It is entirely possible that better places exist here on God’s earth. My mind remains open to the presence of enchanted kingdoms and magic gardens—lands of fancy and light where there is the eternal gambol of laughing children, and no one falls ill, and no one ever dies. I imagine that on a secluded, uncharted island there are canopies of green filtering dappled sunlight on lush lawns and florid valleys, and bracing streams and waterfalls carry crystal waters over smooth, round, perfect stones. But while I allow the chance, even the likelihood, of such exquisite locales, deep within my heart, where all memories of youth and precious daydreams yet reside, I cannot admit that there was created ever a time and space as glorious as that which was known to we fortunate few.
That said, I am bewildered that at times I expend energy retracing my steps through those roads and paths of youth, as if a keener focus or clearer image might somehow return me, whole, to cherished grounds long turned fallow. My eyes squeezed shut, I regretfully acknowledge that, had I known then that the daily consternation of daunted dreams and forlorn futures might ignite a ritual flight to the past, well, I suppose I’d have tried to remember better. As is, there are days, though rare they be, that the dead better populate my presence than the living. Ghosts, specters, spirits of times I yearn for and hold to, haunt me. I’ve discovered that these apparitions are like old friends, in fact many are, indeed, old friends and family, and returning with them is a comfort and familiarity absent in my present, calling me to the past, emancipated from the uncertainty and anxiety attached to the future.
Eyes closed, breathing slowed to a doleful cadence, my mind reels and the images come in a torrent—a storm of color and vision and textures and sounds and smells, always the smells, so vivid, as if the honeysuckle and jasmine and pine and freshly cut grass had been placed on a dish right before me and teasingly waved beneath my puckered nostrils.
Freud maintained that nostalgia, all wistful reminiscence, was a form of depression. I don’t agree. Why not, instead, admit to another axiom—youth is indeed wasted on the young, and if we’d known then what we do today, we’d have adhered to yet another admonition: carpe diem, seize the day! But that is not altogether accurate, because could we possibly have been more voracious in charging forth and greedily embracing all offered us through those endless days? Our world was a secret society of banded brothers and sisters, some variation on the theme, a Lord of the Flies pre-school, admission available to those who graced the same hallowed grounds each summer—the colony kids. No matter what the colony, and there were so many. Breezy Corners, Breezy Acres, Golden Acres, Gold and Rados, Goldstein’s, Goldberg’s, Top Hill, Blueberry Hill, Toro Hill, Nob Hill, Chester Hill, Hilltop, Hillside, Himmels, Feits, Friedlanders, Sadownicks, Sondacks, Silberts, Lewinters, Lapidus, Dr. Lockers, Rottenbergs, Masons, Sadie Discount, Village Park, Parkside, London’s, Hands, Jan’s, Fialkoff’s, Ideal, Town and Country, Pine Knoll, Pine Grove, Dishner’s, Elm Shade, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Kaufman’s, Klein’s, Kozans, Kassack’s, Roby Lane, Woodland’s, Lanzman’s, Bards, Altman’s, B and K, S and G, Ryke Inn, Lakeside Villa, the Nasso, Kauneonga Inn, Kiamesha Inn. Dew Drop Inn, Pine Inn, Mountaindale House, Moonglow Inn, Rosmarins, Skops, Friendship, Cutler’s, Fair Oaks.. How many others have slipped from memory, now just empty stages where weeds push through neglected pavement, and shadow puppets play across the abandoned handball court? I sometimes imagine the ghosts of summer’s past haunting the discarded cottages and lawns and casinos, assembling at evening’s vesper for bingo, or canasta, or mah-jongg. Children, freshly bathed, damp mop-tops in feet-ee pajamas, bustling along from bungalow to bungalow, playing with toy soldiers and Barbie’s, engaged in a covert mission to discover a bag of marshmallows or another sleeve of Oreo’s.
In my memory I am scaling the fat trunk of the giant tree posted deep in the outfield grass at the edge of the forest, grappling towards the tree house reserved for just we “guys,” the boys of summer. The July sun beats down on the colony, but it is dark, comfortable, and even chilly in the shelter of the leaves and slats of lumber and shingles. Someone has brought a transistor radio, but it is all static, save for one station out of Ellenville, and we listen to the Beach Boys and Beatles and the Zombies and Four Seasons, and we sing along in awful harmony, imaging ourselves stars and teen idols, so foolish and ignorant and unaware of how special we are, how fortunate to be just as we are, where we are, when we are.
Our lives are comprised of an endless string of softball and stickball, arts and crafts projects and afternoons in the pool, trading baseball cards and comic books, pinball and ping-pong, mellarolls and cherry-lime rickeys, malteds and pretzel rods, bonfires and hikes in the woods, fishing and chasing salamanders after the soft, sweet August rains. How clean and pure and perfect were those summers? What greater gift could we ever have received? At the end of the film “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner, who has illogically constructed a baseball field and inadvertently summoned back the ghosts of deceased ballplayers of renown, tearfully meets a youthful, robust version of his dead father. The father asks, through dreamy, teary eyes, “Is this heaven?”
“No,” Costner replies. “It’s Iowa.”
“Really?” The father says. “I could’ve sworn it was heaven.”
Costner considers this, and then asks, “Is there a heaven?”
“Oh, yeah,” his father assures him. “It’s the place where dreams come true.”
I know, in my soul, that we fortunate few who shared the bonds and blessings of those Catskill summers were each of us gifted a small slice of heaven, every June, and they are experiences of the kind that will never pass our way again.