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Rethinking an Ashland childhood

Think of your youth, and you find that your thoughts turn not just to people but to place. If memory is a movie we watch over and over again, our hometown is often the setting: familiar, comfortable, safe, and above all unchanging.

But what if that movie is drastically re-edited by circumstance? What happens to personal memory when the past turns toxic, when childhood's idyll is wrenched into a new and unsettling context, when your bucolic little hometown ends up as the subject of front-page headlines about hazardous-waste sites and cancer alerts?

I've been pondering these questions because I grew up in Ashland, a small community 20 miles west of Boston. Ashland was where I learned to shoot a basketball (imperfectly), where I first kissed a girl (awkwardly), where I enacted the ancient adolescent rites of rebellion and reconciliation.

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To most people, Ashland may be just a place on the map, a burg that had the misfortune to be home to a dye manufacturing plant called Nyanza that wasn't real choosy about where it discharged its waste. To me, and to countless others who are now replaying in their minds every impulsive teenage dip in a lagoon, every jog along a trail that became an archipelago of strangely colored puddles, Ashland was home. It was a place we thought we knew.

A childhood wonderland

When my parents moved from Framingham to Ashland in 1965 with me, my two brothers, and my three sisters, our cross-border incursion represented something of a population surge for a semi-rural community of fewer than 10,000 people. We weren't the only newcomers in town: That same year, Nyanza Inc. bought a factory on the edge of town, a prelude to the production of dyes that would, years later, land it among the 10 worst hazardous-waste sites in the country, a regular superstar of the US government's Superfund.

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But to a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, Ashland seemed a pastoral wonderland. It may sound risible now, but you couldn't ask for a better place to grow up.

We played pickup baseball in a nearby cul-de-sac on which home plate and three bases had been painted, trying to knock homers over a stone wall. The woods ringing our neighborhood were a daily invitation to exploration, so my brothers and I climbed trees to harrowing heights. There was a nearby lake where we skated in winter and a reservoir where we swam in summer; the more daring among us leaped into the water from the 20-foot-high window of a brick pumphouse.

By the end of high school, of course, I was in full alienation mode, chafing at Ashland's parochialism. I couldn't wait to get away to the wider world. But more than 20 years later, when it came time to put down permanent roots for our two children, I found myself saying to my wife, Carol: "I want them to grow up in a small town." We bought a home in a small town that is, in many respects, a mirror image of Ashland. My hometown had lodged itself deeper in my psyche than I knew.

But then none of us ever really escapes the place where we grew up. It is the crucible of the self at an age when the self is all that matters. It obligingly plays The Establishment in our teenage morality plays, the collective voice of adult authority at a time when we are at war with social propriety. On some level we will always measure what we have become against what we hoped to be when we lived there. We may see our hometown through a glass darkly, as with Paul Simon's "My Little Town" ("Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town"). We may gather up its faded laurels in an elegiac farewell, as with Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown" ("I'm 35/We've got a boy of our own now/Last night I sat him up/Behind the wheel/And said `Son, take a good look around/ This is your hometown' "). But we never really escape it.

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That's partly because the identity we forge in our hometown is the one we carry forward for the rest of our lives, and partly because it remains a handy way to define ourselves long after we've left it. When asked, I've always told people from other parts of the country that I grew up in "a classic small New England town." The answer is a lot more complicated now.

A sense of betrayal

Last week, I picked up the newspaper I work for and saw Ashland splashed across the front page. There was a Page 1 photo of Kevin Kane, who died at 26 of cancer in 1998 but not before heroically crusading for a state health investigation of a mysterious outbreak of illness. The study, released a week ago, found that people who grew up in Ashland from 1965 to 1985 and came into contact with Nyanza-contaminated water had a greatly increased risk of developing cancer, especially if they had a family history of cancer. (I was among those interviewed for that study.) My mother, Marcia Aucoin, fondly recalled Kevin in boyhood as a "hot ticket" her highest praise who would bound out of the stands and onto the court at basketball games as his father tried unsuccessfully to corral him.

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On another day, there was a front-page story and a photo of Rose Cosman, whose daughter, Cheryl, died of cancer when she was 18. I still remember my brother Doug telling me that Cheryl had mysteriously come down with cancer. It was stunning to us, the notion that someone so young could be stricken by an illness we associated with aged cigarette smokers.

As I read the stories, I thought of Brian Hart, my lionhearted best friend from high school. While training for cross-country together (with me struggling to keep up), we ran on every trail in town, including one in the marshy area near the Nyanza plant. Brian died at 42 of a cancer seemingly unrelated to Nyanza, but now, his brother Dennis told me last week, some members of his family are not so sure.

It goes without saying that any angst I may feel does not remotely compare to the grief suffered by the Kanes, the Cosmans, the Harts, or any of the other families who lost loved ones. It is not even in the same universe. I don't recall coming into significant contact with the water. I'm healthy, as far as I know.

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But, toggling back and forth in my mind between the middle-age man I am now and the kid I was then, I seethe with a sense of betrayal. Even in an era of limited environmental awareness, how could the town authorities have been so obtuse? Why did they let Nyanza discharge waste in an area swarming with kids? How many other Nyanzas are out there, endangering today's children?

With a somewhat guilty conscience, I also find myself wrestling with the utter randomness of fate. If my parents had moved to a different neighborhood in 1965, if my friends and I had chosen to play in a different part of town, I could well be the one digesting bad news from the doctor. Do our destinies really hang on such slender threads?

Most disconcerting of all, the news about my hometown has knocked askew any sense I might have had that the past is fixed and immutable. Sure, the future is always uncertain, and the present can be a dicey day-to-day proposition as well, but the past is supposed to stay put, right where we left it.

When we are forced to see the past through an unexpectedly dark filter, we are left with the realization that everything is provisional, that we can never know anything for sure. Perhaps that's the beginning of wisdom and the last lesson our hometowns have to teach.


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@ globe.com.