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How I Got Across the Great Divide

By Tina Traster

July 23, 2009 -- Is it me or is the word suburbia loaded? Like 'stay-at-home mom' or 'Britney Spears', suburbia has its fans, satirists, detractors. Until 2005, I was smugly ensconced in the third category, a self-styled city slicker who wore black garb, told cabbies the best route to get across town, exchanged intimacies with people riding elevators. Typical New Yorker. Suburbia to me -- a psychologically-scarred Brooklyn-born kid whose family never 'made it' to Long Island -- was an aseptic construct where women over 35 lost their edge and their calf muscles because they spent days driving to the strip mall and taking junior to soccer practice.

"That will never be me," I'd swear to my husband driving over the George Washington Bridge after visiting friends who lived in cavernous colonials with marbled foyers and Labrador retrievers.

My lifelong scorn for suburbia pre-conditioned me to put up with every city-related inconvenience or absurdity, for example, circling like a hungry buzzard for a parking spot or keeping windows shut on hot summer nights to drown out whining sirens and the occasional gunshot. Even when I was tripping over my toddler's loot, I believed IKEA was the solution to our ever-shrinking 700-square-foot apartment and our inability to buy a bigger place in a steroidal real estate market.

Still, I would not contemplate suburbia.

I was mentally and physically asphyxiated by my long-held beliefs that the sticks were filled with people who stopped going to independent films and who ate dinner before 7. Sure I was yearning for room and trees and a driveway but my childhood demons were ninjas. It all started the day my family piled into the yellow Cadillac to see the white house for sale in Long Island. At ten, this was the most glamorous house I'd ever stepped inside of - it was nothing like the cramped ones in Brooklyn. My mother wanted this house and this life more than anything in the world. My father didn't. He thought a Cadillac in his driveway and a detached house in Canarsie was good enough. My mother's brooding and envy for greener pastures turned into scorn for all-things-suburban. An emotionally resourceful woman, she came up with plan B: raise her daughters to worship Manhattan. Throughout college, I tacked up in every dorm room I lived in a famous New Yorker magazine poster that showed Manhattan as the center of the universe. It was the center of mine.

At 43, I'm restless and don't understand it. I don't bother leaving my neighborhood any more. I thought I would relish taking my toddler all over the city the way my mother did with me but we mostly walk from our apartment to familiar stops along the way and back. Every day. The idea of my daughter having a real bedroom with windows rather than the alcove she sleeps in seems more important than her being able to identify Impressionists at the MET. My dreams of raising a city kid - a real city kid - are eluding me and I'm scared to death. In their place are mental illuminations that my child might be better off if she knew the difference between lavender and salvia or if she woke to the "whata-cheer-cheer-cheer" of Northern Cardinals. My primitive impulses take shape because on weekends in the summer and fall we rent a tumble-down lake cottage in the country and I remember something I've long forgotten: how happy I was during my childhood at sleep-away camp upstate in the mountains.

Before we leave the country after each weekend and return to Manhattan it takes 30 minutes to coax the cat out from under the bed. He stares at me with glazed yellow eyes that say "you got me up here and now I'm not leaving." I feel the same way. On the late autumn day when we pulled out of the lake-house driveway at the end of the season I exploded into tears. "Why is mommy crying?" my daughter asked. "Because she doesn't want to go back to the city," my husband said.

During the two-hour drive home I let those words run rampant in my mind, like letting puppies out of a crate. They wreak havoc with notions I cling to. Indeed I am tired of writing in a kitchen nook facing a brick wall. I am still fearful of the subway and crowded spaces in the post 9/11 world. My love affair with Manhattan is waning; it is a painful breakup.

It is never a picnic to relinquish what we believe we absolutely think we know.

There wasn't one big defining moment that led to the purchase of a beaten-down 1850s farmhouse on a glorious wooded mountaintop. More like a steady trickle of frustrations I finally stopped resisting. In 2005, I became a... yes I can say it...I became a suburbanite. I admit I'd rather say I live in a river town along the Hudson, which technically I do, but my house is 40 minutes from Manhattan, and the rest of the folks who live here call it a suburb.

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