Western New York is a beautiful place to live; constantly I’m awed and surprised by the bounty of this land. After being here for about three months, I’m beginning to feel settled.
I’ve been incredibly blessed to live in versatile and dynamic places – I mean, Florida and Hawaii – does it wackier than either of these tropical touristy havens? A Floridian childhood is special in its own ways, yes. But there was always the part of me that would jealously eye the neighborhoods in John Hugh’s movies, wishing I lived in a northern suburb somewhere – dreaming of White Christmases and houses without stucco.
Western New York is a rich, amazing place. In the outdoor activity department, WNY’s cup runneth over for sure. Season to season there is so much to enjoy outside.
Summertime brings swimming, boating and all kinds of water sports on the ample lakes and waterways – specifically Lake Erie – there’s fruit to pick, festivals to go to every weekend, cook outs, camping, hiking, horseback riding, and on and on. The weather is sunny and warm most days, varying between balmy and mild, the latter giving way to gloriously cool evenings. This far north the days are long, with dusk’s light fading out at almost 10:00pm sometimes.
As Indian summer fades into Fall, we’ll head into different picking seasons… the grapes first, then apples, pumpkins. The length of daylight and the level of mercury will both sink. Hunting season will open up, hiking and camping become more enjoyable with fewer bugs and the festive beauty of the autumnal color show. Winter snow and the iced over lake will bring even more to do: snow mobiles, skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, sledding, skating – all things winter. Thanks to the lake effect snow this region is known for, winter sports and activities are almost always a go ahead (last year was a particularly weak winter, so I’ve been told). And then as the spring thaw happens, the whole cycle kicks over again, baby animals and wildflowers bloom as warmer days grace this land. Gardens are planted, the trees extend soft green leaves out of their barren branches, and the desire to run outside and play is felt by all.
More than just a pretty face who’s good for a fun time, Western New York is deep – her rich and dynamic history, specific to my family, has me enthralled.
You see: I’ve always been a transplant.
Growing up in Florida was awesome, don’t get me wrong. I could swim before I could walk, I’ve seen my fair share of crazy critters, gorgeous sandy sunrises, Mickey Mouse ears, shuttle launches, big cities and sleepy country towns. Nice, but in ways I’ve never identified before – often hollow. I’ve never felt like I “fit in.” Rest assured, I know this is a broad and baseless complaint experienced far more often than people convinced that they’re popular. But it’s true nonetheless.
Now being here, in the land of my family, where our roots go so very deep (well, American deep, haha) – it’s a very different experience. An intangible comfort is omnipresent here; I have the confidence of my ancestors encouraging me every day, something in my DNA guides me and tells me, “YOU ARE HOME NOW.”
Being related to so many people in a proximal area is really rad. Both immediate and extended family are here – and I can hardly go anywhere in town without there being a long-established family connection in place. And not in a grease-the-palms kinda way, just in a friendly, “Oh! You’re Kathy’s daughter!” kinda way. My Great Uncle is something of a living legend here too, so that always makes me proud to be known as a Gioia ’round here too.
In Florida, my last name never held currency. No one cared, no one knew who we were (save for the small immediate circle of my Dad’s co-workers and perhaps the people who did community service with my Mom). But familial love and long standing relationships bred into generations of families in a small town is something indescribably nice: there’s nothing like the easy acceptance and welcome I feel here. (Okay, anonymity is nice in its own ways too – especially if you have some wild oats to sow and would like to be able to do just that without seven hundred years of shame brought on your house; my hat tips to Florida for that!).
We’ll go out to eat and there’s a story, many stories, of how one such family member was close with the original owner, and on and on. I love that the history of this area relates to ME. My Aunt Patty is always telling me these connections, the old stories, and I’m 100% fascinated.
More than ministrations and tales, it goes deeper, down to something instinctual and primal – something that eludes a direct understanding – that pulls me to this land. I just can say I “feel” it. My sense of direction here is flawless – I grew up in a sleepy beach town with a grid system for roads and huge bodies of water to serve as glaring directionals – Yet, on twisty country roads that weave through hills, I feel like I know my way around. Sometimes I have this (morbid and) strange vision of late relatives guiding me, walking alongside me, smiling with familiarity as I travel paths they’ve undoubtedly walked along countless times before me.
Yeah, I know.
I’m being super weird.
I’ve been mulling over this feeling for weeks now and this is merely my feeble attempt to put the idea into something digestible. There’s just this massive looming of emotional connection to the actual dirt and trees, the wind and weather here, that I cannot put into words (although I’m trying damn hard as I reach nearly 900 of them in an attempt to suss out an understanding of the feelings this place evokes).
It’s just lovely is all. I’m happy to be here. I feel safe, welcomed, wanted, and normal.
Oh! I can elaborate on the feeling of normalcy, actually. Growing up in Florida you’re living with a mixed bag of snowbird transplant families. When I was in college there was legit stat that 30% of Floridians were born in Ohio! It feels like everyone merely lives there but actually considers New York or Boston or stinky Ohio (sorries! my Dad went to UM, so I gotta hate a little) to be “home.” Of course I know that there are long-standing Florida families, and that the expansion of the mid-1900s is now making way to third and fourth generations who’ve called the Gunshine State their own. The vast majority are though, relocated folks from the great white north.
For me, I always knew we were not of that land; I felt like a visitor. And now – only after living here – do I understand some of the quirks I was raised with that always felt so odd to me. They’re cultural norms up here! Little things, like ordering a strawberry shortcake and having it served on a heavy drop biscuit, the exact way my mother always made it. I’d never in my life had a strawberry shortcake made that way by anyone other than my Mom. In FL the norm would be angel food cake, pound cake maybe. Taking a bite of the slightly salty and dense biscuit covered in local strawberries and whipped heavy cream – it was like childhood relived. “Oh!” I literally exclaimed at seeing the biscuits next to the strawberries last night at Tops (supermarket) – “this is why my Mom does it this way,” realization of this region’s influence dawning.
The list of little silly habits goes on.
And while I know it seems minute and weird, after nearly three decades of assuming I was just a sore thumb raised by a pair of quirky, wacky (albeit very loving), nut jobs – there’s something so reassuring about being normal. Yeah, I do think I almost fit in here. Now… If only I could rid myself of the gentle lilt that betrays me every time I open my mouth. That and ditch the tie dye, fanny packs, legwarmers, bandannas and other fashion statements akin to wearing a neon “I’m not really from here” tee shirt….
Hahaha. I kid, I kid.
Yeah, I know I’ll never be run of the mill – a happy realization and one that I’m proud to own. Don’t worry, I’m not seeking cultural assimilation by any means.
It’s just a nice realization to be able to piece things all together, is all. And of course, it should go without saying, Florida will always be “home” in so many, many ways. (I’m actually terribly Florida-sick lately, missing the sand and saltwater more than ever before. Oh yeah, and all you people who live there too – I miss y’all as well. But that’s another post for another day.)
For now, wrapping myself in the dichotomous distant familiarity of a land long inhabited by my own blood is just new, fascinating, calming, and … nice. My induction to Western New York has been altogether charming.
Okay, that’s enough waxing poetic for now! You get the point, yeah? (haha, Hawaiian joke. See, I’m still a regional grab bag).
HAPPY FRIDAY and HAPPY WEEKEND EVERYONE!