My husband likes to tell people that when we had our first child while living on the Upper West Side, we could still consider ourselves relatively hip Manhattanites; with the birth of our second, we conceded the borough and moved to Brooklyn; when our third baby came along, we emigrated to Canada.
Like many before us, we had moved to NYC when we were carefree and kid-free. I would spend my days staking out coffee houses in which to prepare for my graduate seminars. On bad hair days, I would traipse to the Meatpacking District and line up for fancy, experimental haircuts at Bumble and Bumble’s training salon. Book readings! Wine tastings! SummerStage! The city was at my leisure.
Ten years and three kids later, bad hair seemed permanently affixed to the top of my head. My social life, like my hair, was largely unkempt. Often, as I was schlepping the double stroller and an uncooperative kindergartner up the four-story walk-up in our Brooklyn brownstone, I would nurse a suburban fantasy or two, mostly the kind involving a garage. A breaking point came one Saturday when we had rented a minivan to head upstate for the weekend. We had just crossed over the Hudson when our 3-year-old shouted out, “WE ARE IN THE COUNTRY!” We crushed his excitement by assuring him that no, we were most certainly not in the country; we were in Hackensack.
And so, when a career opportunity presented itself in Ontario a couple of years ago, my husband and I didn’t hesitate to start packing. Look, kids! We’re Canadian! We drove north toward our new life and dove right in. Ice skating on the canal, barbecue in the backyard, neighbors with kids who would drop by with baked goods and beer, culture, diversity, interesting, talented, and multilingual people, beautiful architecture. Long story short, we loved living there.
Now, here’s the part of the story that made me realize I was a true New Yorker: A mere six months into our Canadian revelry, we were offered an opportunity to move back to New York, and we took it. I hadn’t felt like there was all that much we were missing out on and yet…
There was an evening in Ontario when I found myself walking home alone. The streets were quiet, there wasn’t a person or a car in sight, and many of the houses had darkened windows. My heart started to race and I could taste adrenaline in my mouth. I wasn’t afraid necessarily, but the emptiness of the street was overwhelming, and I sprinted home.
I missed the crowd, or, more precisely, “the certainty of others,” to borrow a line from the great Walt Whitman. It was a phrase he used to articulate being a part of masses of people bound to each other by virtue of existing together in a common space across time. “The certainty of others” gets at the kind of clarity of consciousness that comes readily to me in New York, waiting on the subway platform or wading through dense, peopled streets—how extraordinary, I think, that we are all here, together.
I missed riding a busy train during rush hour. I missed people-watching on our stoop and joking with my kids about the secret lives of the strangers that passed us by—a spy dressed in all black, a circus clown late for the show. I missed going from point A to point B with the possibility of encountering a dozen impromptu mini-adventures along the route. The whole city, I realized, was a story that I missed.
Looking back, I think I had to leave so that I could return and begin again, on my own terms. Moving to Canada was a way for me to choose New York City once more, this time as an adult and as a mother, rather than have it be something that I fell into unwittingly.
In the end, I had to leave so that I could come home. And, let’s face it, my kids were never going to be great on hockey skates.
Sarah Torretta Klock is a writer and photographer who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, three kids, a cat, and two turtles.