The Washerwoman’s Genes

August 28, 2007

A Drink of New York

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:31 am

Our annual visit to northern New York State always includes a stop in Saratoga, home of famous water: what used to be referred to as “Saratoga Vichy,” a sparkling mineral water that comes in sapphire blue bottles. I always buy some, as much for the containers, which I collect, as for the crisp water inside. And of course, if you go to the spring in town, there’s the stinky suphur water, supposedly good for your health.

This year, on our way back south, we detoured to Sullivan County. I’ve been researching Sullivan for two years—thinking about it, imagining it, conjuring it. More than a year ago I read in the New York State censuses that Jennette was born there. I am now pretty certain—although I can’t prove it—that she’s one of the Neversink Quimbys.

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So it was time. We got off the interstate at Kingston and veered west, an hour’s drive to Neversink. We found ourselves in a hamlet stretched along the edge of Catskill Park, a place called Grahamsville in the town of Neversink. It had charm, yet seemed a bit forgotten and forlorn. It was Monday: we tried the door but the library-museum was closed. With family in tow, I hadn’t planned on any hard research, but I had hoped to scan the local-history shelf at least.

We continued west, in search of the “real” Neversink, a village beyond the reservoir. Of course, the town of Jennette’s time is under the water now. The Neversink River was dammed and the valley flooded in fourteen years of construction ending in 1955 to augment the water supply for New York City. (The Wikipedia entry for the reservoir refers to “the ironically named town of Neversink and the aptly named Bittersweet,” a second, nearby, also-submerged town.) Only the southern rim of the reservoir touches Route 55, and you can stand on the dam and gaze north at a truly beautiful ring of low mountains, misty over the icy water. The surrounding terrain is wooded and isolated, pristine, almost primeval—except of course, the landscape is man-made. It’s a sight Jennette would never have seen.

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Recapturing the past is impossible, we all know. You go to a place and of course it is utterly changed since 1810, or 1880. It’s nearly impossible to pick out any one thing that might be “original.” But in general, there’s still the layout of the streets, the shape of the terrain, some alleys or odd corners vaguely ancient and decrepit.

Yet over and over I go to my ancestral places to find not even the “bare bones” on which my forebear’s life was lived, but instead encounter the complete excision of their life scene: Jennette’s house in Port Ewen, plowed under the Turnpike; my dad’s childhood home and neighborhood, demolished for the Prospect Park Expressway; and now, Jennette’s entire birthplace, drowned in a reservoir.

We turned south then, to visit Fallsburg, where Cornelius lived on the Depuy farm in 1880, where Captain Burger retired in 1907 and passed away, and where his wife Elsie lived until 1920. This area has seen, one could say, another kind of obliteration: becoming a thronged resort in the twentieth century and then an unlikely mixed-up rural-town-woodland settlement of migrant farm workers, Orthodox Jewish camps, suburban sprawl and shopping centers.

We didn’t stop or explore, so I am not the one to pronounce about Fallsburg. In fact, I still haven’t figured out where in the town my ancestors would have lived. We did follow signs to the Sullivan County Historical Society, and found, of course, that it was closed on Monday.

We headed to Monticello, then. I myself currently live on the outskirts of a county seat, so I had some expectations. Indeed, Monticello took me back, way back, to what my town might have looked like before I arrived, perhaps in the fifties: decidedly unimproved, for the most part, except for the actual governmental center. We did find a cute bakery-deli for lunch, and I found some odd art photos in a thrift shop, and we quickly headed out to our next goal, NYC.

In the summer, when New Yorkers play in the Hamptons, you can walk into the top restaurants and sit right down. We had a four-day personal foodie-fest, dropping in on a whim here and there for our meals in two of our favorite neighborhoods, Soho and Tribeca. Nowadays, the server’s first question is always, “Bottled or tap?” I always have tap, and this time I drank it with a few new layers of complexity. Neversink water races down from the Catskills, mixes with the Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoir supply in the Neversink Tunnel, ultimately “providing nearly half of the city’s daily consumption” [Wikipedia]. So I raise not my wine but my water glass.*

To the Quimbys.

*The Wikipedia entry on Toast [honor] reports that toasting with water is by some considered bad luck, in that it foreshadows a watery grave.

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