Dear Michael and Caroline,
I remember every square inch of the house I grew up in. I guess that will happen after you spend 20 years in a place.
But I probably recall the details so well more because of when I lived there – as a child – than because of how long. Early in life, everything registers, makes a deep impression, shapes you.
And so it was with our house. It was pretty much the first home I ever had – I’m discounting the one-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Avenue in the Bronx that my parents and I occupied for my first two-and-a-half years.
I arrived in our house in Fair Lawn before turning three, in 1954, and left it a month after my 23rd birthday, in May, 1975 (I leave out two years of college spent in Boston right after high school).
In a sense, for the longest time, that house in Fair Lawn, that post-World War II split-level, with its three bedrooms upstairs and sloping front lawn, was my whole universe.
My room was directly across from our second bathroom, right off the stairs, the first stop on the second floor. Down the hall, straight to the end, then to the left, lived my sister (did I mention her room was larger than mine, in the corner, with windows on two walls rather than one?). Catty corner to her room was where my parents slept, complete with private bathroom and shower.
Ah, but that was only our top floor. Across the hall from my room, high on the wall off the steps, was the entrance to the attic. You had to climb up and crawl in, and it was a low-slung space, always dim and dusty. An attic, especially to a child, connotes a certain creepy intrigue. What could possibly be up there? What secrets might be buried? I never found out, at least nothing I can recall. We must have stored something up there.
The steps near my room led to the rest of the house, maybe eight or ten steps. Framed on the wall next to the steps were butterflies pinned in place, all colors and all kinds. At the foot of the steps was a gallery space of sorts, tiled to set it off from the surrounding carpet, with an overhead lamp hanging down. To the right was the front door to the house. Straight ahead was the living room, with a wide picture window and, at the end, a fireplace.
You develop a keen sense of geography, of what’s where, as a child in your house.
Turn left and you enter the kitchen, passing the steps to the den downstairs. To the right is a kind of bay for our kitchen table with four chairs. Refrigerator, oven, sink, stove as you go right. Then the back door to the house. Next came an entrance to our dining room, curling around as an extension of the living room.
Now we go down to the den, the ceiling close overhead on the steep steps. Over to the left is the closet my father once used as his office, then the door to the garage. At one point we had a piano near the door, later a teletype machine. The room felt like a bunker because it was set partly below ground, the long windows along the back looking onto our driveway and High Street, low enough to be about level with the wheels of our cars.
Turn right from the steps and you enter a door to the basement, another land of mystery. The concrete steps wound to the right, bringing you to yet another planet in the galaxy of our house, cool and quiet and apart. Here were the washer and dryer, the boiler, two walk-in storage closets that smelled of cedar, really a small apartment in itself, with small windows set high.
Why do I give you this tour? I want you to see what I saw, and know where I lived, and how, if only to have some sense of my origins.
Later I will tell you more. I’ll go beyond the layout to show you the landmarks in the house that mean the most. I’ll tell you what happened in that house with my mother and father and sister and me. I’ll tell you where and when it happened – and maybe, if possible, even why.
P.S. – How well do you remember the home you grew up in?