This past Saturday evening I found myself at an old-time, family-run Italian restaurant not far from where I grew up. Along with several dozen former high school classmates, we were celebrating that milestone event, our 50th reunion. But for the name tags with our senior class photos, most of us would never have recognized each other, now grayer, heavier or thin with wrinkles, stooped. Hellos were immediately followed by squinting at the name tags and an, “Oh, I remember you!” Or not.
None of my high school friends made it, unfortunately, but the evening was pleasant and the conversations up-beat. Everyone I sat with was wise enough to stay away from politics. It was a good reminder that, despite our national discourse feeling like a high school hellscape, most people are considerate adults. We all grew up a long time ago.
The real highlight of my short visit back home, however, was the ever-stunning beauty of the Hudson River Valley. Someone somewhere (I keep thinking it’s Edith Wharton, but can’t find the quote) said that the landscapes of our childhood remain deeply imprinted in our hearts and minds.
So it is for me, growing up near Peekskill, N.Y. I don’t know if I fully appreciated it when I was young, but I was thrilled by the view outside my room at the old motel where our grandparents used to stay when they’d come from Cincinnati to visit—a wide expanse of the Hudson, glittering in the late day sun. Trains that run alongside the river hooted long and low, and even though we lived far from the river itself, that sound was wonderfully evocative of my childhood, beloved music that drifted across hills and woods to my ears, especially at night, especially in summertime when the windows were open.
I sent a picture of the view to my daughters, and my eldest texted back that I should go to Bear Mountain, which had always been a favorite spot when we’d come down to New York for Thanksgiving weekend. On Sunday morning, I checked out of the motel and took her advice, as the state park was only a short drive across the river. The route along the Hudson is winding and narrow, along a rock cliff, and I am no fan of heights, but I just focused on the road ahead as I crossed the iconic Bear Mountain Bridge, with its fieldstone toll house, no longer in operation. It was either that or another fieldstone shelter at Bear Mountain that makes a cameo appearance at the beginning of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Up the squiggly road to the overlook at the mountain’s top, I was followed by a couple of guys on motorcycles, but they were in no rush to overtake me on such a winding route with only large jagged rocks between us and the sharp dropoff. I passed a few intrepid cyclists on the way. At the top, the view did not disappoint, though enough other folks had decided to get there ahead of the weekend holiday crowd that there was no space to linger. I got a better view of the Hudson on my way back down, at a scenic overlook, alongside several tourists with real cameras equipped with telephoto lenses.
From Bear Mountain I drove through Peekskill, which, to my amazement, has barely changed since I was last there, at least 20 years ago. Some of the same mom and pop businesses still remain. The downtown, such as it is, remains dominated by red brick storefronts and the odd, curved, windowless, painted brick building that once housed Genung’s, the local department store where my mom bought me my first bra.
With a little help from my GPS to drive in the right direction out of town, I found my way to the familiar route to our old home. There were a few notable changes: the nunnery is now a condo complex; the community hospital where our mother was treated for the cancer that took her life in 1999 is now owned by New York Presbyterian Hospital.
I turned off the GPS and continued on, past houses that look much as they did when the school bus drove us by, past the decaying one room school house that’s now barely recognizable, past the gas station and general store where we’d walk sometimes to get Bazooka Bubblegum, past what was once a dude ranch for city folks that became a yeshivah while my dad was still living here, to the familiar left-hand turn onto our old road.
The house is barely visible now, hidden behind overgrown shrubbery, its yellow siding that my parents had installed decades ago now dark with mold. There were several cars in the drive and parked in the turnaround out front, so I quickly took a few photos, then drove down to the lake where I’d learned to swim and skate. It was clogged with algae and lily pads, no longer a place that anyone would dip a toe. Boaters were warned to proceed at their own risk. All that’s left of the large weeping willow that was planted when I was a kid is a ragged stump that looks like the remains of a lightening strike. There are weathered picnic tables and a playscape to one side, and the tennis court that used to be reserved for men only after they came home from their New York City train commutes, but the only signs of life, other than the aquatic, was a lot of Canada geese poop. Down the road from the path to the lake was a home with huge blue flags declaring the election victory of the former guy. It was time leave.
On my way out of town, I stopped at an roadside diner that used to be a favorite place for occasional dinners out. There are no longer any jukeboxes at the booths, and the restaurant has expanded well beyond its original blue diner car footprint, but the inside is authentic retro from back in the day, my hearty brunch was great, and it only cost twelve bucks.
Three-plus hours later, I walked in the door and found my husband decorating our pine-bough-covered sukkah, in preparation for the Jewish festival of Sukkot. Later that evening, after we’d finished eating out in the sukkah, I leaned back in my chair and studied the gourds that Al had hung from the lattice roof and smelled the pine boughs and was just grateful to be back home.