Chautauqua

Chautauqua. The ideal combination of chat and aqua (no, no, say it like “sha talk wa”). A landscape of ideas and memories, words and images, trees and water, kitchens and roads.

Hear me out.

When I was a spotty youth (pre-teen or just post-pre-teen), I auditioned for a TV movie called Chautauqua Girl. My first audition. I got called back, even, apparently because I was so personally engaging (I’m sure my memory is faulty on this). I did not get the part (casting director to me: “Could you try… acting less?”).

I think I never watched it when it hit the airwaves. But it involved travelling Chautauqua shows, which were what people had a hundred years ago because no one had told them about YouTube and TED Talks. The travelling shows were an offshoot of the Chautauqua Institution, which was founded as a summer thing to keep striplings out of trouble and into education: intellectually stimulating talks, artistic endeavours, sundry physical besportments.

The Chautauqua Institution still exists, by the way. It’s a lovely assemblage of lodgings and institutional spaces with an air of classic eastern early-twentieth-century Americana stretching up from the shore of a large lake, and for nine weeks every summer it is what it has always meant to be, and you’ve probably even heard of a lot of the people headlining at it.

The name Chautauqua was familiar to me when I auditioned.

You’re thinking “Duh, of course, nerrrrrrd.” But no, in fact. It was familiar in the same way as Broadway is familiar to someone whose family came from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was familiar in the same way as the surname of a famous person (for example, a vice president of the United States) is familiar because it turns out they’re a distant relative and you’ve known the surname all your life. Chautauqua, for me, means grandma’s home.

Chautauqua County is the westernmost county of New York State. It’s about the size of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. A highway transect of it can take up to an hour. And it’ll take you about an hour to drive into it from Buffalo on the I-90.

Get off the interstate at Dunkirk, go past the D&F Plaza (a strip mall of note), make a left and go into Fredonia, a village of 5000 people and the site of the first gaslights in the United States. Go past the university campus, right at Maple, left at Temple, right at Risley, all streets with old two-story wooden houses on them in the style that covers this part of the state (houses that suggest that the people who built them had lots of money but the people who own them now may not); coming up from the creek, make a jog onto Gardner, and then go left onto Sunset Drive and then, right before the bend, you’re there.

You pull up to a house the size and shape of a double-wide trailer but it’s a house house with a basement. It would fit in in Florida (and so, but for the northern vegetation, would this sidewalkless street). It’s 1970something or 1980something or 1990something and inside is my grandmother and my (step-)grandfather. And, depending on what year you’re there, there’s a TV with the first remote control I’d ever seen (one button), a set of dominoes (put on the planet only for setting up chain reactions), a set of Encyclopædia Britannica (now in my own living room, within reach of where I’m sitting as I type this), endless stacks of pulp mags filled with easy crosswords and word searches, a dartboard in the basement, a small concrete patio out back where I used clever devices to blow enormous soap bubbles, a kitchen with a large-enough table (food always tastes better at a kitchen table than in some distant room alienated from the stove and counters), and a quinquagenarian then sexagenarian then septuagenarian teetotalling former missionary with a 1920s magazine-pretty face and model stature and kitchen-knife-sharp intellect, and her second husband, a gregarious former used car salesman who every afternoon mixes himself an anaesthetizing Manhattan.

After he dies, my grandmother moves farther south, to Gerry, pronounced like “Gary.” Just take highway 60 through Cassadaga and over the big hill and past Sinclairville, towards Jamestown but not all the way, and end up at the Free Methodist retirement village. The drive is a smooth, lissome two-lane highway, not flat or straight but not unduly curvy or hilly. Stop in and perhaps have some Concord grape pie, so delicious that you will be glad it stained your teeth so you have a visual record of it. And sit and chat with my grandmother about all sorts of things – whatever’s on the news, really, and whatever she’s been thinking about, and whatever she remembers from your mother’s childhood, and whatever’s in the Bible that’s on her mind.

And then she moves down the hill into the assisted-care facility, and then she moves to a grassy spot next to her first husband (my grandfather) and her parents in the little village in Allegany County where she grew up. But that takes us away from Chautauqua. If, today, from Gerry you drive past the rodeo grounds, through the crossroads, over the hill, under the expressway, past the Bob Evans, and into Jamestown, you will be near the lake from which all of this has gotten its name. Drive over to Celoron (birthplace of Lucille Ball, though the museum and gift shop are in Jamestown) or farther up to Bemus Point – or, across from it and just a titch farther, the Chautauqua Institute – and you will see Chautauqua Lake.

Chautauqua Lake is the last memory of the Erie Language. It’s 17 miles long, 2 miles wide at the most (much less in the middle, at Bemus Point), and no more than 78 feet deep, and its name means – well, there are disagreements about what it meant originally, because the entire language and culture died out. So now it’s a name like James is a name and Lucy is a name and Dorothy is a name and regardless of where they came from they mean what they refer to now.

So Chautauqua, which to my eyes and ears is a long, fancy, pretty name, suited for frills and furbelows and flounces, with an unnecessary mix of French and Latin and Middle English orthographical twirls to represent an Iroquoian language, means a lake of the American summer resort kind (where people in New York and Pennsylvania would go before trips to the Dominican Republic were cheap) and the heart of a rolling verdant agrarian (and now viticultural) county in the old eastern side of America.

And, for me, it means memories of my grandmother: endless conversations and cooking with a keen but kind woman who had seen America in every decade since 1920; church services, local highway jaunts along and between and over the endless hills and ridges, meals at Bob Evans or at small restaurants unchanged in six decades, five successive Christmases when I was in grad school (with Christmas at St. Olaf on the TV on Christmas Eve), regular visits when I moved to Toronto (including some winter trips to ski on nearby hills)…

You won’t get that if you go there, of course. But I can highly recommend the scenery. Apparently there’s some nice summer entertainment, too, though I haven’t been to it.

2 responses to “Chautauqua

  1. Lovely. Just … lovely. Thanks.

  2. THANKS James. I first saw and fell in love with Chatauqua about 90 years ago, and enjoyed many visits there with your grandmother, my sister Dorothy. You expressed the feelings of that area very well . Thanks again.
    Uncle Don

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