LET’S FACE IT, Boston isn’t a city you dream of moving to when you grow up. It doesn’t promise the glamour of Paris or the spitting energy of New York. There are plenty of places with more pleasant weather. No, Boston tends to be a city you come to for school, or for work, or because you’ve followed some boy or girl who, if you didn’t, would surely break your heart.
Yet, once you’re here, Boston has a way of getting under your skin. Maybe you graduate, or lose that job, or get your heart broken after all, but something still keeps you tied here. Perhaps it’s the friends or the food or the culture, perhaps the sports or the smarts; who knows, for these few perfect weeks of the year, it might even be the weather. Whatever it is, live here long enough and Boston will stop seeming provincial and reveal what it truly is: the perfect size for building a life. You can see yourself settling down here, getting a dog, maybe even starting a family. You can see a future.
Somehow, this all happens without you really noticing. One day Boston is a stopover on some journey heading to some other place, the next it’s home. And that’s when you realize: There’s no place on earth you’d rather be.
By Tova Mirvis
This city wasn’t supposed to be mine. As a child, faced with the prospect of my family moving from Memphis to Boston, I tore up my Red Sox baseball cards in protest. “Is Carl Yastrzemski a good player?” I asked my brother, and upon discovering who he was, took extra pleasure in ripping that card in half. At a restaurant, I ordered the Boston cream pie — “hold the Boston.” “I AM NOT MOVING TO BOSTON,” I wrote on page after page in my diary.
Boston was a world away from the city where I was deeply rooted, where my family had lived for five generations, in a thicket of more relatives than I could identify and a close (sometimes overly close) community where I was identifiable not just by my name but by who my grandparents or great-grandparents were. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” my grandmother once said to me in her Southern drawl as she sat in the living room of the house she had lived in for more than 40 years. For her, Memphis wasn’t a place where she happened to live, but something visceral, entrenched, necessary to who she was.
To be from a place: For a Southerner, this was the crucial thing. Not where your house was, not where you happened to live, but some core element of who you were. To be from a place: This implied an almost metaphysical connection to this one spot of earth; it was indelible, regardless of where you lived the longest. To be from Memphis — this didn’t mean to have lived there for years but to have had a parent or a grandparent who was born there.
Once I got over that early horror at the prospect of leaving Memphis (we didn’t), I longed for cosmopolitan, intellectual, arty urban spaces. “There’s nothing to do here,” my friends and I complained, imagining that other cities offered endless options for bored, restless teenagers. I left to go to college in New York City and knew that I probably wouldn’t live in Memphis again.
I was right that I wouldn’t again live there, and right, too, that Memphis — even just the word — would always evoke what it means to be rooted, to feel connected and necessary and whole. “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home,” wrote William Faulkner, who captured more than anyone the Southern sense of place. More than 20 years since I have lived in Memphis, and the hottest, stickiest of days, in any city, when the air feels thick enough to swim through, makes me feel as if I am there. The sound of a Southern accent instantly carries me home: “Where are you from?” I feel compelled to ask strangers when I hear that slow lilt, wanting to tell them that even though they hear no trace of it in my voice, I, too, am from somewhere nearby.
But New York — the Upper West Side more specifically — this was the city of my choosing. I went to college there, then graduate school, but was certainly not from there, never rooted, always transient. I finished school and stayed, still feeling as though I were on some kind of long-term student schedule, on an emotional visa that let me stay as long as I liked without ever becoming a resident. I carried a Tennessee driver’s license for 10 years after I stopped living there and only gave it up when it was pickpocketed from my bag. In Manhattan, it didn’t matter. I didn’t need a license. I had no need for a car. You needed to rent a car only when you intended to leave the city, which I could go months without doing. Continued...