Sometimes, when I’m having trouble getting to sleep, I take six decades of my living and slide them aside, like a Japanese door, to open on the landscape of my childhood. I remember the house I lived in when I was five or six years old, trace its floorplan, walk out its door and wander the streets. What is most surprising is how much there is stored in the neurons, untouched for half a century, that can be re-animated. Each door I open opens into a room with new doors to open, that open on other rooms with other doors.
And so, I remember the front room of the house where we lived with my grandmother, Nana, in New Jersey just after the war. It sat directly on the town boundary between Teaneck and Bogota at the point Degraw Avenue began its long westerly descent to the Hackensack River. It was the house where my mother grew up, where her father died when she was seven, where she then had to raise her younger brother and sister while her mother worked in Manhattan. It meant that my mother never really had a free childhood, and perhaps as a result, adulthood always seemed to feel like a burden.
That two-family house divided at the front door. To the right was the front room of our apartment. Straight behind the front door were the stairs to the second floor, where Nana’s sister and her husband lived. Tante Esther and Uncle Gerry. That front room led through a wide arch to the dining room, at the far end of which were two spring-mounted swinging doors — one on either end of the wall — which led to the kitchen. Off the dining room to the left, underneath the staircase to Tante Esther’s, were the bedrooms and the hard-tiled bathroom with its claw-footed bathtub. At the back of the house, tucked behind the kitchen, was an addition my father had built where Nana’s mother came briefly to live and finally to die. She was a formidable woman, born Anne Gurina Kristiansen in Norway, but so old by the time I knew her she seemed almost like death already. The fact she died in what became my bedroom hardly registered on me. I was too young to understand.
Usually, I get drowsy by this time, and I descend into a nether world.
The basement, reached by the dark stairs behind the kitchen, was a dungeon in which a large beast of many white asbestos tentacles resided, sitting in the middle of the cavern roofed with rafters and ducts. A coal chute gave some light beyond the golem, and what was once a window to the backyard near the top of the wall was now dark, covered with the addition where the old lady died. A cat once gave birth to kittens in the crawlspace accessed by that window. My father hated cats. I don’t know what happened to the kittens, but it is unlikely he harmed them. More likely he called the dogcatcher to come and get them. At any rate, they disappeared as quickly as they arrived.
That golem, the furnace, played in the cast of the adventures I devised in the cellar, turning used Reddi-Wip cans into space ships, which I shot through outer space with noises I generated in my throat, shooting each other into oblivion. Some days later, my mother wondered what the bad smell was and discovered the remaining cream in the cans had soured, stinking up my cosmos. Reddi-Wip was invented the same year I was born.
That interest in outer space came from a mahogany box in a corner of the dining room, which had a tiny curved glass window in it on which I religiously watched Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, to say nothing of Captain Midnight. Television was new, quality was dubious, reception iffy, and programming spotty. We all knew the familiar “test pattern” that burned into the cathode ray tube before the day’s schedule began.
My father aided and abetted my fascination with space travel by fabricating for me and for my younger brothers what we called “space boards,” which were masonite panels we could hold on our laps, filled with various buttons and switches we could flip and push, in imitation of the control panels of our space heroes. It is amazing how easy it is to amuse a young boy with an active imagination.
But it wasn’t only space that captured my imagination, it was also cowboys. Because there was so little programming available for the early TV stations, they recycled endless movie re-releases to fill up the time. Many of these, at least on morning TV, were Westerns from the 1930s. I came to know and love Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele — the “Three Mesquiteers,” and above all, Hopalong Cassidy. William Boyd had struck a coup by buying up the rights to his old movies and now refitted them for television, and later making a whole new series of TV adventures. Boyd was my favorite.
At the age of three or four — at any rate, before I began school — I remember my grandmother getting on my imaginary horse, Whitey, with me and riding her from the kitchen to the front door to see her off to work in the morning. Cap guns and cowboy hats were always the preferred Christmas presents.
This isn’t about nostalgia, however, but about how a small boy experiences life. As an adult, one has a well of experience to draw on, a series of related moments forming a net, so that each new occurrence has some resonance with its past. But as a child, each thing is new and as yet unconnected to the rest. There are things taken as given: family, the house, the yard; later, the school, the way to the grandparents house. All these things ultimately mesh together, but those early memories are discrete; it is only as I pull them together while trying to doze off, that they begin cohere.
In those first years, the world was largely circumscribed by the house and yard, with the rooms, the mystery of the understair closet, with its odor of dust and uncovered lathe, the cavern of the cellar, the apple tree in the back yard from which Nana made a yearly batch of applesauce, and the vacant lot next door, which was our cow prairie or our moonscape, depending on what we were playing that day. Or, for that matter, our jungle when we took our shirts off and “went native.”
Beginning with kindergarten, the world opened up. I walked the mile to school each day and the mile back, and the streets became tentacles of geography on which I built my picture of the world. Each street was a different reality. To give a summary picture of that geography: Degraw Avenue ran basically east-west; the few blocks on which our house sat was a plateau; down the west side, into Bogota and Hackensack, the road went downhill; and in the east, from Queen Anne Road on, it went downhill the other way toward the Meadowlands, Overpeck Creek and Fort Lee. That was the spine of my earth. Crossing it, almost like shoulders and hips, were Queen Anne Road and Palisade Avenue.
