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A City Search for the Familiar

THE air was icy that January day when we drove slowly down the long driveway, leaving our farm for the last time. I looked back once more at the barns, empty now, and at the peach orchard in winter dormancy. My last glimpse was of my daughter's treehouse, visible in the leafless elm of the cow pasture. Our two-car procession held my husband and me, our four daughters, ages 1 to 10, two large dogs, and one tame barn cat. We were leaving the familiar. Soon we would be surrounded by the strangeness of a cit y.

Like many other farming families, we had loved the land and been nourished by it, but a future on the farm promised only continuous financial insecurity. We had struggled through frozen peach crops, droughts, and down markets. We decided that the time had come to leave voluntarily before circumstances forced us out.

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Ten years of close ties with the land and animals, with family and friends, and with a small-town community were being severed. We were joining the ranks of Americans "on the move."

Alfalfa hay, when it is cut, grows up again fuller than before. Would we, too, our old lives cut short, recover and grow once again? On that cold January afternoon, our bodies and hearts were numb and, like the land around us, seemed incapable of putting out new life. Inescapably though, the future we had planned months earlier in long, late night conversations when the peach crop had failed again, was about to begin.

We weren't really moving far - only four hours east. But for us the change was unmistakable. To be close to my husband's university, we rented an old house right downtown in a city of 200,000. It sat on a block with other old houses that had seen better days yet retained an air of urban respectability. Gone was our rustic, coal-burning farmhouse that sat surrounded by pastures of cows and sheep. But, across the street from this new home was a large city park. We were consoled to think we could look outsi de and see open space and green grass and feel a bit of the country in the city. Before long, we would find out how far from rural innocence and isolation we really were.

In that first week of settling in, when every face was strange and just getting to the grocery store was confusing, we felt poised in a kind of limbo - separated from the familiar, yet unsure of our place in this new environment. Like a child on the first day of kindergarten, we felt tentative. I found myself dreaming of a kindly surrogate grandmother who would welcome us with friendliness and coffee cake.

Instead, we were awakened one night during our second week by the sound of someone who had come crashing in, breaking glass and our peace of mind. By the time we had stumbled into the kitchen, our sleepy dogs were just beginning to bark. We followed them to the back door, which was standing open to the dark backyard. When the police came, we discovered that the burglar had just had time to steal my handbag before he heard us and fled. For weeks thereafter the city seemed a frightening, inhospitable place , and the farm, I thought more than once, was the better place to be.

We kept the doors locked all day long, added bolts, shut windows at night, and watched our daughters whenever they ventured outside. The park, which we had hoped would replace the fields back home, now seemed full of dangers. There were homeless men drinking bottles out of paper sacks and calling out slurred greetings. We watched as cars came and went, keeping mysterious rendezvous just beyond our front yard on the park's edge. People told us it was a drug drop-off spot once darkness fell. Even our dogs seemed to sense the unease when we tried to walk them with leashes the way city people do. They would start fights with other dogs, as if defending us from harm.

It wasn't long before I began to ask just what this alien world was. It seemed capable of unraveling the familiar security of our existence. Each day was filled with the exhaustion of new challenges, with frustrations, and with a sense of loss.

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The older girls' school seemed depressing when I saw the children marching into the run-down gray stone building. There were few wall decorations, no brightly painted rooms, little in the way of fancy teaching aids, and not one blade of grass to cushion their asphalt playground. The other children appeared tough and city-smart compared to my naive country girls. They missed their Girl Scout troop back home and best friends known since preschool. Even their strictest teachers who now seemed nice in retros pect. I worried that they would never belong and wondered if I really wanted them to.

In spite of everything, I tried to maintain our family routines and rituals as much as possible as the days went by. Our family time together in the past was often spent walking down to check the animals or the corn crop's daily progress. Now we meandered around the neighborhood, found Missy's Expresso Bar, threw Frisbees in the park, and explored the surrounding countryside where natural caves, waterfalls, and hiking trails soothed our still fragile city nerves.

Life went on with the typical succession of household chores and homework, gymnastic classes and dinner, diaper changes, baths, and bedtime stories. The fabric of family life was being rewoven in a new texture, but we found it just as strong because we had each other still. After a couple of months, our family at least had resettled in a reassuring pattern, like parts of a puzzle once again rejoined.

The next step was to make our new surroundings also seem like home. Reaching out to make the connections that place us into context is what makes daily life more meaningful. Until this happens, a move can leave us lonely and at loose ends. The simple pleasure of recognition by the local librarian or the deeper relationships with friends is what we wanted now. We found ourselves floundering at first, looking for these connections and wondering if they would happen.

IT starts slowly; the mailman stops to chat or a mother at the park brings her child over to play with yours. The children make some friends and the phone begins to ring. It takes time to make new friendships, to reveal personal histories, and to share beyond the superficial similarities. Sometimes it seems almost too tiring to try. But at a school gathering or church fair or a library lecture series, friendships begin to happen almost unconsciously. Invisible antennae draw us to those people we feel ins tinctively comfortable with, and we discover the wonderful surprise of finding someone we can talk to naturally and in depth.

As I began to make these new, unexpected friends, the city began to feel comfortable and fear was replaced by an appreciation of its benefits. The retired Cuban professor who lives two doors from us leaves huge dahlias and vegetables from his garden on our doorstep, a warm reminder of the farm. Our next-door neighbor, a quiet widow, is nice to talk to across the backyard fence. There's a wise old Greek woman who stops to lend advice, a teenage girl on the block who babysits, and seven Chinese college stu dents I taught English to this summer. Faces all over town have become familiar, and the connections we are slowly building have calmed our troubled feelings.

We still lock up, but the pervasive uneasiness is gone. Our "Welcome Friends" plaque from the farm is hanging by our new front door, through which friends both old and new have come in these last nine months.

The park seems less ominous now, and the girls can go and play without a hovering parent. They've learned to cross streets, to be prudent amid strangers, and to check back home regularly. The dogs have settled down, with only an occasional growl as they walk exuberantly on the leash. I worry about the homeless men, but no longer fear them, trapped as they seem to be in lethargic hopelessness.

I have even come to value the old city school for its valiant teachers, dedicated to giving a good education without the frills. Our girls, who study with Asians, blacks, and Hispanics, are learning about differences and how friendships flourish despite them. We've all grown in ways that once seemed impossible.

And so another winter has come again. I still miss the fruitful bounty of growing all we ate, the homey rural life, the friends and family left behind. But even as I miss that life, I realize we can make it anywhere. Nothing can take away the fear of change, the pain of departure, or the trials of adjusting. But I have learned that what is most important - our love for one another - remains and even deepens during a move, as we rely on each other more. The family grows from within; the place is secondary . With that inner stability, we can reach out over and over again, making strangers into friends and the unfamiliar feel like home.

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