Fifty years after first visit, writer settles into life in Northampton

Last modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013

Choices, even major life choices, are often made for the flimsiest reasons. And, having changed the direction of a life, they can never be remade. There are no second chances.

Or so it would seem.

Today, living in Northampton, driving past Smith College every day, I’m not so sure. Of course the Northampton and Smith of today aren’t quite the same as when I saw them the first time around, in 1951.

Back in those days it was a long trip from the New York area to western Massachusetts. There was no such animal as I-91. To go north you took the Hutchinson River Parkway to the Merritt to the Wilbur Cross, going top speed at maybe a dizzying 45 miles an hour. There was no Massachusetts Turnpike, either. East/west was Route 9, and that was it for highways.

I was a high school junior, a bright girl who couldn’t dream of Harvard or Yale or Amherst because such elite colleges were for men only. Bright girls could aim for the Seven Sisters: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Wellesley and Vassar. My own dreams were of Smith or Wellesley.

Back in those days all elite colleges had entrance requirements like five years of foreign languages and personal interviews. So my mother and I set out one shiny autumn morning to visit Smith College. I remember that the Valley was all brilliant autumn colors. I don’t remember the interview, but I still remember the engaging and enthusiastic student who showed us around. She was bubbling over with an experience she was eager to share with me. I felt welcomed.

We went to Wellesley the next day. It’s a glorious campus, with ivy-covered College-Gothic buildings and the “tow’rs and woods and lake” sung of in the alma mater. But somehow the impression I took away was of a reserved, somewhat distant beauty and a reception that matched.

I really like Smith, I remember thinking. If I get in, that’s where I’m going.

But when the fat envelopes arrived in spring 1952, and my friends and I conferred by phone, my triumphant “I’m going to Smith” was met by a chorus of “Oh, no, I’m going to Wellesley. Come to Wellesley!” So just like that, without further ado or thought, no sense I might make a different decision for myself, I said, “OK.” In August 1952 I entered Wellesley College. Four years later, after a good, if mixed, experience of friends, studies and romance, I decided against looking for a job in Boston and returned to Long Island.

Fast forward to 2011. My husband I were living in Stockbridge, around the corner from Tanglewood. In 2002 we’d pulled up stakes — children grown and flown — and exchanged Long Island’s perpetual traffic jams for the winding mountain roads of rural western Massachusetts. I was comfortable with the move right away. After all, I’d once gone to college in this state, even briefly considered living here.

Ten dreamy years had flown by in a whirl of music, art, theater. But by 2011 our creaky knees were balking at the steep condo stairs. Winter isolation in the Berkshires, an adventure at first, increasingly became a chore to be endured. Even though we lived there year-round and had no second home like so many snowbirds, we knew we would never be considered more than “year-round summer people.” Maybe it was time to think about more supportive living.

Once we turned thumbs down on the few retirement possibilities where we were, I opened the Yellow Pages to extend our range. We also considered going further afield, even pondering Wellesley, with its proximity to Boston as an added attraction.

But from the first time we drove into the Lathrop Community at Northampton, we felt at home. That means different things to different people, of course. For me it was an emotional replay of that long ago interview at Smith, with the warm and welcoming young student. This time, though, I was a grown-up, and could choose to follow my own heart — which, fortunately, coincided with my husband’s.

Warmth is a characteristic in the Pioneer Valley, especially in Northampton. I don’t know, perhaps it’s the distance from New York, or Boston, or even from a predominance of “city people.” But we’ve found the qualities of eagerness, enthusiasm, openness, idealism and the desire to share all alive and flourishing here. “Cool” — with its attendant cynicism and “seen it all, done it all” stance — was what my life till then had been. So the warmth here came as a marvelous surprise.

It’s said you can’t go back to the crossroads, take that other road, the one that Robert Frost saw diverging, untaken, “in a yellow wood.” Well, I’m no longer so sure of that.

Daily I drive the streets of Northampton, daily I feel like I’m part of the bustle of Smith College. Every day I feel the buoyant sense of a second choice, a second chance. I breathe the air of a place where the importance of the life of the mind is taken for granted.

It’s in the air: Learning is what people (both young and old) DO, it’s a natural activity. Even the tension between Hamp and Noho somehow reinforces that. For me, a perpetual student, what bliss! No longer am I swimming upstream. I am in my natural environment. It may have taken 50-whatever years, but here I am where I’m supposed to be, at last, and after all.

Judith Bruder lives in Northampton, where she is part of a weekly French conversation group, writes two blogs, and is involved with Five College Learning in Retirement classes and activities.


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