There is no grassy squared off backyard. The house, instead, was built on a hilly slope, at the end of a street that once dead ended. The basement is at ground level, with French doors that open beneath the deck.
In the summer months, the deck was an extension of the kitchen, with outdoor furniture, a barbecue, and one of those cabinets that my mother filled with bright plastic plates, utensils, glasses and serving trays. Those serving platters held Jersey tomatoes, sweet corn, skirt steaks, and grilled chicken.
We ate here in 2004, me and Danny, after we returned from France, and we thought, and still think, that backyard American cooking beats the hell out of Parisian restaurant, cigarette smoked, sauced laden pretension.
They cooked a lot here, and bought too much food, but in this area of Northern NJ there is an abundance of good eating, some of it from local farms (like Demarest or DePiero’s) and good bakeries and Italian specialty stores. This is the Garden State, after all, and despite the pave over of much of the area, there is small and sturdy group of agricultural survivors who may last well into the 21st Century.
This house is being taken apart, its contents sold and shipped off to California, because my parents are moving out. My unhappy job since May 9th has been to initiate and execute the dismantling of a great house. Room by room, closet by closet, box by box. Photographs, slides, letters, magazines, yearbooks, books, baskets, pillows, stereos, hats, gloves, scarfs…..All the accumulations of a lifetime of buying and hoarding and not throwing away.
I counted six yardsticks, perhaps two dozen umbrellas, a ridiculous amount of pots, pans, glasses, dishes, serving trays. The kitchen “pantry” has enough beans to keep Pittsburgh electrically lit for a year.
This house on Birchwood Drive has seen a lot of activity this summer, but not the activities of the young and growing, but rather those that signal the close. Circling overhead, as the dark clouds of illness and aging made themselves apparent: the realtor, the frightened children, the home health care workers, the physical therapists, the wheelchairs, the bedpans, the steel grab bars in the bathroom.
But if one can comfort oneself in mathematical percentages, then I believe that at least 80% of the time this family lived here, there was health and happiness. And every town in New Jersey, New England and New York, and all over the Mid-Atlantic helped make this time here more meaningful.
Without the snow in Vermont, the Yankees, or the trips up the Hudson Valley, or those countless nights coming back from Manhattan across the George Washington Bridge, and the visits to see the Bosserts in Bedminster, or Chicky and Tom on the Jersey Shore, or the adventures in Westchester, or the days on the beach on Long Island, or walking through Brooklyn Heights on a humid July night, and seeing the fireworks on the Fourth….yes every memory of this house and this region was wondrous. Even the rotten things in NYC are great in this massiveness, because they are real and forged out of human knowledge and history. I speak of the Subway, of Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the shimmering, humming harbor.
And yes, the late Eli Graubart, who few remember, and some who do, consider him contemptible, you taught us to go forth and seek knowledge, without mystical and magical idiocy. You marched to your own beat, and when you took us flying to Nantucket, New Hampshire and Martha’s Vineyard, you raised us and our imagination far above the horizon and we are grateful for your time and generosity of intellect. We also loved swimming at Lake Minnewaska and Shepard’s Lake and riding in your convertible. You might have behaved better and stayed married and raised your kids like everyone else does and perhaps now you would have a marble monument to your life standing up in some Jewish cemetery.
But I’m glad you didn’t…..
This region of Bergen County is a superb place, no matter what anyone says, and yes it did happen, it wasn’t a dream, it was life and we were lucky to have lived it.