Awhile back, I figured out I have had 19 different addresses since leaving for college. A long time ago to be sure, but I was still surprised that there were so many. Sure it counts a different dump each of my college years, and episodes like house sitting for 3 months on a cul-de-sac in Castro Valley, and a single month in a Denver apartment with roommates who I realized had probably escaped from an insane asylum, and so on. So I guess 19 seems right, though that number has remained there for some time.
In the meantime, the house I grew up in, the 20th address I have had, THAT home, had remained “home” all those intervening years, my family remaining there for 52 years.But after 52 years, that rock was about to move. We were down-sizing, moving my Mom into a smaller apartment and selling the house. And after several trips back East, first to move my Mom, then to sort through what to do with ALL THIS STUFF, we were coming to the end. It was the only family home I knew, a reliable home port in the occasional stormy seas of life(see above), a living museum of our collective history. And now it would be no more, and it was happening too fast.
My parents purchased the modest home in Camillus, NY in 1967 for $21,000. Our family had been living in an apartment in Syracuse, and like many families at that time, were looking to leave the city for the suburbs. Syracuse was in a period of serious decline, losing industry, jobs, people, but the suburbs offered a counter to this – freshly built affordable new homes, schools, parks, and shopping centers, none older than 10 years. A brave new world on what had been dairy farms. Our tract was know as Parson Farms.
It was part of a movement that would see the county triple its urban footprint, despite adding few people to its population. But that is the subject of another post. I mean, I was 5 and our new yard had its own hill. (It had a vertical drop of 5 feet, but it seemed like a mountain ). It was a pink ranch style house, with a black Dodge Dart in the Garage. It was a brave new world for me and my sister, seen here with the neighborhood welcoming committee, days after our arrival. My sister is delighted, and I’m the dude on the left, looking less certain.
These early suburban developments were set on farmland, between forests and unbuildable hills, accessed by the old roads lined with old farm buildings. The first new building in the area was actually the Kallet Drive-In Theater, aptly heralding the dominance of the car in this new world. You can see the rural character beyond.
Nearby were 19th century farms that intrigued my young eyes, mostly because they looked so different from the 3 designs of our tract development. (“ranch”, “split-level” “colonial”.). These buildings sat on the old roads that divided the subdivisions. It was one of these that gave its’ land for all these young families. It was only years later that I would realize how extraordinary some of these older structures were- this particular house was steps from home, built in the mid 19th century as a treatise on the design efficiency of the octagonal house. (and worth noting Central New York in the mid 19th century was rife with utopian communities and design – their legacy is strewn throughout the area )
But this was a new age, and the new residents would need new buildings appropriate for the modern age. Another taken for granted landmark was the church across the way – nicknamed the Holy Snowplow, and homage to both our Lord and our abundant Lake-effect snows.
It’s hard now to appreciate how extraordinary a moment that it was in Parson Farms. The neighborhood was full of young families just like ours, every house loaded with kids the same age. An entire group of settlers would all be raising families in the wilds of suburban America simultaneously . And for us kids ,it was these wilds that lurked around the perimeter of the neighborhood, the leftover places that existed between our tract development and the 19th century world of octagon houses that were the real treasure. Lands of mystery and adventure they were, identified by one word names :
The field. a stubby forest filled with paths for bikes, fruit trees, mysterious ruined buildings and rusted farm equipment, sinister nearby landowners, or so we imagined.
The pond. the end of our street was a stagnant drainage pond, the result of a seriously inept neighborhood drainage system. A summertime paradise of amphibious creatures, and in winter ,a hockey rink. An added bonus was the periodic summer deluges that swamped this medieval drainage system , flooding homes and turning the whole neighborhood into a waterpark.
The path. – a dirt walk burrowed through another field. This new world was planned for the car, not the pedestrian, so this was created out of necessity, connecting the walker to commerce such as the nearby Friendly’s. It was a veritable thoroughfare of wayward pedestrians cutting through a field of wildflowers- my grandmother often could be seen standing waste deep in a thicket clipping wildflowers for home. Her flower arranging was legendary.
The plaza. 30 or so locally owned shops and department stores. This was the outside world- the site of all shopping expeditions, new pants for school, lumber for the next home project. It was home to summer carnivals, fireworks, my first job, my first beer, even my first kiss I think. Our window to the world. All accessed by the path, past the pond, past the field. Along with school, our complete world.
Farther afield one could find endless adventures to more exotic locales- day trips to Rat Hill, the Pool, Lost Lake, or Christmas Tree Hill. None of them(except the pool) planned recreation areas, no these were abandoned places, old ruined farmhouses, quarries, all in between places.
It was a magnificent place to grow up.
Meanwhile, the house, like the surrounding wilds, was adapted to suit us. In summer, the cars were moved out of the 2 car Garage, and screens were put up, creating a summer room. Every single house in the neighborhood was set up the same. And in October, all of this was moved down into the basement, a massive space the same size as the house above. (I have not-so fond memories of taking a preposterously heavy hideaway bed up and down those stairs each spring and fall, via an elaborate pulley system my father had devised) . The basement became our winter quarters, warm and cozy , sheltered from the copious snows that came blowing off of Lake Ontario. So the home expanded and contracted with the weather.
