In The Body That Once Was Mine
My body matured on the flood plain of Lake Erie, weather-maker, nearly ten thousand square miles of freshwater surface area upon which winds kick up violent waves. I grew up on its eastern shore, fifty miles south of Buffalo, New York, in the rural village of Silver Creek, surrounded by vineyards and apple orchards, with a population of only twenty-five hundred. Its once-vital Main Street, where my parents could buy our shoes, clothes, fabric, groceries, hardware, jewelry, notions, toys, gifts, and greeting cards, was eroded gradually by the building of malls in the suburbs of Buffalo, then by the demise of the steel industry in nearby Lackawanna. . . .
On drives to Buffalo to visit my parents’ immigrant Latvian friends, the thruway took us through the steel-mill town, with its spewing stacks and grimed-up row houses. Lackawanna, P.U.! my sister and I chanted, pinching our noses, rolling the car windows tight against the sulfurous stench. My friends’ parents worked at the mills, at the car plants. When those shut down, in some instances, their sons worked for environmental-monitoring companies, testing the abandoned sites for leaching toxins. We came of age an hour’s drive from Love Canal, downwind of Three Mile Island, on the heels of [Rachel Carson’s] Silent Spring. The Cold War and fear of nuclear attack — my mind came of age to those nightmare-makers.
My body came of age working the vineyards snaking across Lake Erie’s fertile flood plain. Concords grown for juice and jam. In high school I was trimming the leafless vines over spring break; combing the heavy, flyaway new growth bare armed in the heat of summer; harvesting rows too narrow to accommodate mechanical picking machines in September. The grapes were heavily treated with chemicals, something that never crossed my mind. Walking home from school, it was a rite of spring, like bounding, excessive light in April in Alaska: the sick-sweet antifreeze stench hovering in the air after the sprayers had crawled up and down the rows of grapes across the street from my childhood home, the smog-haze that hung in the air, penetrating into our house. I ate, drank, breathed, and practically bathed in grapes dusted with chemicals like Alar, a plant-growth regulator banned in 1989 and labeled by the Environmental Protection Agency as a known human carcinogen. Chemically sprayed fruit was a given in my childhood; the only time I heard the word organic was in chemistry class. After a two-year 1989 peer-reviewed study, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported that, via food, “the average preschooler’s exposure [to chemicals like Alar] was estimated to result in a cancer risk 240 times higher than the risk considered acceptable . . . following a full lifetime exposure.”
I think about that adolescent body that was mine, working the harvest at the Burt farm, just across the horse pasture from our backyard, snipping grape clusters with bare hands, eating grapes until my mouth grew raw. It’s easy to romanticize those memories: the smell of ripe grapes rising off the fields in the early-September heat; the sweet jelly of flesh the color of cucumber sharpened by the astringency of the skin; the farm lunches breaking up our workdays at the Stebbins’ big dining-room table with a group of sweaty teens; the rituals of picking and preserving fruit with my mother, of walking down the street to buy fresh eggs from the Burts, or homemade Italian sausage from the DePasquales, or vegetables from the Grizantis’ farm stand. I ate with abandon my mother’s grape pie, drank her grape juice, slathered her preserves on black Latvian bread. My mother put by jars and jars as well as bags and bags of preserves each year, filling our freezer and the shelves in a dark corner of our basement. Every couple of weeks we packed our baskets for another excursion to a U-pick farm, none of them organic or no-spray: cherries, blueberries, peaches, apples. My father sprayed our own orchard and sprinkled chemicals on the vegetable garden. I ate his fruit straight off the branch, the slight pesticide essence woven in with that of plum, pear, and apple. On Fridays, being Catholic, my family ate fish caught in Lake Erie. My body came of age nourished by western New York’s soil and water. I ate the place; I breathed it in. It became my body.
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