Recently, I dined with friends of childhood whom I had not seen since their wedding. In the course of that enriching evening, the question arose as to how I happen to live (mostly) in Princeton.
My instant answer was the easy one: schools for our daughters, about to be 4 and 5 when we moved to Braeburn Drive, off Snowden Lane.
This thoroughly satisfied my child-centric friends. But the question returns and returns. Oddly, every time it re-asks itself, my reason is different.
When I look back at my married/mothering years, the answer is bell-clear.
It was, in fact superb, intellectually - the Princeton Day School years. All of us have been forever enriched by the PDS years, on every front, even Cath's being taught to sing so that she co-starred in musicals from 7th grade on, and Diane's being taught to sculpt. I cherish encountering PDS friends and their parents in my daily life now.
The next reason that JUMPS out at me is Princeton Public Library. Small, then, even cozy. In summers, I would be asked to play the guitar in the children's section. "Puff the Magic Dragon," "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and other sing-alongs that delighted Diane and Cathy as well as all those boys and girls we did not know.
Each week, my favorite moment was following the girls out the door to our car, tiny arms filled literally to overflowing with that week's selection. Both would become superb writers, --of prose and poetry. And not only for class assignments! Cath now writes songs as she plays her own guitar, "most days." Were the stacks of books taller than the girls? It seems that way.
The library also taught my girls to become remarkable photographers, often published in the PDS literary magazine, and sometimes hung in school exhibitions: A Western trip was in our future. One daughter was taking the movie camera and both their single lens reflexes. The camera-salesman at the U Store had taught them how to use their SLRs. [Imagine this now!]
On early summer afternoons, we'd tug coffee table books on the West to weathered library tables, poring over famous photographers' treatments of the scenes that lay ahead. I'd ask the girls, "What makes this one work?" and their answers were swift, true and fascinating.
I knew those books had done the job when Cath, in Canyonlands, took one picture of a lavender desert primrose, in perfect focus against glittering sand. Unsatisfied with the scene's ordinariness, she stomped her Vibram-soled hiking boot into the sand, the shot again. Tough and fragile, absence and presence, the resulting image is at the forefront of my memories of that Western trip.
But 1968 was a long time ago. I've moved to New Hope, Cannes and Savannah returning. Before realizing why I had to return. I joke that I had to move to France to find out I am an American, and to the South to discover I'm Yankee to the core.
But what I did discover, in the Savannah year, was that even history was not enough for me. Only one decent film arrived that entire time - "Dead Poets' Society". I took friends, ultimately seeing it five times. With that film, I realized how very much I needed McCarter and Richardson and the art films at Montgomery. I needed strolls on the campus. I needed to walk alongside water without worrying about alligators, and through gardens without being warned that "Down here, the snakes wake up in all seasons."
What I greatly required, was, yes, again, our lively library. And, by this time, poetry critique groups and poetry readings, and going to 185 Nassau to hear legendary poets, including Galway Kinnell and Ted Weiss, who had taught me so brilliantly at Princeton in the 70's. I needed to be in a town where Joyce Carol Oates loyally attended all of her friend, Alicia Ostriker's readings. Where Paul Muldoon and Jim Richardson and C.K. Williams were part of the everyday scene --not only in the region of the gown.
Even with all these answers, another reason surface, over and over and over again This reason is practially unique. New Hope had one, but Pennsylvania does not tend their historic treasure the way New Jersey does.
I need Princeton because of our Canal and Towpath. I would come to require the Canal for a new reason, kayaking. I have written of the Canal, "Beside you, two great loves began, and one was cruelly severed." I have described our Canal and Towpath as "nurse, haven and muse." Also teacher -- educating me as to native species. And now, our native species include successfully breeding American bald eagles, and the first beavers I've seen.
Above all, I need Princeton for Canal and Towpath. Why do you?