“Each time we run away from ourselves we are driven home again with greater force. Every effort to break out only pushes us further back into ourselves.” – Henry Miller, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird
MADISON, NJ — When we moved into our new place, I decided the bird feeders had to go. It’s not that I mind birds. I mostly enjoy them, their colorful chirping. I just wanted to start with a blank slate. And the curved wrought iron stands, well, they littered the yard like misbegotten signposts. And to be honest, they kind of creeped me out.
When I told my wife that uprooting the Salem stakes was at the top of my to-do pile, she adjusted my priorities with a laundry list of pressing home improvement projects that would fray even Bob Vila’s nerves. Not that I could actually do any of them. But she knows I’m handy with a phone and checkbook and if I’m competent at anything (besides toying with the English language), it’s making calls and writing checks, otherwise known in corporate circles as “gathering resources and executing plans.”
Speaking of competencies, our teenage daughter is full of them. She can make a mess and spend money like there’s no tomorrow. Wait, let me reword that. She can optimize the lifespan of random items and utilize other people’s finances with aplomb. (See, that’s a much better, kinder description, and I’m protecting her self-esteem at the same time.)
Seriously though, Gwynne is frightfully good at calling life as she sees it. (Funny how sometimes having no filter is a positive trait.) For instance, after her first night’s bath in the upstairs tub caused a micro-cloudburst from the kitchen ceiling, Gwynne aptly described the plumbing situation as such: “So, Dad, basically we bought a fixer-upper.”
That’s right, Gwynne Bug. And sow has reaped my prodigal return to New Jersey, twenty-five miles outside The Big Apple. Soprano Suburbia. As unpretentious as a governor with stomach staples. Posh as a prosciutto-wrapped melon. Blissfully woven in Donald Trump’s hair with only an occasional blot of coastal bird droppings and sightings of orange Snooki lookalikes and beach novelist wannabes.
Boy, it’s good to be home.
I never thought I would call my life outside the Garden State for the last 20 years uneventful, but since moving back, I have found the pace and purpose of my swampland surroundings humbling. It’s not the highways or the traffic that make it intense. It’s the people. And without fully grasping the reasons why, my attitude about this state has profoundly changed. The people of New Jersey are survivors. They’re not proud, just staunch. And their loyalty is alluring. They go about their business, speak their minds and they “could give a rat’s ass” who they’re insulting. They can teach this nation a thing or two about the benefits of transparency.
I often tell folks from outside the NYC metropolitan area that I grew up just a stone’s throw from the George Washington Bridge. I’m not trying to impress them, just trying to give them a glimpse inside the Soppressata factory. In reality, I’m only stretching the truth about ten miles. And as much as New Jersey gets a bad rap (mainly because of the putrid smell that lingers from Exits 13 through 15 on the NJ Turnpike), neighboring New York gets in your head at a young age.
As a kid from Jersey you quickly learn what lures you and what repels you about the City. Either you like the anonymity and bright lights of Manhattan or you prefer the insulated familiarity and starry nights of your little whitebread town. Either you’re starstruck by the incessant noise and bustle of Times Square or you prefer the magic of nightswimming, chasing moonbeams, swatting lightning bugs. Either you dig the pigeons in Central Park and the crazies who feed them or you prefer the safety of your own yard, the steadfastness of your mom’s private bird feeder.
In returning home I chose a town very similar to the place I grew up, either by design or subconsciously. It’s hard to say. I have fond childhood memories and I no doubt wanted to provide a similar small-town dynamic for Gwynne.
Upon moving here I promptly bought her a mountain bike, partly, I’m sure, because I don’t want to see her grow up too fast, but primarily because I equate riding a bike with freedom. It’s a form of flight. There are many towns where I wouldn’t feel comfortable having Gwynne roam the streets on her bike. Madison is different. The romantic in me compares it to the borough of Hasbrouck Heights in the 1970s. Sure, there’s a loss of innocence with every generation, sure, bad things happen in all types of neighborhoods, but I like the concept of staving off adulthood while you can still get away with it. Biking is a healthy excuse to stay forever young.
We’ve lived in a wide array of homes, but I think this is our first go at taking occupancy of an older house from someone who had died, possibly in it. We don’t know much about the circumstances behind the previous owner’s death, nor how long she lived here alone. We do know she owned a travel agency in town and we sense by her estate sale possessions that she embraced culture and adventure. And by the lovely appearance of our gardens, she dug nature. Immensely.
Carol appears to have been someone whose company we would have enjoyed. And sometimes at dawn when the birds begin their mating calls or croon for the myriad reasons birds choose to serenade, I like to lie in bed and imagine that Carol is here with us, in the backyard, feeding them. Creepy, I know.
Some people live for many years in a residence and leave hardly a trace. Others mark their territory with permanence and leave beauty, graffiti, scars.
No matter how many walls we paint and windows we replace, no matter how much of our stuff occupies this space, pieces and parts of Carol remain. Every corner I turn, every plant I brush past, I sense her. It’s a friendly presence.
That’s right, I said it. We live with a friendly ghost.
Sorry, naysayers, but you can’t live in a 1950 cape and think you don’t have ghosts. It’s like scorning the belief of flying unicorns and pretending you can preserve the innocence of youth by buying a bike for your 16-year-old daughter. Eventually, life gets wise to you. And it delivers a field of alchemic wonders. You either accept them as small miracles or you deny them. You either keep looking for ways to find your place in the universe or you raise the stakes and stop feeding the birds.
Photo credit: Bird Feeders, Stirling Ontario by Robert Taylor, Bobolink