Bob and I have been on the move all our lives and went into hyper-mobilization after we got together. We’ve moved every fifteen months on average over the eighteen years since we threw in together. Like they sing in that song, wherever we hung our hats was our home. Or rather, wherever we lay down together was home.
My roots go back to New Jersey, specifically the two neighborhoods of my childhood, one in Atlantic Highlands and the other in West Long Branch. Bob’s roots go back to New Orleans and Ghana, Africa. Lucky for me I can still drive up to Aunt Kathy’s house, give her a hug and scamper next door to my cousin Mark’s house which used to be our Nana’s house.
Now that we’ve settled into an established neighborhood in North Carolina, we’re putting energy into establishing roots. We joined the potluck circuit, taking turns hosting a space for a leisurely dinner with our friends in the neighborhood. We began stewarding the grounds and trails. And we met our neighbors to the east over the fence.
Fred and Reda have lived in the house next door for a long time. Their yard is so pretty we consider it the gold standard for grounds keeping at the bend. More importantly, they have solid roots in the area, so I feel a little more rooted just knowing them. When Reda described where she grew up, she gestured over her shoulder to a property less than a mile away.
The “Home Place” is what she called it. Unbeknownst to her, Reda had just given me a new phrase to describe the roots of my childhood. “I guess my home place is Nana’s house,” I mused and went back to my mowing.
A few weeks later, Bob and I made our annual trek north, and this year we started off in the Shenandoah Valley with the Armentrouts. Sitting in Mark and Catherine’s living room, we heard the term again.
“That was their home place,” Catherine was saying about another relative, pointing to a place not so far away. It’s funny how you can usually tell where something is when someone points, based on how high they hold their finger, how vigorously they move their arm and where they send their eyes.
On we went to visit family in Shippensburg; Mom, Dad, brothers John and Bob, John’s wife Darla and their children Charity and Brandon and their families. We slept and ate in the beautiful stone house that Darla’s father helped his father build many years ago and which had later been moved from their Home Place just a few blocks away on a truck to its current site.
Darla’s parents Sonny and Dolora joined us, my brother, their daughter, their children and their children’s children for dinner which reminded me that Dolora’s parents, Darla’s grandparents were also from this Pennsylvania valley. There are lots of roots for my kin here, but not so much for me. I moved to Shippensburg with my family in the fall of 1970 and left town the day after my senior graduation on June 5th, 1972.
After four nights in the Cumberland Valley, we made our way to Atlantic Highlands. We hugged Aunt Kathy, sipped some wine and scampered next door with Mark for a look at his beautifully preserved testament to our heritage. He has lovingly tended to the gardens and house, keeping it pretty much just as it was when our grandmother lived in it and also added many framed photos of our ancestors. Mark is the historian in the family.
Talk turned to worthy topics such as Nana’s potato leek soup and poppy seed bread. We vowed to re-create these legendary dishes next year in the same kitchen they were born in before trundling off to dinner at cousin Frank’s in nearby Rumson.
Frank’s beautiful wife Shawn and their lovely daughter Houston showed off the grounds and gardens as we walked down to the dock across their manicured lawn. “Gold Standard!” I thought and then I asked Shawn how long they had lived in their house. “At least twenty years” was the reply. I wondered what that might feel like. Having just signed a thirty year note, I might get the chance. That is, if I live to be seventy-five!
The longest I have ever lived in any one house was seven years between 1963 and 1970 at 64 Hollywood Avenue in West Long Branch, a mere twelve miles south of the old neighborhood in Atlantic Highlands. This was the house I lived in with my five younger brothers. Most of my dreams take place either in this house or in the house in Atlantic Highlands.
64 Hollywood Avenue was where we climbed trees, watched Disney, Daktari and the Honeymooners on TV with the whole family, painted with oils in one of the three sun porches and stood back to watch my Dad ignite gun powder in the birdbath. We ate all our meals together in this house with the exception of Sunday Dinner at Nana’s in Atlantic Highlands.
The old Victorian was enormous, more than 4,000 square feet with eleven rooms, multiple staircases, fireplaces, glassed-paned sun rooms, and balconies, a basement and a wrap-around porch. It was a later, larger addition to the Norwood Park Cottage Colony built in which was developed in the latter part of the 1880’s.
“The Victorian styled cottages constructed at Norwood Park were built as summer rental homes at a popular summer resort for wealthy summer vacationers” according to Norwood Park – An Exclusive Summer Cottage Colony by Robert J. Fischer
“Later larger cottages were built on Hollywood Avenue west of Pinewood Avenue the one remaining home of this type lost its third floor to fire and is now refinished as s two story dwelling.”
The remaining larger cottage referred to above is assuredly the same the house I lived in with my brothers. The other, older cottages housed our neighbors and childhood friends. The doctor who delivered my youngest brother lived across the street and we often played with two of his sons.
The other families were all large and mostly Catholic like ours. Most of us walked, rode the bus or our bikes to the same school, St. Jerome School less than a mile away. Each home boasted between four and fourteen kids for us to play with. We ran through the neighborhood or rode our bikes and played baseball, football, hide and seek, combat, cowboys and indians and my favorite, “who dies the best.”
There was a riding stable next door which drew me like a magnet. Whenever I could slip away from my responsibilities as the oldest daughter, I’d slip through one of the thin spots in the hedge and cross the riding arena into the barn and courtyard area. There I learned to clean stalls, feed, water and groom horses, rake the yard and recondition leather tack.
This is where the sounds, smells and rhythms of the horse world left their imprint on my psyche. I strove to impress my friends by whinnying just like a horse as we walked home together from the bus stop. Their eyes always gleamed when we heard one of the horses call back from the other side of the hedge.
This year, the morning after a fabulous meal at Frank and Shawn’s, Bob and I drove over to West Long Branch and parked beside the old house. As I gazed up at the balcony outside what was once John and Bob’s bedroom, Bob noticed that the house was for sale. A huge lump rose in my throat. With the simple addition of a realtor’s sign, I realized that this house was much more than a place where I once lived. I stood there for awhile, basking in the happy feeling that I too had a Home Place.