Miller's Valley - Anna Quindlen

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.


It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then. The government people had hearings all spring to solicit the views of residents on their plans. That’s what they called it, soliciting views, but every last person in Miller’s Valley knew that that just meant standing behind the microphones set up in the aisle of the middle school, and then finding out afterward that the government people would do what they planned to do anyhow. Everybody was just going through the motions. That’s what people do. They decide what they want and then they try to make you believe you want it, too.

Donald’s grandfather was at every meeting, his hands shaking as he held some sheets of loose-leaf he’d been reading from so long that they were furred along the edges. He carried a big file with him everywhere, even when he went to the diner for breakfast. Early on he’d switched out the original file for the accordion kind because the first one got too full. But it was full of the kind of stuff old guys pull together, newspaper clippings with uneven edges, carbon copies of letters ten years old, even the occasional sales receipt for a sump pump or a new well, as though someone was going to be inclined to pay him for all the years he’d spent fighting the water. I always wondered if they wrote him off because his name was Elmer. The government people talked a lot about the future. Elmer was such an old guy’s name, a piece of the past.

“The best we can do is make sure we get as much as we can out of the bastards,” Donald’s grandfather said at what turned out to be the next-to-last meeting.

“There’s no need for that, Elmer,” my mother said. She meant the profanity. She was as interested as the next person in milking the government for money. A lifetime working in hospitals had shown her the wisdom, and the ease, of that. She was upright but not stupid.

My mother was a person of stature in Miller’s Valley. She’d lived there all her life. Her mother had raised her and her younger sister, Ruth, in a one-story three-room house at the edge of the valley with a pitted asphalt roof and a falling-down porch, and when she’d married my father and become a Miller she’d moved to his family’s farm, right at the center of the valley, in its lowest place, where the fog lay thick as cotton candy on damp mornings. She was a Miller of Miller’s Valley, and so was I. People thought my mother could take care of just about anything. So did I, then.

The government people were all job titles instead of proper names. They dealt out thick business cards with embossed seals; we found them in our pockets and purses long after there was any point to it. There were geologists and engineers and a heavyset woman with a sweet smile who was there to help people relocate after the government took their houses. A resettlement counselor, they called her. She had the softest hands I’d ever felt, pink and moist, and when she’d come toward my mother, her hands like little starfish in the air, my mother would move in the opposite direction. It’s hard to explain to kids today, with everybody touching each other all the time, kissing people who are more or less strangers, hugging the family doctor at the end of a visit, but my mother wasn’t a huggie person, and neither were most of her friends and neighbors. “She can just forget about patting me, that one” is what she always said about the resettlement counselor.

I felt kind of sorry for the woman. It was her job to make it sound as though one place to live was just as good as another, just as good as the place you’d brought your babies home to from the hospital fifty years before, just as good as the place where your parents had died and, in a few cases that you could tell made the government people really uncomfortable, were buried. They could make moving to a new house with a nice dry basement sound like a good deal, but there was no way they could put a pretty face on digging up a coffin that went into the ground before the First World War.

When people would talk about the government’s plans, at