The House I Grew Up In

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?


Jo Kline Cebuhar, an attorney and former chair of Iowa’s largest hospice, is the author of SO GROWS THE TREE: Creating an Ethical Will (2010 Murphy Publishing).For more about her and her book, see

     An ethical will can take most any form.  A simple, handwritten letter.  A multimedia slideshow, with pictures, words and music.  An embellished photo album or scrapbook, affirming the values, life lessons and hopes practiced by those pictured.  A cookbook recalling the memories that accompanied those prized family recipes.  An ethical genealogy, illustrating what you came from as well as who and where you came from by weaving through your family history the stories of the values, life lessons and hopes of your ancestors.  Tape-recorded stories or an amateur video, capturing one-of-a-kind voices and faces.  Any media can take an ethical will to a new level.  

      The first step to creating an ethical will is to identify your beliefs and values, life lessons and hopes for the future.  Know your reason for creating it and who will share it.   Use familiar prompts, such as family photographs, special occasions, historical events or favorite music, to organize your thoughts.  Or use an outline or template with prompts such as The values I would never compromise are…  From the children in my life I learned…  My hope for a better world is… Next, decide which medium best expresses your message.  Get your thoughts on paper and polish it over time, letting it evolve along with your life and perspective.  Set a deadline and decide when to share it with loved ones.  Then do so or put it in a safe place where others can find it when the appointed time comes.

       Our most important legacies cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  It is what we believe, what we know and what we hope for.  Take the time to practice the ancient tradition of creating and sharing an Ethical Will.  As Oscar Wilde put it so well:  “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on.  It is never any use to oneself.” 



Jo Kline Cebuhar, an attorney and former chair of Iowa’s largest hospice, is the author of SO GROWS THE TREE: Creating an Ethical Will (2010 Murphy Publishing).For more about her and her book, see


     More than 3,500 years ago, the tradition began with Jacob speaking to his 12 sons.  Thus was created one of the first ethical wills.  All these centuries later, the core elements of an ethical will remain intact: it records what you stand for. 

      Consider: 71% of Baby Boomers and their parents say that the most important inheritance to receive from the previous generation and provide to the next is the legacy of values and life lessons — an intangible more important than financial assets or real estate.  Even so, less than one-third of each group actually discussed this legacy with loved ones.

      Here’s the issue.  How do you articulate your beliefs, life lessons and hopes for the future – and, by the same token, get your loved ones to share theirs?  The answer: an ethical will.

      Creating an ethical will can help you sort out which principles you want to pass down along with your bequests.  It also lays the groundwork for the practice of choosing charities that nurture and foster your core values.

      This process is a worthwhile exercise in self-reflection and goal-setting. Anything can trigger the impulse to start an ethical will – a career change, first home, anniversary, empty-nesting, a grandchild’s birth, even a serious illness.  Identifying and examining your core values and true passions can guide future aspirations – a “personal mission statement.”   How better for parents to express their hopes for a child’s future than to create ethical will messages at birth, the first day of school, graduation and marriage?  Any one of life’s milestones can be an opportunity to share wisdom.

     Using a quotation is a simple way to express a core value:  Consider this comment from Henry Wadsorth Longfellow.  “The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books.”  My ethical message to accompany that:  From the love of reading comes the joy of endless education.  With education comes options and that’s what success in life is all about.  Celebrate your good choices and learn from your bad ones.  

     As we are the custodians of many family treasures, we will be using the ethical will model to pass them to our nieces and nephew.  For example, I’m the caretaker of the dollhouse of my cherished late cousin Mary Kathryn Kline, a young woman whose life was too short.   As I hand it down to my niece Katie, I will let her know Mary Kay was single-minded, determined, loving, energetic, independent and generous.  My niece Molly will be receiving heirlooms from a long line of pioneering and adventurous women who valued education, self-sufficiency, storytelling and humor.  The ethical message:  her Grandmother Peg lived those ideals and treasured her roles as a nurturing mother and a mentoring friend above all.    

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Boys of Summer: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

“There,” Kevin said without warning.

“Where?” Eric asked. Yes, I wondered, where? 

“Right there,” Kevin said, pointing ahead.

Ah, yes. There indeed. The stream below us, so narrow for so long, had widened into an oval shape, just like a pool. A watering hole, where the stream deepened from inches to feet, with steep banks all around, ridged by the roots from surrounding trees, exposed through the soil.

Eric and I scanned the spot, struck with admiration for Kevin, who had now shared his secret with us.