The neighborhood was in fact a seasonal symphony, each homeowner working in concert with the climate and every other neighbor, lest one fall behind. (did you see the Collinses already have their screens up !) Summertime spent in said Garage porches, each serving as Living/Dining /TV room, the sounds of baseball broadcasts drifting amongst the hum of the Junebugs. Then the stunning autumns and the leaves, (those leaves aren’t going to rake themselves Bobby), the tough snowy winters, the sound track one of snow plows, ice scrapers and snowblowers (that driveway isn’t going to shovel itself Bobby). And then mercifully, spring, the neighbors gradually emerging from their basement lairs, to take stock of winter’s toll (that road salt isn’t going get raked out of the yard by itself Bobby). Soon time to get those screens ready for summer. So like the neighborhood itself, the richness of experience lay not in the original design, but the adaptation.
The years passed, and all of us kids that plied those wilds moved on, away to college and other adventures. The neighborhood grew older, kids but fewer of them, with many families like mine growing comfortably older in this lovely place to live. The surrounding area changed as well- over time those wild in between places began to get filled in with new development, the path repeatedly re-routed to maintain our connection to the outside world. The pond was finally entombed by 20th century drainage technology. And the plaza eventually faded, following a familiar chain of events -locally owned shops replaced by national chains, then enclosed in a mall, then the mall eventually dying a slow death, to be replaced by a Walmart.
So about a year ago, with my Mom now the sole occupant of the house, we began to think that it might make sense to sell it and downsize. And after a year, that had brought us to these few weeks. With Mom moved, my sister and I, with the help of her daughters, were going through 50 plus years of lives lived, a veritable archeological dig, the layers revealing the family eons. As we dug through the history , we began to assemble and categorize, like any good archeologists. Keep , sell, or other.
There was the motherlode of silver- tea services, trays, bowls, egg scissors, hors d’oevres skewers, chafing dishes, platters , bowls, more tea services, more egg scissors.
The holidays were a big deal at home. My grandmother, who lived with us many years, was a master crafter. There was a whole section of the basement devoted to these treasures. Her most memorable creations were tiny Christmas trees made out of meat trays. Sold at church bazaars, I would see them all over town. The amount of meat we ate each fall was staggering (just kidding). Sadly, none survive. But there was this, a felt holiday wall-hanging , one of her great works of art:
Meanwhile my father collected sports memorabilia , not the expensive kind, the more heartfelt kitschy kind. Anything that said Syracuse on it eventually found its way into his collection. The basement was filled with it:
The ultimate tinkerer, I have come to a greater level of appreciation of my Dad’s skill at taking cast-off scraps and giving them new life. He famously came upon discarded shag carpet samples, and these were reborn as our famous portable shag carpet, which was transported in sections between our Garage and Basement “seasons”. A careful diagram placed each section of 9. You can see it in the photo below, along with the famous tic tac toe painting which was a mysterious gift of our next-door neighbor. A mystery first because the lower right game had 2 winners…….what did it mean? And a mystery because, just ..why? Sadly , it is no longer with us. But it lives on in this photo that screams 1980s.
Somebody’s discarded tiles became an end table, and multiple ash trays. This table much treasured:
Then there was the inexplicable. I apparently was featured on a line of ash trays that highlighted my scouting career:
So many games.
And of course there was the repository of childhood flings, in this case, my five year flirtation with the trombone. It had not been opened in 40 years:
While my grandmother crafted, and my father created carpets and built tables, my mother otherwise held the house together, not the least of which with her extraordinary gardening, cooking and baking. This is the cookie decorating section:
And then the 50s era electric oven that produced our sublime Sunday roasts. Sunday Supper, a tradition I have taken with me.
Finally, there were outright mysteries. Who was this? A lost Rembrandt we hoped , but alas, was not to be. I believe one of our sterner ancestors from the Dutch/German side of the family. I remember him staring at me for many years. I always sensed his disapproval in whatever I was doing.
Once we had set aside all we wanted to keep, the rest went up for sale. The estate sale itself was bizarre, it attended largely by people for whom this is their every weekend. They wanted to rummage, not buy silver (we sold not one piece). One man came up from the basement holding opened dishwash detergent and asked how much. I looked at him incredulously-“20 dollars”. It was exhausting. When I was downstairs, shooing people out of the backrooms, somebody asked how much for the pencil sharpener mounted on the wall. I unscrewed it and handed it to her. That was it. These people are roaches I thought, and I wanted them out of the house. I felt soiled by the whole thing, the family history, the treasures being evaluated bartered, dismissed. How much for the OxyClean. Really?
The day after the sale was the last day I would be back home, and appropriately, it was snowing hard. Growing up we endured really tough winters. The area sits at the end of Lake Ontario and gets pummeled with the legendary “lake effect” snows all winter. The sound of the snow plow was outside, and I watched as it pushed the street’s snow into the driveway. Growing, up hearing the sound of a plow at night would quicken the heart with the hope of a snow day. But during the day, it was a clarion call to grab a shovel and clear off the driveway. Not much point of that today.
The best thing about the estate sale was that we had found a buyer for the house . The next weekend someone would come and clean out the remains of the house, every last bit. And that would be it. I would be flying back to California in a few hours, and I now thought maybe it would have been nice to have a month, to sit here and pour through every piece, probe every layer of history in depth, to feel it all more fully, bring closure. Then again, maybe not. Like all goodbyes they never seem quite right- either too much or not enough.
It was time for my sister and I to lock up the house, and depart Parsons Farms, both of which had been pretty close to perfect. The snow had stopped, but it would no doubt start again, accumulating to treacherous levels in the driveway. That snow wasn’t gonna shovel itself.