New England winters are beautiful at their beginnings. People always laud autumn leaves, and sure, I get it, but the real heartbreaker is early winter: Thanksgiving through New Years’, when the leaves dry out and it finally snows, and you can feel the flakes melting through the sleeves of your fleece jacket as you walk through the grocery store with your mom. The sun starts setting earlier, and you get dressed for the day while it’s still dark, like the whole world is some big secret. The warm, yellow light of the living room lamps becomes more inviting just because it’s so cold out, and this can be your excuse to stay inside.
My first experience with early winter started back in 2002, when I was eight, and my family had just relocated to the Boston suburbs from Fairfax, Virginia. I remember walking through the world in a daze, and then turning disenchanted by February, when Massachusetts winters get brutal—when the snow is just a piling heap of crappy, muddy slush that drips and re-freezes, and the air smells faintly like gasoline and the thick salt they toss all over the roads and sidewalks. Nothing feels clean. Everything is just stuck.
Back in Virginia, I’d get sent home if we got even just a few inches of snow because our town didn’t even own snowplows, or they only had a few. In Massachusetts, snowplows are like lawn mowers, which didn’t sit well with me because I didn’t like Massachusetts because my parents got divorced in Massachusetts, and in Virginia, everything was sunny and perfect and the winters weren’t even that bad. This was my logic at eight years old, and I spent a lot of time romantically tracing the distance between Massachusetts and Virginia on the globe in my third grade classroom (which was, on that scale, a very short distance of about an inch). It was metaphorical; I was making a statement about how I defined home, like moody blonde girls did on Disney Channel Original Movies. I hated everything about the fact that my parents were no longer together, and I felt like something had died. Then my dog actually died.
One of the few places in New England that didn’t feel heartless and evil was the town of Newton, the place where my brothers, mother, and I all attended school: a private Montessori elementary school for the kids, and Lassell College for our mom, who decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree once my dad left. Though we lived elsewhere (a very Gilmore Girls-esque small-town called Westwood), we commuted everyday to this heavily Jewish, well-educated town with a hectic stop on the Boston Commuter Rail. The ride between Newton and home was long, so we’d often stop for dinner before the drive. Then Mom drove the green minivan, the boys took the middle seats, and I claimed the long back row, where I stared out the window while my brothers played on their Game Boys and mom crooned along to the Love, Actually soundtrack. I stared at the dark green trees that lined Route 128 from Exit 21 down to Exit 16B. Bumper to bumper traffic invariably gave me lots of time to reflect. Forty-five minutes in the mornings and sometimes even more at night made me appreciate the Newtonian landscape with greater remove.
In addition to taking four to six classes per semester while raising three kids on her own, my recently divorced mother was a rare find in the Boston suburbs—she was born in Brooklyn, but she’s entirely Peruvian, and she was raised in Lima, Peru. My mom moved back to the States in her late teens, and met my bearded, New Englander father in D.C. Following the affair with his client’s paralegal, my parents separated, and I became extremely depressed. When I wasn’t doing schoolwork or hanging out with my Girl Scout Junior Troupe #3456, I had a hard time coming out of my shell, which was rare because my nature disregards the existence of most shells. Out of concern, mom got me a therapist in Newton. It was easiest to have someone close to my school, and she found an office right near a children’s yoga studio. Three times a week, we drove away from Newton Centre and its Protestant churches, and we parked in the Newton Highlands: once for therapy, twice for preteen yoga with Annabelle.
My therapist’s office had a big, comfy green chair and bookshelf full of games and books with titles that mentioned “childhood trauma” and “anxiety,” but we didn’t use those words. Dr. S taught me card games and tried to get me to talk about my father and stepmother. They were both white people, sort of like Dr. S, except she was Jewish. I remember learning that because my mom said we gave her a Hanukkah present, not a Christmas present.
Dr. S sometimes offered me tea from an electric kettle in her office, but I don’t remember taking up her offer because she really just carried herbal options, and I preferred black. She was a good fit for the Newtonian Universe. I could place her in one of the Victorian houses off one of the main roads with cream window paneling and huge front-yard gardens and a backyard gazebo. She probably wore gloves and got rid of the weeds and trimmed her Gerber daisies. She was a person with the time and patience to care for plants. Newton embraced a green-thumb lifestyle. Everybody shopped at Whole Foods and considered alternatives to dairy products and gluten, even before these crazes officially took over White America. We usually shopped at less ritzy chains closer to where we lived in Westwood, like Stop & Shop or Roche Brothers. But sometimes, we embraced the Newtonian style, and Mom bought chocolate soymilk and nutty granola bars with dried fruit. I’m not sure I ever conveyed how much I wanted to be a real Newtonian at the time, though I remember thinking about it. I guess I wished my mom could afford to buy all organic food, or that we just lived in the same town as my school. Even then, I could recognize that the kids from my school, for the most part, came from families with more money. And that wealth bred certain expectations for them: elective standardized exams started in the fourth grade, and prep school admissions were big deals—followed, of course, by eventual admittance to an Ivy League school or near equivalent.
