As in the old Beatles’ song, there are places I remember all my life, and last weekend I had a chance to revisit one: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. It’s where my grandparents lived, where my mother grew up, and not far from where a daughter lives now.
It’s also the locus of powerful childhood memories spent with my grandparents, who occupied the same, small, one-bedroom apartment for forty-three years, and where I’d go for extended visits, especially in the summer, when my grandmother would take me to the beach.
As in the song, some things have changed: Russian has replaced Yiddish as the local language, but both remain incomprehensible to me. The cavernous Woolworth’s, where my grandmother bought notions and thread, is long gone, but the street beneath the elevated tracks remains crowded with shoppers and ominously dark, especially when trains rumble overhead. The boardwalk has been renovated, but the beach is the same, and Coney Island’s landmarks – the Cyclone, the Ferris Wheel and the Parachute Jump – remain.
There are other places I remember but haven’t revisited in almost thirty years, like the street where I grew up in New Jersey. The last time I was there, I was a new mother, and when I drove down the street where I’d played kickball with the kids from the block, and when we parked in front of the two slabs of sidewalk where I played hopscotch with my girlfriends, and when I regarded the house where I spent the remarkably happy first ten years of my life, I thought the world had shrunk. The Shangri-La I remembered had been much bigger. My universe.
In Brooklyn, we drove past my aunt and uncle’s old house, where I house-sat after graduating from college while they were at their summer house in Vermont. Six years later, I moved into that Vermont house while I looked for a summer place of my own.
I’d only planned to stay a few months, but I’m still here, living just two miles from where my aunt and uncle no longer reside. As in the song, I’ll never lose affection for the places that went before; I have a connection to this place. It changes with the seasons and the times, and I love it more.
I’ve always liked the sense of community I’ve found in Vermont, and the ability and necessity of depending on neighbors in such a sparsely populated part of the world. I like living where there aren’t as many people as there are trees. But in all this time here, I’ve taken these trees for granted, as if the landscape were backdrop and not the place itself. I now find myself turning away from the houses, gardens, and human landmarks to become more intimate with the trees.
I’m befriending not just the trees, but also the birds who live in them, nest in them, and mine them for food; I’m also befriending the squirrels, deer, and moose, who shelter in trees, as well as the emerald ash borers and wooly adelgids who threaten them with destruction. As the outdoorswoman Mary Murphy writes, “Intimate relationship with your surroundings gives the land a face and a story for you. Once this happens, you understand how the land in a far away place also has a face and a story for someone else. You can’t help but care.”
The memories of the houses and sidewalks and storefronts that went before are losing their meaning as I learn my way into the forest, whose complex relationships between flora and fauna, between built and wild, between the earth and the sky, call me to spend more time in them and with them. This is what I now plan to do in my life.
For more ideas about living in the land, please read Mary Murphy’s essay, Offerings to the Land.
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