Our house was on the corner of Degraw Avenue and Farrant Terrace, which was the street that ran along the side of our house, took a 90-degree turn and continued down to Queen Anne Road as a kind of anastomosis, leading the same place as Degraw Avenue. My best friend, Tommy, lived in a house where Farrant Terrace bent. The Clems lived in the house next door to us; they were an older couple who treated us like an aunt and uncle. Their back porch had jalousie windows, a fact that much fascinated both me and my little brother.
The other arteries in this circulation all came off this main armature. It is difficult to express just how central this picture of the world was to one in the process of piecing together a whole self. At that age, I knew nothing of Nebraska or Timbuktu; it was the spine of my streets that were the core, the seed on which the crystal grew. From those first certain streets grew an internal sense of how the entire globe might be pulled together in a single flash of connectedness.
Out the front door of our house and across the street was Crestview Place, which ran uphill steeply to Fourth Place in Bogota, where Nana’s mother-in-law, Aase, lived, upstairs in a house where her sister lived downstairs — Tante Marie. The two were very old, very wrinkled and very powdered. When I was still pre-school, Aase lived with her ancient husband Thorvald, who wore thick black wool suits with a vest and a pocket watch, had wire-brush whiskers and the distinctive smell of old man. He died early on in my life and Aase — whom we called “Bestemor (Norwegian for “grandma”) — lived on into her nineties. I spent many a day at Bestemor’s house, climbing into the attic to play with the toys she still had from the childhood of my mother’s brother, painted lead cars and airplanes.
Down the hill to Palisade Avenue is where my father had his hair cut by a barber named Dick, who wore a white coat and had one of those pencil mustaches one knows from Hollywood movies of the 1930s. It also led to Olsen Flooring Company, where my father worked as office manager and accountant.
Down the other way, to Queen Anne Road, led to the A&P, the delicatessen where we bought potato salad, and across the street from the deli, the bakery where we bought “mudballs” — a round, chocolate covered cupcake that we loved as kids.
At the point Farrant Terrace ended at Queen Anne Road was a tiny private grocery store whose floor was covered in sawdust — a common occurrence back then, now frowned upon by health codes — and a stationery we called the “candy store,” where I spent my nickels on Three Musketeers bars, Necco Wafers, and a particular favorite, a packet of five sweet jellies called Chuckles, whose flavors were cherry, orange, lime, lemon and licorice.
By the time my mind wandered around to the candy, I would probably be asleep. But if not, if I still couldn’t drop off, I will wander around that circumscribed world as I did when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I walked to school every day and home afterwards, doubling that inner map of the world. A friendly policeman stopped traffic on Queen Anne Road to let me cross the street. I recall Mrs. Winters and my kindergarten class, the naps we took, the milk containers we drank from, the rhythm bands, the finger painting. I remember the playground around Longfellow School (now closed and turned into a church) and my Aunt Sally who was the school nurse, and little Willie Shydecker, whose fifth birthday party I went to in a house just two away from where Aunt Sally and Uncle Bernie lived. I sometimes wonder what ever happened to Willie.
But it was walking home from school that left its biggest mark on my being. I wandered. I didn’t always take the same route. I took what I called “short cuts.” These led me miles out of my way, exploring where other streets might lead. If I have traveled much as an adult, it was only a habit set in motion when I wandered down Fort Lee Road, past Amman Park with its small fountain, and up the hill and back down to Bogota and the broad mainline railroad tracks — at that time six tracks wide; now most of the tracks are ripped up and gone — which I would stand over on the bridge and watch the trains pass, shaking the ground. The boy is father to the man.
My wanderings amazed my parents, who thought it odd that I would walk so far out of my way, but they never seemed to think it might be dangerous for me to do so. I think they were quietly proud of their boy for being able to find his way around so easily. They also showed me off to the adult world for my prodigy ability to name all the cars on the street by make from the time I was two or three. One Fourth of July at a fireworks display over the Hackensack River I was carried around by my father on his shoulders who showed me off to uncles and grandfathers by pointing at cars parked in the lot and having me name them: “Pontiac, Studebaker, Packard, Rambler, De Soto, Kaiser, Crosley …”
Other times, he would test me, sitting on the front porch of the house and I named the cars as they passed on Degraw Avenue. From that time on, tests at school were never frightening; rather, they were a chance to show off again.
The odd thing remains that these memories of Teaneck seem to have a different reality from later memories, almost as if they were of a different person. I can draw a straight line from me at 68 back to me in fourth grade, me in college, me during my first marriage, me when I became a writer. But there is a kind of memory lacuna between that me and the me of these earliest thoughts. It is as if I have to dig down into the layers of soil separating me now from me then, like an archeologist, to discover this fragment or that, and then piecing together the shards into a full pot.
We all have a story-line in our memories, that continuous ego, that who-ness that we are. It is a novel told straight through. But these earliest memories are more of a collage, the bits and pieces reassembled in no particular order, the scents, the memory of being picked up and held, the doors swinging open to the kitchen, the golem in the basement. They are a preface to the story, oddly unconnected, yet, still of a piece. Tributaries to the river.
The box still has many pieces unrecollected here. I can take them out and play with them again next time a churning brain keeps me awake.
I enjoyed reading this piece, Richard. So many precious and formative memories that underlie our “selves” and somehow live on in the mind. Your early adventures in neighborhood geography reminds me of a great journey two or three little friends — we were about 5 — made on our trikes on the sidewalk around the block we lived on. Seems that may have been the archetype for all my subsequent journeys.
“So much depends on a red wheelbarrow …”