And just then the watering hole got even better. Next to the bank on one side loomed a tall tree with thick branches stretching out. Dangling from the lowest, thickest branch, maybe 10 feet above the watering hole, was a length of thick rope with a knot at the end. Someone had come along and wrapped the rope around the branch just so, creating the best possible ride.

Right away I recognized the possibilities. And I wasted no time. I took off my sneakers and socks and shirt and shorts, now only in my briefs. I clambered up the tree, the bark biting into my skin, my nostrils flaring so wide I could now whiff the lush, fertile woods around me.

I reached out to grip the knot at the end of the rope.

I tugged to test its security.

All systems go.

I pulled the rope back toward me and held tight and pushed away from the tree and swung into the air out over the watering hole with Eric and Kevin egging me on and then I let go and dropped and splashed right into the welcoming pool below and went down fast underwater and felt the mud on the bottom with my toes and came up to breathe.


And that’s how we three spent that particular afternoon at Dunkerhook Park. Swinging off a rope into a stream, swinging with utter abandon, the abandon of boys playing it all joyously by ear. Seeing who could swing out the farthest, cheering each other on.
As I say, you never knew with Kevin. But this time he came through with a true treat, no con job. Never before or since can I recall acting with quite that degree kind of abandon. Can any activity be wilder, less inhibited, than sending yourself hurtling off a tree into the water below? We felt like Tarzan. I wanted to pound my chest with my fists and yodel from the treetops.

That’s among the many gifts of childhood, that sense of being carefree. It lasts only a short while, never fully to be regained.

Boys of Summer

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Always, in recalling your hometown, you return to the landmarks, to the places where something happened. Your first kiss. Your first fist fight. Your first poem. You return to those landmarks with your eyes wide open, all but expecting to see it all again.

And so I go back to Fair Lawn now and again, looking for myself all over, retracing my boyhood. I can still see Dunkerhook Park, on the outskirts of town, about a mile from our home. You went down Fair Lawn Avenue past River Road and crossed a short old bridge so narrow it accommodated only one car at a time. The road twisted again, and then there lay the park, tucked lower than the rest of the town, almost a secret. As parks go, it had the usual amenities – swings and slides, picnic benches, a gravelly parking lot.

But one day when a teenager, I went to Dunkerhook with my friends Kevin and Eric, and we took a dirt path into the woods that wound along a stream. Soon we had left the other park visitors well behind, nothing around us but trees and bushes, no sounds but those of the birds chattering and the stream gurgling below us. Deeper into the woods we went, watching our step on the fallen branches and stones underfoot.

Only Kevin knew where we were going, or so he claimed, saying we would soon be there. Kevin knew something about Dunkerhook, and had promised to show it to us, and now we were here.
The woods grew denser, the outline of the path we followed fainter, the stream seemingly louder. You never knew with Kevin. He was kind of a con man, always kidding around, making wisecracks. He always got the better of Eric.

I went through spells of friendship with Kevin and Eric, close for a while, then no longer close, but we always stayed friends, coming back together.

And now Kevin was luring us into unknown woods on a whim that we would somehow find the experience entertaining. Maybe he had brought three cute girls here to meet us or, more likely, discovered a dead raccoon, or a treehouse, or a cave.

We suspected that whatever he wanted to show us, it would probably be pretty cool.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Split-City Fakeout: “D-Day” in Our Family: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

As it happened, we were mistaken in that belief. My parents stayed together for another 20 years or so. By the time they actually did divorce, Linda and I had long since gone out to live on our own, me in New York City, she in Los Angeles. I was even already married myself.
And when the divorce finally came, all I could really think – heartless as it might sound – was that it was about time. That divorce was long overdue.

It pains me to acknowledge that, but it’s true, as they themselves would probably have acknowledged. It just seemed to me, based on living with my parents for 20 years and knowing what I knew about how they got along, that they never really did each other much good.

Maybe early on, in the first flush of marriage, they had, feeling a love deep and real. And maybe even later on, they enjoyed being together, raising Linda and I together, getting through life together. But I never had such an impression.

They always seemed – often, anyway – so much at odds. They argued over the kitchen table, both with us there and without us there, my mother usually the aggressor, seething and hissing and probably accusatory, my father passive, taking it, pleading for understanding. I can only guess at the issues disputed – grandparents, children, money, maybe my father away working so much. My mother raised her voice, too, my father never. My mother would pound the table. Now, maybe all this seemed so only because as a child, I was naturally alert to signs of trouble.

