My husband got an offer to work for a university in Ithaca, New York. We followed the money and transferred the whole family across the country, including our Chihuahua. As an Indonesian who had been living for over a decade in Arizona where winter is warm and mild, it’s intimidating to finally live in a full-on four-season climate, especially having to endure a frozen winter. It seems the prospect of Ithaca’s brutal winter is enough to keep people away.
The town is so small in population it makes the satellite city Bumi Serpong Damai in South Tangerang seem like New York City. Freezing in isolation didn’t sound promising, but soon I found what Ithaca lacks in population it made up for its expansive, stunning scenery. Located in the Finger Lakes region, the college town is surrounded by gorges, steep rocky walls cut by wild rivers that widen the eyes at every turn.
Ithaca is “gorges,” they say. And I have to agree; it’s all about the water. Ithaca is laced with hiking trails, winding over and under waterfalls. From a distance the water that tumbles down the hillside in several mini waterfalls seem silent but as you get closer, you can hear the water roar. The vista of rugged gorges and idyllic rolling hills are truly mesmerizing. Cayuga Lake with its sparkling water completes the charm.
Getting a rental house in Ithaca is a challenge, not just the price but also availability. Ithaca is a quintessential summer destination. Ithacans take advantage to rent out their houses for short time stays during summertime. As a result, very rarely is a house put up for rent out for 2-3 years straight, even for one whole year. Owners like to keep their houses open for renting in summer because the demand is very high.
My husband came to Ithaca in January, about six months before the whole family officially transferred in summer. He found the house – where Pearl S. Buck live – through Craigslist ads.
He told me, “Did you know the author Pearl S. Buck? She lived in the house! I think I will take this place. It’s small, but enough for me alone and for us temporarily until we find a bigger place to settle in.”
I squealed when I heard that. Who doesn’t know Pearl S. Buck? I read her novels when I was in high school. To be connected even only by the same address on 614 Wyckoff Road in Ithaca is something I could never imagine happening.
I finally saw the house for the first time in the spring. For a 10-day spring break my three daughters and I flew from Phoenix to Philadelphia, and drove for four hours to the house. Ithaca is still very cold in March. I had a chance to experience the frozen spring and wondered if I could really live there. But after a few days, I got acclimated and it was actually not so bad. The grey color prompted by the naked trees and clouds with no sun provided a perfect monochrome picture of majestic breathtaking despair. I was new to it. The Phoenix greater area where I lived in Arizona is pretty much the same color all year round.
The house, built in the 1920s, is indeed small. But it’s pretty and it has a stone patio with a stone bench. There are two bedrooms, one bathroom with mid-century tiled floor, a rather large living room, and a sunroom connected to a den. The house has hardwood floors with big windows framing trees that you can see without moving an inch from the dining room. It sits right on the edge of Cornell University campus. The surrounding area is out-of-the world beautiful; in the middle of hills, with small streams and creeks. I can actually hear the sound of running water from the house. It’s very soothing and makes the pitch-black night less scary.
But it’s not the beauty of the house that captivates me. I love the fact that a distinguished writer (and female!) once lived here. Ithaca Journal-News published a feature about the writer who was living on the second floor of the house. She received the Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth in 1932. While living in Ithaca, she began her work on A House Divided, the third novel in The House of Earth trilogy. In 1938, Pearl S. Buck became the first American female Nobel laureate for literature.
When I finally moved to Ithaca in summer, finding myself in a house where Buck lived, I couldn’t help but wonder how she lived her life in Ithaca while producing a significant body of work that won her a Nobel. At night she probably listened to the same running water coming from a small stream by the side of the house. One of my twin daughters calls it natural white noises. She’s so happy now she doesn’t need to play her cell phone like she did in Arizona for the sound of rain or ocean waves – her choice of white noises.
I can see Buck sitting on the stone bench in the patio, or looking out a huge window and admired a picturesque view of big trees with green leaves in the summer that changed into colorful leaves in the fall. Did she have a dog like I do? If so, what kind of dog? Or maybe she had a cat. Did she walk around the neighborhood in the morning or in the afternoon? Did she take a shortcut to John M. Olin Library in Cornell University campus? It’s only a mile away from the house. Perhaps she also experienced getting trapped in heavy rain like we did when my kids and I forgot to check out the forecast before a long walk in an afternoon. Did she notice the house is a bit too small, because sometimes I feel cramped under the roof, but that’s because I have three free-spirited young girls who like to scream and a husband who talks loudly and often.
As a writer, I search for inspiration in the small things around me. A visit to a local traditional market could result in a story about my childhood in Palembang where my mom often took me to a local market nearby to help her carry groceries in exchange for a bar of Silver Queen chocolate. A break up with a man in a short affair made me craft an essay on whether or not I should publish a memoir that might hurt people I love.
So, I’ve been looking for inspiration from the great Pearl S. Buck in her very own former residence. The isolation, if not the scenery, must have confronted Buck as it has me. The sounds of nature come through where the sounds of humanity are absent. I came to the States from the biggest city in the most populated island in the world. Teaming Jakarta. Pearl spent the first 40 years of her life in China. I wonder how she spent those first few months of her new life in Ithaca, cut off from all she had known. Did the inspiration for her groundbreaking literary works come from the absence of the familiar as much as the presence of grandeur?
I kind of wish that her “ghost” could visit and talk to me. Not just through her literary legacy in books, but a taste of the spirit of the person between the lines, between the pages.
But nothing. Instead I spend day after day daydreaming and getting lazy, enjoying the summer weather before the winter comes. I fear. I fear the winter. I fear the isolation. But, maybe, most of all I fear that the inspiration that drove Pearl to greatness will pass me by. That the closest I will get to that illusive dream of being a great writer is that I once lived in Pearl S. Buck’s house.