Points North

"Where are you going?" my daughter inquires from the couch. I kiss her goodbye. "It's hard to explain, but I'll end up in downtown Cleveland. Back tonight."
Then I'm off on my small pilgrimage, ready to learn the northernmost reaches of a road I've only half explored.

The southern leg of state Route 43 runs like a main artery through my life. While growing up in Canton, I would visit siblings at Kent State University. Along the way, I'd gaze at cornfields and crooked mailboxes from the back seat of my parents' Fords.

In the '70s, I studied at Kent and worked in Hartville, shopping the old, dusty flea market on my lunch hours. Once I guiltily splurged $17 on a graceful wooden rocker there, unaware it would become a fulcrum of family comfort, the place my future husband and I would soothe our babies.

When we settled in Hudson, 43 became the scenic route back home, children in tow. We still travel this two-lane ribbon, every passing mile pulsing with memory: strawberry picking at Walnut Drive Gardens, rides on a battered carousel horse behind Frank's Drive-in, Kent street festivals, SeaWorld summers.

As a frazzled new mother with an inconsolable, colicky son, I pulled into the empty parking lot of the Brimfield Church of God one evening. Nursing him in the front seat, exhausted, I stared into a carmine sunset as it blushed the bleached stubble of some farmer's field. "I don't know if I'm going to make it in this job," I said out loud.

Come September, that colicky son will head off to college and my daughter will start high school. My parents have moved to assisted living. Sometimes I feel as if I'm waving goodbye in all directions. Like a farmer perusing the deep furrows of her oft-plowed fields, I'm thinking it's time to find new, fertile ground.

Online, I read that state Route 43 terminates in Cleveland's Public Square. The route's last leg, I'm cautioned, is unmarked by identifying signs, which seems fitting.

I've got some loose directions. Typical of me not to bring along a map, trusting I will find my way. I start out later than I planned, also typical. A perennial late bloomer, I took longer than most to earn a degree, get a decent job, find my true life partner, have babies, follow a calling. The miracle is that all of these things happened at all, in their own good time.

I start in Kent and head into Streetsboro. Past a thickening retail vein, industry takes over, boxy buildings with unglamorous names: Rotek, Bulk Terminal Storage, Custom Pultrusions Inc., a world of workers beyond the headlining BPs and Microsofts, quietly paying mortgages, buying cars, earning tuition.

In Aurora, upscale stores clash with the vast abandoned parking lot of SeaWorld. A memory smacks me like a wave: the wet satin of a dolphin's back beneath my hand.

I stop at Mount Olive Cemetery in Solon and take lessons from the dead:

Arol G. Shack, 1939 — 2007. What a wonderful world she made.

And Vera D. Guth, who died at 95: She never turned away the needy, and always found good in every person.

In the Jewish tradition, I leave a pebble at both headstones: Thank you.

In Bedford Heights, intriguing establishments such as the Ugly Coyote Saloon and Venice Spumoni Bakery beckon, but all of them appear closed — at least for the time being. The gleaming Harley-Davidson dealership flares briefly; just ahead lies the depressing specter of Randall Park Mall.

Sadder yet is the stretch ahead, in Cleveland's East 100s, where old, once-glorious buildings sit crumbling, cornices ragged as chipped teeth. The whole neighborhood seems to teeter and lean.

Predictably, I get lost. Tired and hungry, I burn my tongue on gas station coffee.

I buy a map. I'm back on course in no time, cresting Broadway as the Cleveland skyline rises up in a summer haze.

Downtown, workers pour out of buildings to herald the weekend. I park, stroll St. Clair in the evening summer sun, eat a delicious bowl of creamy asparagus soup at Osteria, sip iced coffee outside the Phoenix Coffee shop. Smooth jazz and the smell of good cologne slide downwind from Johnny's Downtown.

Questions filter through the Friday-night euphoria. What will become of the woman I saw on Public Square, shrouded in a hooded black raincoat, wearing bedroom slippers and heavy bandages? How does an already gasping community breathe life into the gaping maw of an abandoned shopping mall? And what exactly is a pultrusion, anyway?

I arrive home later than planned. My husband is settled on the front porch with the dog, a Diet Coke and the newspaper. The day's last rays crisscross the slatted floor. I ease into the comfort of a wicker chair and the knowledge that between old and new, between the familiar and the unmarked, there lies a solid place I could find in the dark.

Blooming late can have its benefits. Maybe I'll take longer to fade into complacency, resist unmarked roads, fold up my map for good. Despite my many stops and starts, the delays and seemingly accidental turns, my timing seems perfect, after all.

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