Maybe I missed the signs of stability and trust and loyalty.

But I doubt it. My mother always had her agenda and my father had his, and at no point did they seem to have an agenda for the four of us, for the whole family. Neither seemed – and again I’m going only by the signs I saw – willing to put the other first, to compromise, to consider the greater good. Neither really seemed to want the responsibilities of marriage, much less of parenthood.

When you get right down to it, it’s as if even while married for those 32 years, they were already divorced.

Split-City Fakeout: “D” Day in Our Family

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My father and mother called my sister Linda and I to the kitchen table one night to announce some news to us. “We have something to tell you,” my father said, and right away I sensed something unusual going on.

My parents never really had anything to tell us. As far as I can recall, they kept everything to themselves, whatever it might be. My sister and I looked at my mother and prepared to listen. I was probably about 10 years old and she eight. We must have expected to glean the news from my mother’s face. But no such luck.

“Your mother and I are getting a divorce,” my father said.

I had a basic idea of what the word “divorce” meant. It definitely meant something bad. We looked at my mother, my sister and I, as if to seek an explanation, or maybe hoping she would reveal this all to be some kind of prank. Her face reddened and she cast her eyes down, apparently ashamed.

“We are going to live separately,” my father said, trying to define the new terms of our family arrangement. It was a bad moment, I recall, this announcement. The news hit me with a wallop. No more family, or at least no more foursome.

I’ve forgotten the rest of this gathering. Maybe my father said more, but most likely he did as he had always done and retreated into the safety and solitude of silence. Almost certainly my mother gave no elaboration, either. Maybe I asked a question, such as “What will happen now?” or “Why?” or “Was it my fault?” I must have had such questions swelling in my mind. But chances are, I was too dumbfounded to come up with anything to say.

Of this much I’m sure: Linda and I went back to our rooms believing our parents were going to be divorced. Our family would now officially break apart.

P.S. – See Part 2 tomorrow.

Guest Columnist Francine Brevetti: Spinning Memories Into Gold

Francine Brevetti, a longtime journalist, writes clients’ biographies and conducts workshops teaching people how to write their own. She calls herbusiness Legend Crafter, A San Francisco native, she worked as a business reporter for the Oakland Tribune from 1998 to 2008. She is the author of “The Fabulous Fior — over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen,” the history of America’s oldest Italian restaurant, Fior d’Italia (, available on She has contributed to American, British, Australian and Asian English-language dailies, magazines and trade journals.

Imagine an individual who wants his life story written but wants no one to read it. Such was my first client as a biographer/memoirist.

While I was a business writer for the Oakland Tribune, one of my duties was to write profiles of local business owners. I chose a man who had started his business from scratch 50 years previously and built it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He liked my profile of him. Within a few months hired me to write his life story.

Indeed the man had a compelling tale, childhood tragedy and struggle followed by many glorious achievements. And more tragedies.
When we began this project, he did not want it shared with anyone. I signed a nondisclosure agreement. He was also not communicating with his two adult daughters with whom he had a bitter relationship.

We worked together almost weekly for over five years. His life was that large. Every time I thought we had exhausted a subject, he mentioned something that opened up a whole new channel of activity and events I hadn’t known about.

I begged him to let me find a publisher. No dice. On the fifth or sixth year of our collaboration he invited me to his mammoth birthday party. As he laced his arms around their waists, he introduced me to his two daughters.

Over the time that we had worked together, my client became looser, more relaxed, and self-accepting. He found more humor in himself. Was there a connection between our labor and his reconciliation with his daughters? I never dared ask him.

Since I left the Tribune three years ago, I have had more clients coming to me to write their life stories. I write histories of businesses as well. My slogan is, “Turning memories into legends.”
The most common reason people give for writing their autobiography/memoir is to leave a legacy for their descendents and to review their most salient memories. This is so important.
But as my experience with my clients has borne out, the unanticipated benefit is that people heal. It’s not me. It’s the process of being listened to with intense interest but without judgment. Of course it helps if your biographer is a good writer too!

Not all memoirs are tragic. Barbara Clark’s father Sidney Snow, was the founder of the Oakland Zoo. The family home was on zoo grounds. Barbara recalls with delight and vividness her experiences having lions, elephants, tigers and monkeys as her pets when she was a child.
She walked in the kitchen one day with a serpent garlanded around her neck. Her mother immediately ordered her, “Take that thing out of here.”
Memories like that are worth preserving.