Friday 14 August 2015

Upstate New York was the point of the trip. Kat and Jon were graduating, and we were going to watch them.

We walked around Syracuse for a scant twenty minutes, through a graveyard which had been gradually cleared. There were long gaps and slight depressions between the grave stones still standing. Born 1779. Born 1919. There was a children's playground just across the road, on a lot of matching size.

Syracuse is a small university town, but Kat and Jon went to another university in a smaller town some two hours away, and lived further out in a town that was smaller still. I pictured matryoshka dolls. Jesse had planned this leg of the trip, and hadn't thought to explain beyond: "We fly into Syracuse for the graduation, and they'll drive us home," so I spent the first leg of the trip in continuous surprise. Kat pointed out local landmarks - "There's the toilet garden. This is the bridge which has been marked unsafe, and might fall down at any moment. That thing is a feedlot."

We stopped at a Burger King and I was amused to see a Mennonite (or, at least, a person with a beard and a hat; I would hardly interrogate a stranger on their religion), use the bathroom and buy an ice cream. "They're allowed to eat at restaurants," said Jon.

We passed several dozen Mennonite people that week, in buggies and in fields and carparks. I didn't take photos, but I marvelled at the choice the adults made, and felt sorry for the little girls, in long dresses even in the heat.

Kat and Jon lived in what they called an apartment, but I would call a unit. It was a low-slung rectangular house, made of forgettable synthetic stuff, attached at its short end to a single neighbour. It sat in scrubby woodland - "Don't go through that fence, there's a firing range right there" - in a semi-circle with half a dozen more identical units, widely spaced around a dirt drive. Inside it was tremendously comfortable, with large rooms, and a spare bedroom which Jesse and I shared with a mountain bike, a desk, and a keyboard, and still room to spare.

The rest of the buildings in the small town showed extreme poverty, or extreme wealth. There were houses which had been gutted by fire, and still left standing, trailers crammed together in narrow lots, and houses with balconies and turrets. "It's the Walmart," said Kat. "There's no other jobs, and it doesn't pay enough to live on."

The parents came too, Jon's driving five hours from Massachusetts, and Kat's coming from New Zealand. "Oh, but we're going to San Francisco next," said Kat's mother, as if flying halfway around the world was a regular occurrence, and maybe it is.

Jon's mother knitted, and I showed her the socks I was making. "I had a dream that I was knitting rainbow socks in upstate New York," I explained. "Except we were camping and there was a bear - anyway, it doesn't matter, I saw this yarn the day after I had the dream, and thought I better buy it. The pattern is mostly made up."

She showed me her project, a complex, cabled aran jumper knitted from a tattered booklet. "I must have made every sweater in this book at least twice," she said.

We went for a walk in the forest, way up in the hills, the base of the Adirondacks. The sun was very bright, and there was very little shade. The silence was total, rising from the ground in waves like heat.

Kat pointed out birds, a caterpillar, beaver dams and beaver dens and led us into the bog, where we bounced up and down on the moss, testing its softness and feeling the threat of the water beneath. Kat's father saw a snake, and I was glad I didn't.

We visited the small town, but it seemed to be closed. It was beautiful, with tall brick buildings on the main street, built 1895, burned 1985, built 1991 with thanks to the community, and a river with a hydroelectric dams, right in the centre of town. The community centre offered Jazzercise.

We bought beers from Walmart, from the craft beer place, from the gas station ("What a world!" I marvelled), and drank a tremendous amount. It was a celebration.

Graduation day was oppressively hot, 90 degrees in the shade. "I bought this stupid dress in winter," said Kat, bemoaning the sleeves. "It'll be air conditioned in the hall," said Jon.

I packed a cardigan and a shawl in my purse, and was glad I did. The ceremony was held on an ice hockey rink, and the chill emanated up from below. Sunny was hungover. I wrapped my shawl around her, and tempted her with bacon jerky and bottled water. Jesse took photos to try and ease the boredom. I knitted four inches on my sock and looked at what the graduands had written on their caps. I did it! Greek Life. Accio Diploma. Because the university focused mainly on business, the pipers and the brass band were brought in from the wider community, not drawn from the students. I thought what a shame, to attend a university without any violinists.

Kat and Jon are both immensely smart, and have worked terrifically hard. They graduated with honours, and we clapped extra hard for them when they shook hands with the dean. I hadn't known Jon long enough to recognise his height or gait, his features shaded by the hat and his shoes anonymous and took a dozen photos of some other American with a similar surname, who glared at me in suspicion.

Kat and Jon cooked pulled pork, and assembled salads. I made a pav and festooned it with cream and fruit, so much fruit, bought so cheaply at the expense of the people who worked at Walmart. "What is a pav-a-love-a?" said Emily, an American friend. "It's sort of a meringue," I said, and gave her the recipe.

The parents excused themselves back to their hotels after dinner, saying they'd leave us kids too it, as if we kids weren't all nearly 30. Kat and Sunny disappeared for girl talk, and Jesse and I and the Americans sat around the table and played Settlers of Catan until the early hours.