Since she’s one of my favorite poets, I enjoyed hearing her talk about her life and her work. But I was also struck by how familiar she sounded. I had never heard her voice before, but there was something about it that felt comfortable and somehow right.
When I came to the U.S. at age eight, I made it my business to stop sounding like a foreigner as quickly as possible, and being young I quickly adapted. My husband, a native Texan, and I have almost the same accent. He’s an actor and can do a Texas dialect, as well as Minnesota, New York or what have you. We both have what I call “generic American” or “TV anchor” accents. I don’t call a bottle of soda “pop” (pronounced “paaap,”) and I don’t have (I hope) the flat nasality of northern Ohio speech.
Even though I’ve lived in Austin about half my life so far, I spent the first half hopping all over, from my birthplace, England, to northern Ohio, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and its Northern Virginia suburbs, and San Diego.
I lived in Ohio only a dozen or so years, but it’s as much a part of me as being English. I frequently have what I call “Norwalk dreams,” in which I’m usually on Main Street, often with people I knew in high school. Sometimes the dreams are similar to what happened to George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when Clarence takes him to a much-changed Bedford Falls. Others are Benedict and Whittlesey frozen in my mind’s time. This central intersection once had traffic light that stopped all traffic, allowing diagonal crossing–a brilliant idea I’ve never seen again. Once in a while I have the thrill of again ice skating at Lais Pond (which we called, of course, Lacy’s Pond).
What is it about Northern Ohio that still holds me? In a book called “Albion’s Seed,” the author explains that people who emigrated from certain regions of England carried their folk ways to the U.S. Some of these customs have lasted up to present times. He notes that people from East Anglia settled in New England, bringing their preferences, mores and traditions with them.
I was born in East Anglia. The area of Northern Ohio we settled (purely because of a sponsorship) is known as the Firelands, part of the Western Reserve. The land was granted to people in Connecticut whose homes were burned during the Revolutionary War. The names–Norwalk, Greenwich, New London, Plymouth–carry over from New England.
East Anglia is known as “The Fens,” because it’s flat and was at one time swampy. Northern Ohio is relatively flat as a result of glaciers in the ice ages. My family landed in a pretty amenable environment by dumb luck.
Why did Mary Oliver’s voice sound so familiar? I went back and checked her bio: she was born in Northern Ohio.