Newton gave me a specific kind of anxiety. I remember driving through town and staring through the windows of all the pristine houses behind freshly mowed lawns. I often imagined what a permanent Newton life could be. We’d have a dog, and maybe my parents wouldn’t be divorced, and our dog would play in our big backyard because all the Newtonian backyards were big and kid-friendly with patio furniture for parents to sit out during summer barbeques. From play-dates with friends, I realized the universality of beige carpeting and big islands in the middle of kitchens. Newton homes were built for active Newton families with kids that liked to run around—the carpets gave them a cushion, a softer landing for if and when they fell.
I have a particularly vivid memory of sitting in the waiting room of my therapist’s office. I remember being about ten, and I’d been seeing Dr. S for almost two years by that point. I was staring out the window while it rained. The trees outside were green. An issue of National Geographic rested on my thighs. I wore pastel green capris and a thin sweater. When she stood at the doorway to indicate that it was time for our meeting, I followed her to those green cushions, crashed into them, and said that I hated everything.
She looked at me through her oval glasses and their clear frames. This time, she didn’t nod sympathetically or hum at me. She didn’t tell me that it was going to get better sooner. She told me that when I was fourteen, the state of Massachusetts wouldn’t require me to follow my parents’ visitation schedule. I wouldn’t have to go to my dad’s house unless I wanted to go, and nobody could take that away from me. I could spend all my time with my mom, and by then she’d be done with school, and things would be different. Before we moved to Florida and began a different existence, this became my concrete reminder: one day I would turn fourteen, and I would have more control over my play-dates, and I could do Saturday morning yoga, and I could spend my Saturday nights however I wanted — with mom and the boys at the movies.
I decided back then that my kids would grow up in a place like Newton, with carpets and piano lessons and ice cream from Cabot’s after soccer games. I would even make myself care about the Red Sox like a real Massachusetts girl.
While I shuffled between school and my extracurricular activities, mom went to college. She also interned at a courthouse in Lexington, so her attire varied from jeans with bedazzled t-shirts to maroon suits. In a sea of North Face jackets and Lululemon yoga pants, she stood out in the morning hallways of our private Montessori school. Despite her vague resemblance to Eva Mendes and South American heritage, she doesn’t sound anything like Sofia Vergara from Modern Family. She sounds like a white woman named Nancy. In fact, her parents named her Nancy because they wanted her name to be translatable. (I think they were also really into Frank Sinatra.) Given her White American name and White American voice, mom often questions her authenticity: is she Latina enough? As an intersectional feminist, I think questions like this are ridiculous but emotionally valid, and I’m angry that White American culture poses them. My mom managed her own confusion by reminding me that there is good and bad everywhere and in everyone, and that it was my job to take what was good from my whiteness and Peruvianness, and then build a good life for myself. She raised me to be a feminist, and I decided at a young age that I wanted to be like Rory Gilmore and go to Yale and write important things.
Dr. S and I talked a lot about this future and how my mom’s feminist education inspired me. I thought it was cool that she was taking control of her life in a situation that looked unfortunate to most. Watching her dive into college pushed me to do the same with my studies. I read Harry Potter, I did long division, I painted, I learned sun salutations. My Montessori education encouraged unstructured learning. They said: here’s what you need to do, and you decide how to do it. And I did.
The other Montessori kids were born into the Newtonian world, but for me, it was a much more deliberate choice. My family drove there every morning, and we left every night, only to return again. To the Starbucks on the corner of Newton Centre and the adolescent-themed boutique with pink tulle curtains. To synagogues and protestant churches and temples and farmers’ markets on autumn Saturdays on the grass across from J.P. Licks. To the deli with that potato salad and the Italian restaurant with angel hair pasta bowls.
On warm days at the end of the school year, our teachers took us to eat lunch on the dock by Crystal Lake, which was a short walk. We carried our lunchboxes and held hands with buddies. I remember eating a honeyed ham sandwich on whole wheat bread. I remember sitting on a sweater that I placed on a flat rock and looking out at the blue, crystal water. The wind made it sway. I wanted to jump in, and I knew that if I just scheduled a play-date with my dear friend Idun in the next couple weeks, we could have a sleepover and go swimming in that lake because she lived in an apartment right along the edge of it. I would wear something strappy and bright, and she’d wear her plain one-piece from a Land’s End catalogue, and we would jump in and splash around and float and talk about what it was like when she lived in Norway. I wanted to talk with another transplant: someone else from somewhere else. We could inhabit this world and still know that Newton’s laws do not govern the whole planet.
Adriana Miele has lived in Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, and Connecticut; she doesn’t like choosing a favorite, so don’t ask. She regularly drinks soy lattes, but she only buys J. Crew items on sale. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @adrilovestea.