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Sweet Mount Vernon

 

Dee Ann Rexroat '82

 

**CASE VI Gold Award Winner for Column**

Years ago I heard a tale, during an annual dinner speech, that vividly summarized small-town life for me. Author Osha Gray Davidson recounted racing home one day to beat a rainstorm threatening the laundry on his clothesline. As he turned down the street to his house in a downpour, he expected to see clothes dripping limply from the line. Instead, the wash was neatly folded in a basket inside his front door. He was relieved and mortified. His laundry had been rescued by a stranger.

Davidson’s story was set in West Branch, Iowa. It could just as easily have been set in Mount Vernon, population 3,657 (if you include 1,000 Cornell students). There is community and relative safety here, and with that comes a lack of privacy.

I felt this lack of anonymity keenly when we painted our plain white house in four vibrant colors. Strangers as well as acquaintances approached me around town to say how nice it looked. Sometime later I went to vote and an unfamiliar woman handing out ballots asked about my baby. It’s a little like being a celebrity without being one.

I see small children–hardly older than 6 or 7—walking alone to school and think about how rare this must be today. They aren’t entirely shielded from the real world, but life is gentler here. I sometimes think of the opening lines from “Starting Out for the Difficult World” by Cornell poet Robert Dana:

This morning, once again,
I see young girls with
their books and clarinets
starting out for the difficult world.

In wintertime children flock to Pres Hill, so-called because our Presbyterian Church presides there. The street is closed after snowfalls to ensure safe sledding. Alumni from my era remember speeding down that hill on Saga trays. At Homecomings they remark how nice it would be to live a quaint, nostalgic, hassle-free life here. I don’t tell them that living here means life’s difficulties remain life’s difficulties and new experiences will slowly dim old memories. Still, on rare autumn days, when the air is crisp and the late afternoon light is just so, I am transported directly to the fall of my freshman year in 1978. Or to other autumns as a student, when my running route went directly past what would much later become my first house.

Last August my family and I moved four blocks to another of Mount Vernon’s older homes. On the second day of hefting boxes and lifting furniture and cradling armloads of clothing, we discovered a plate of dessert bars on the front porch. We shared them over the next few days with friends, extended family, my grandmother, our small daughter. It did not occur to me until days later that perhaps this was not a good idea. But then I told myself that people here honor the labor of moving and that we can accept their sweet gifts of goodwill without reservation. We can even allow them that rare commodity in Mount Vernon—anonymity.

 
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