(Photo credit: View of Rumford from Hall Hill by Christine Soubble St Cyr)
The east-facing windows of our new Brooklyn Heights apartment, on the 32nd floor look out across the expanse of Brooklyn and Queens, building after building. On the horizon, I can see the air traffic control tower at JFK airport, twelve miles away as the crow flies, more visible in some lights than in others. The horizon stretches north and south behind the tower in a long, flat line, broken here and there by a building that rises higher than the land. The expanse of Long Island lies in the distance behind.
I am not used to such broad vistas. I grew up in the White Mountains. An old booklet I have from the late 1800s describes Rumford as a town “in the White Mountains, which extend into New Hampshire,” a claim that makes me laugh. Any New Hampshire resident would undoubtedly be outraged at the notion that Maine would claim the White Mountains, when Mount Washington at over 6000 feet, all the peaks of the presidential range, and 98% of its 800,000 acres are in New Hampshire. Still, the highest mountain near my home town reaches over 4000 feet and the Appalachian trail passes just north of town.
From my swing near the little house my father built on the outskirts of town, I could see the fire tower at the top of Mount Zircon, across the Androscoggin River. When I turned eight, we moved from the hills above the falls to the center of town, down in the valley. From my third grade classroom window, I studied the large splash of granite ledge half way up the mountain to the east, which I could also see from my bedroom at home. The arms of the mountains protected us from whatever danger lay beyond.
My father had an idea that he would retire from the business world and own and manage overnight cabins, the precursors of motels, where people traveling could lodge on the way to their destinations. He was a salesman for Hannafords, a wholesale food distribution company, and his sales territory was northern New Hampshire and northwestern Maine. He spent his days in the car, driving back roads to reach small Mom and Pop stores – for this was in the days before super markets. In the summer, his trips included the lodges and resorts of the Rangeley Lake area that attracted visitors from afar. He must have passed scores of overnight cabins on these trips, which, I surmise now, gave rise to his idea of getting off the road and finding more stationary employment. On Sunday afternoon drives, with Mom in the front and my sister, grandmother, and me in the back, Dad showed us cabins that he thought he might purchase. I loved those rides. I’m sure my sister and I squabbled and – well, maybe later when I was closer to being a teen and wanted to be with my friends I might have been a little restless – but earlier, these views of the places that I had heard Dad talk about were enchanting, and I think only deepened my love of mountains and valleys.
When I was in high school, my father was promoted to a new position that required him work in company headquarters in South Portland. We spent many weekends looking for a new home in the Portland area. At the end of each visit, as we headed back north, we would reach a point just south of Canton when the mountains would come into view again, and my mother would sigh and say, “Ah, the mountains. What will we do without the mountains?”
When my mother was in assisted living in Yarmouth, she and I took long rides to old favorite places of our earlier life, into New Hampshire, where we stayed at one of the old resort hotels. Or, on a particularly memorable journey, we drove north of Rumford, past Mom’s Alma Mater (Farmington Normal School), through towns that I remembered mostly the names of – like Strong and Phillips – and then up to the Rangeley Lakes, where there was nothing for miles except trees, lakes, and mountains. We stayed overnight and then headed west to Wilsons Mills, almost on the New Hampshire border, barely a town, where my mother had taught at a one room schoolhouse when she first graduated with her teacher’s degree. I went into the post office there – in the living room of one of the houses – to ask directions. Eisenhower’s picture was hanging on the wall above the stamps, although more than 50 years had passed since he had been president. I took photos of Mom on the steps of her old school and we proceeded south to Bethel, still in the ski country of the White Mountains.
My daughter did not grow up in Maine, although we did vacation there, but she inherited my love of mountains, only more intensely. She is a rock climber, and has ascended many of the rock faces in Yosemite; she has spent weeks on the Pacific Coast Trail backpacking by herself; she is trained to be a member of search and rescue teams which help save people lost in the wilderness. Last spring, she and Adam became engaged on Lover’s Leap, near Lake Tahoe, half-way up the mountain, in helmets and with ropes around their waists, a violin mountain climber playing in the background, and with a climbing videographer and a drone capturing the moment. I cannot look at some of the pictures she sends me of her hanging off the side of steep mountains, but I understand her love of being in the mountains.
I didn’t want to live this high up. We had lived on the 22nd floor of a neighboring building a few years ago, and I was happy when we bought an apartment on a first floor of our new building in Brooklyn Heights, one that looked down over the garden on the terrace to the street below. There, the trees shaded our balcony and I could see the flowers in the garden and the faces of people on the street. I could hear the voices of the diners on the sidewalk at the restaurant across the street. I felt grounded, connected to the earth. But, when we decided to sell our place in Connecticut, the one-bedroom apartment on the first floor was too small to be our full-time abode.
We wanted a lower floor than the one we ended up on, but couldn’t find an apartment that we could afford in a building that met our requirements – an elevator, a doorman who would open the spaghetti sauce jars and help us with heavy packages, and handymen who would change the smoke detectors we can’t reach, hang the pictures, and wash the outside of the windows. So we moved into this one on the 32nd floor of the same building as our first-floor apartment.
Here, the helicopters fly past our windows and shake our walls. We can hear dogs barking in the park below, but they are mere specks to the eye. The birds seldom fly up this high. I look down and see them sitting on the ledges below. I worry about what I will do if there is a fire and the elevators shut down. I can barely manage one flight of stairs before my knee says, “Stop. No more.”
Our friend Mary, who visited this week, said I should just sit and go down, step by step, on my bottom. Good idea, but still – all those flights? Our friend Chris, who came yesterday asked how I am managing being way up here. She knew that I didn’t want to be on a high floor. “I try not to think about it,” I reply.
It really is a great apartment. The light is so strong in the morning that I have to pull the shades to work at my desk. We see the sunrise in the morning and the sunset in the evening. I do love the views – toward the East River and a glimpse of the distant ocean on one side and toward the New York harbor on the other, where we can see the orange-colored Staten Island ferries, the container ships heading to New Jersey, and the cruise ships docking in Red Hook or traveling up the Hudson to the Manhattan piers. We are extremely lucky to look out and see such panoramas.
But I really don’t like being so high…unless I am on a mountain.