Where might one go to stroll with the spirits? To quietly slip within specters of the distant past and cherished memory, to gather the ghosts that can be touched only when dreaming, and drink, one more time, of fountains and potions sipped last when so young? Where would the souls of our departed assemble if they were to visit this world? At the grounds where we laid them to rest? Near barren, stark headstones rising beneath shade, so quiet, but meaning nothing to the departed, for their first glimpse of the terrain was, well, through eyes closed for eternity.
No. We yearn, and then return, to what gave us greatest joy. Who would transpose time and space for anything less? What might heaven be but an opportunity for perpetual peace and a promise of feeling the security and comfort and enveloping love we knew once and lost long ago?
The turns are familiar, even if the landmarks have changed. Where once stood a silo, a brick chimney from a burnt out farmhouse, and a dilapidated barn, now is overgrown with leafy green, a bevy of cherry and apple trees lush with pink and white blossoms, everywhere the scents of spring promising summer. The road climbs now, twisting towards its peak, then a small drop before the final turn. On the right had been a chicken farm—long rows of ramshackle wooden coops, the ubiquitous scent and the relentless cackling of the fowl all vanished, no suggestion of what had been, swapped for juniper bushes and fresh lilac playing in the open field.
The day is warm for early May, too warm to forego the car’s robust air-conditioning, but the system remains still, and the windows are fully opened, so that the breeze can gently mop the sweat on my forehead that trickles to my eyes and teases them red and teary, and the scents of the mountains—juniper, jasmine, lilies, lilac, honeysuckle and pine—can swamp my senses, so potent and piquant that I half expect to discover my dad behind the wheel of the ’57 Ford, and myself a child once more, resplendent in tee-shirt, shorts and PF Flyers, scuffling in the backseat with my little brother, a brief moment before the first sight of a bungalow peeks through the stand of birch and pine.
The huts and shacks and cottages of my childhood have not withstood the years without turning weathered and weary, yet the colony stands there still. The ball field is overgrown, but intact. The handball court is tilting, threatening inevitable collapse, yet the fading black letters on the once gleaming white wall are certain, and I silently mouth the words, FRIEDLANDER’S ATHLETIC FIELD. Hard aside the handball court, separated by a field of daisies, the huge swimming pool, fading blue, cracked and chiseled by a score of winters, harboring all the secrets we shared on a thousand summer afternoons of fun and frolic, collecting gossip and jokes and insights to life, and a few dozen horrific sunburns.
The bungalows droop and bend with decay. Where screen doors once guarded small children now are cobwebs and dust, splinters and fragments of wood torn from the knotty pine walls. The linoleum is cracked and peeling, and here and there are large holes peeking through to the ground five feet below, the cabin suspended still by the sturdy towers of cinderblocks. Absent refrigerators once stocked with milk, juice, cheese, eggs, fruit, meat, vegetables, the sustenance of a family’s summer—now are scrap metal, long ago removed, the only testimony to their past a ripped and yellowed place in the corner of the floor.
Through to the bedroom where once we jumped and bounced on sagging mattresses, and wrestled with siblings, and inhaled countless comic books—Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Spiderman, Captain Marvel, Archie, the Incredible Hulk. There, against the far wall, where we’d turned and nestled and shivered against the fear of the evening’s darkness, where our parents came to comfort us, where we laid and dreamt of ice cream and swimming, of young girls with blonde pigtails and summer freckles, of scoring touchdowns and hitting home runs. The room is empty now, and still seems so much smaller than we’d known. The yellowed, weary boarding-house furniture has long since stoked a winter’s fire, and the cloudy, faded mirror that once hung on the long wall has certainly exhausted the seven years of poor luck that commenced when it shattered. Peek through the screen-less windows now and squeeze shut your eyes. Open them once more and again you’re eight, or nine, or ten. The vista is unchanged. The apple trees yet bend and bow in the soft breeze, and the wind whispers quietly through the woods. Nostrils flare at the intoxicating bouquet from the past of the blossoms and pollen, and soft lilac and jasmine. Hold tight by the window now and listen for the voices of your friends calling you out for stickball, or swimming, or for softball, maybe ring-o-leevio. Tell them to wait while you slip to the bathroom, standing before the small pedestal sink where you brushed your teeth on a thousand mornings, eyes peeled to the woods out back where deer played along the edge of the clearing.
Walk the grounds now, by the casino, where parents held forth each and every Saturday night, with liquor and laughter and self produced merriment that never failed to delight and seduce hard working men and devoted, doting moms, mystically and mysteriously transforming them into creatures we knew very little of, and were bemused by, just the same. There is the wild, untamed beat of a bossa nova, and youthful moms in tight skirts, or Capri pants, eyelids heavy and half closed, moving sensuously and rhythmically to this alien sound. Dads are young and playful, and they smile easily while standing in small groups and telling off color jokes while imbibing rye and scotch and bourbon from clear plastic cups.
Step back now and clear your head. All is quiet. You are alone. You look out at the bungalow colony, rolling softly before you, and the stillness is surreal. What once witnessed and induced such vigor and vitality, so many memorable days and nights and moments, remains now as a silent vanguard of the future when, invariably, all we knew and know will live only in that small place within our minds eye reserved for times and places too dear to be departed.
And yet, and yet. It is here that I find myself returning, on so many nights, when the pressures and pains of living as an adult press in too hard. Drifting off to slumber, the cottages and cabins and bungalows, the casino, the pool, the ball fields, the swings and the teeter-totter, even my friends and family, is all as it was. The flowers bloom, and the grounds are alive with absent friends and loved ones. My mom is young and beautiful, and has a passion for canasta. My dad is alive again, his hair still dark and full, his smile easy, full of vigor and youth and the promise of the future. And on tender summer evenings, as the light surrenders the sky and I slip beneath cool, crisp sheets to a waiting pile of Superman’s, my dad comes to tuck me in, and I have fulfilled the wish I’ve longed be granted for so many years now. As he pulls the summer quilt up along my shoulders, and rises to leave the room, I have the chance to say, “I love you, Daddy.”