Through a glass, darkly

Leaving Philadelphia, we head north to our next visiting place, a lush suburb of New York City. On the way, we stop in Bucks County for my date with destiny.

Since I was nine, I knew this day would come, but I did not know how or when.

We stop at a pod mall to buy hammers.

The takeaway of this event for one of my daughters was: “When Mom was little she used to live in New Jersey.” She tells this to a friend of mine from middle school who we’ve arranged to meet to walk the dogs in a park in Connecticut.

Really!” he says. “Shock Facebook update. Secret past revealed.”

Okay, it was like this: until I was nine my parents had a country house in Pennsylvania on the other side of the Delaware River from New Jersey. They sold the house for summers by the sea and in a tearful farewell to idyllic childhood days roaming the woods I vowed furiously that I would return and maybe even bring my husband and children. And then, just to show my parents how wrong they were, we would buy the house and live there for the rest of our lives.

I cannot find it on Google maps. I remember our U-shaped drive, filled with gravel and bits of quartz, and I scan the aerial view of the road, but nothing looks like it. My mother cannot remember a street number and says that it is possible the land has been sub-divided and the house no longer there.

The road, when we come to it, is unfamiliar and the farther along we go the less likely it seems that I will recognize the house. I am not even sure which side of the street it is on. Childhood memories are sharp and very selective. But then I see it.

The house has been painted gray and in the yard behind it is another building, a garage with rooms on top, that is the same size as the house. The flagstone path is still there as is  the lamppost, and the rock I was sitting on when a hundred toads crossed the path one afternoon, but not the patch of mint or the flower gardens.

A woman comes to the double Dutch door, that you can open at the top, leaving the bottom half closed. I introduce myself and explain why I have come. But after some back and forth, she says, “No, I’m sorry, dear, you’re mistaken. I bought the house from the man who built it. You have the wrong house.”

“I don’t think so,” I say. “This is exactly like the house we had. I remember that double tulip poplar tree.”

And then she says, “Oh, of course. What was I thinking? I bought the house from your parents,” and she says their names. “They were the ones who bought it from the man who built it.” She unhinges the lower half of the door, apologizing that she has to collect her grandson soon but we are welcome to come in for a few minutes.

I am standing in the living room where we had Christmas when I was little, where my mother played her Fifth Dimension records. The cheap bracketed shelves that held our stereo and the Horizon art magazines have been replaced by a unit. The wood paneled walls have been painted, but the split doors with their large iron hinges and latches remain.

I am struck by how utterly familiar the house is and how unfamiliar the street was. I know the layout of the upstairs so well, have walked through it in my mind so many times. The path through the woods is still there but we have to go and she has to go, and so we take a few pictures outside and get back in the car.

The painted metal bridge to New Jersey is the same and the supermarket, library and church are there, but where once there was only the hardware shop, or maybe that was all I remarked, there are gift shoppes and little cafes and pizza and ice cream places. There are more people.

When I look back, I see timelessness, long hot summer days, low stone walls, hex signs on barns, carved birds with wings that spin in the wind or carved people sawing logs, pick your own strawberries. The barns are gone. Driving to the highway, the land is rolling, developed hills, pretty, but like a foreign country, like Luxembourg.

My husband likes the house. If it weren’t located 20 hours away from where we live I bet I could talk him into wanting to buy it.

When we moved we had a yard sale to sell all of the things that would not be coming to the beach with us. There was no attic there and no space in our Manhattan apartment. Years later, when the girls and their cousins were small, I bought some now vintage versions of my old toys. I remembered the yellow and blue interior of the Fisher-Price house like it was the little house in Bucks County, but the magic was gone: the foam pads of the beds were hard, the papered walls had tears and imperfections, dogs had gnawed the smiling heads of the Little People and their chaise lounges. My children wanted Playmobil.

If you took the path into the woods, you might still find the ruins of a log cabin. Why did I forget to ask if it was still there? It was only driving away that I thought about that, my other house, whose china I collected in fragments, whose old clay pipes, leather shoe parts, oil lamp bits and a 1909 dog license, provided a glimpse to other lives and illustrated how people move on, how time passes and how much or how little can be gleaned from the excavation of artifacts.

But why the hammers?, you ask. Nearby was a field of rocks that rang when tapped with a hammer. I don’t remember if each did or how large the field was, but we were out of time and did not make it there. Now I’m traveling with hammers and the idea of the music we could have made in Ringing Rock Gardens so my children could have that as a strange holiday memory, more interesting than some gray house. Instead they will tell their friends or, as was the case, my friend, “Mom used to live in New Jersey,” which is true enough to the distortion wrought by time.

We used to point out our old addresses to them as we passed through W9. Just some windows, just a building, but that’s where you learned to walk or started school. Which addresses are going to call them back? If you peer hard enough, can you make out your old self peering back? I know that even if I had been upstairs I still wouldn’t have seen whatever or whoever it was I was looking for. Rocks may ring, but walls don’t talk.


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