Posts Tagged ‘Montclair’

That Old House

March 31, 2015


The email came a year ago. The subject line was “Montclair House.” I didn’t recognize the sender. Angie said that she and her husband had bought my childhood home, and hoped to restore it to its original footprint. She had found a blog post I’d written about it. She wanted to talk to me.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to her. But I wasn’t sure why.

The house is a rambling Victorian built in 1900. A landing in the stairs overlooks the living room. The main entrance isn’t at the front, but, quirkily, on the side. When our parents bought the house, in 1958, the shady hemlocks, dark cedar shingles and wrap-around porch reminded our mother of the Adirondacks. I had just turned one – the last of four children. Until our mother died, in 1999, the house was our family’s gravitational center.

It’s where I learned to read. And write. To ride a bike and drive a car. We carried the black-and-white TV into the backyard to watch Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, and onto the porch for the Watergate Hearings. All three sisters crossed the landing and descended the stairs to get married in the living room. Four generations gathered in the dining room for Passover seders. Each of my siblings moved back at some point, as adults. I never moved back, but the house stayed inside me.

For a long time after we sold the house, I found myself waking up at night longing to search through closets and drawers that had long since been emptied of our stuff and refilled with other families’ possessions. I couldn’t believe our childhood drawings weren’t still crammed into the built-in drawers in the master bedroom, that our broken kitchen chairs weren’t stored in the back attic, that my head comics were no longer hidden behind my bed.

The property has changed hands a few times since we sold it. Early on, the sellers held an open house. My brother went, and took pictures. I pored over the photos, trying to reconcile the freshly painted rooms and neatly landscaped yard with the well-worn, lived-in spaces I remembered. Passing through town, I would idle at the curb, trying to mentally replant the lost hemlocks and replace the new blue siding with the old cedar shingles. Eventually, I learned to let go of the physical building. I knew I would never lose the sense of home that endured in my mind.

But Angie’s email revived the old longing. I sent her a quick note, asking for more information. While I waited to hear back, I tried to imagine how anyone could restore our home to what it had been. Would they bring back the clutter? Re-peel the paint? Rewire the light switch outside the bathroom so it only worked when it was jiggled just so?

Four days later, Angie answered. She wanted to know my favorite memory of the house. But the rest of her questions were architectural. Had the “front” door always been at the side? Was the little room off the dining room ever a porch?

I forwarded her email to my siblings. We swapped memories about staging plays on the landing over the living room, and soaking in the claw-foot tub. We told each other how glad we were that the house was back in the hands of people who loved it. And we agreed that the idea of restoring the “original footprint” made no sense. The “front” door had always been on the side. And the little room off the dining room had always been the “sun room,” where our father paid the bills and we kept the Passover haggadahs.

The next time she wrote, Angie attached old photos from when the house was first built – pictures we had never seen.

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There was the front door, at the front of the house. And there, in the corner where the sun room belonged, was an open porch.

As I studied the photos, trying to reconcile the house on my screen with the one I remembered, I realized what I had always known, but never absorbed. For 60 years before the house was ours, other families had already called it home. If the first owners could have seen how the house looked when we lived there, they would have had as much trouble recognizing the place as I do today.

In one of my emails to Angie, I mentioned those haggadahs in the sun room. She replied that at their seder that year, someone in her family had said, “Next year in Montclair.”

That “next year” is this year. I like imagining Angie’s family celebrating  in the Montclair dining room. It doesn’t matter so much if they open the door for Elijah at the side of the house or the front. I do hope, though, that when they pass the house on, they’ll hold memories of home as enduring and enriching as mine.



September 7, 2011

You could see the New York City skyline from the house in Montclair, NJ, where I grew up. Strung across the horizon, a shadowy gray line of type by day and a sparkly necklace at night, it told you which way was east, stabilizing your internal compass. Like Jerusalem or Mecca, it was also a spiritual anchor – where my father went to work every day, where anything worth reading was published, where the museums and theaters and restaurants and concert halls that really mattered were located, where the Yankees played and the TV signals originated.

When I was in high school in the early 1970s, I got nervous about nuclear holocaust. New York City seemed liked the likeliest target, and the thought of how close we lived kept me up at night. One night, I dreamt about the proximity.

New York is so close, my dream-self thought, the image of the skyline stretched across my dreamscape, that I can see every building from my window.

It’s so close, I thought, the visual zooming in like Google Street View, that I can see every window.

It’s so close… I realized, as the visual zoomed in once again, incredibly, to Times Square. In those strictly analog days, the only animated ad in Times Square was the smoker who blew rings made from steam. In my dream, every billboard was a TV screen showing a different, full-color movie. The City wasn’t just close, my dream was telling me. It was the place where anything was possible.

When the city blacked out in 1977, we saw the skyline turn off. First it was there it then it wasn’t, as if someone had simply flipped the light switch.

When the World Trade Center went up, I didn’t like it. The towers were too big. Too rectangular. Too far south. They skewed the scale of the entire skyline and threw off the composition, drawing the eye to the left, away from the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings, where the viewer’s attention belonged.

Eventually, I got used to the towers. When we drove down from Vermont with our kids in the early 1990s, Sam would catch sight of the skyline and shout, “I see the Two Twins!” His older cousins who are twins lived in Montclair. The “Two Twins” seemed a suitable monument.

My parents died in 1994 and 1999. By September, 2001, another family was living in our childhood home. I don’t know whether anyone was there at 9 am that Tuesday. If they had been, they would have had a clear view of the devastation.

I was at my desk in Vermont, writing a picture book tentatively entitled One With the Wind, an idealistic little story about what a small world we live in, and how something as seemingly insignificant as a sneeze can have a ripple effect that’s felt two continents away.

David called from his office and said I might want to turn on the TV. What I remember him saying is, “The whole world seems to be on fire.” As I stood watching the buildings collapse, one of my first thoughts was, “At least Mommy didn’t have to see this.”

After college, I lived in Los Angeles, where west was the Pacific and east was the San Gabriels, when you could see them. When we moved to Vermont, east was the Green Mountains and west was Lake Champlain. Now east is Narragansett Bay. It’s been a long time since I relied on the New York City skyline to let me know where  I am.

But the memory of New York as the shining city out the window — of living so close to, but not in, something so important — still anchors me.

I don’t get back to Montclair much these days. My visits have been infrequent enough so I’m still startled by the way two sets of new owners have altered the family house, and by the lack of World Trade Center on the skyline. I stare at the house, trying to put it back to the way it’s supposed to look. I stare at the space where the towers should be, trying to put them back.

It’s a strange feeling, and by now sadly familiar, this sense of something you love being so close and so beyond reach.