lights went out, my friend and I were sitting on a flat part of the roof of his house, having crawled out a window into the hot night. It’s actually more of a shock to be outside than inside at the moment when the lights go out. We made our way back into the house and down the stairs and I got in the car to drive home.

I followed the familiar streets, now pitch-black like country roads. Within ten minutes, I pulled up in front of our house where my father stood on the front lawn, waiting.

It’s a simple story that the boys found exciting and comforting at the same time. They were transported to a place where their mother was young and faced something slightly daunting that worked out happily in the end.  

Nearly 40 years later, I remember a feeling of absolute calm riding through the dark streets.

Sometimes, not always, that’s what you get for going back.

Gazebo in Hartley Park,
Mt. Vernon, N.Y.



  1. And there I was, on my one day off a week from the camp where I was a counselor, and that was Camp Echo, in Ossining -- right across from Indian Point, where the blackout was caused. (They saw the explosion from the camp!)
    We were having one of those great, 70s, stoned conversations -- smoking cigarettes as well in a way I still would if they gave me the kind of pleasure they used to give us.
    I could have sworn we talked for a while longer - enjoying the strange experience of the blackout, and laughing alot -- and then you said that your parents would probably be worried.
    I wonder what i did after you left, alone in the dark.

    1. I was very moved by your home going experience. I am Mount Vernonite, too, who's family immigrated and emigrated there in the late 1800's. Obviously, we grew up in the same era from the blackout story. I left my dark job, and joined the folks at the pub next door for a while. How naive to get high and then remember the walk-6 flights up to a sweltering 3 room-roof-line apartment! All of us, including Grandma took one more flight up to the roof! PS Mark: Loved your sequel!


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