Tales from the “way back”

This is for you, Steph.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the late seventies and eighties in a tight-knit neighborhood full of kids. In those days, my best friends and most everything I loved or needed was a short walk away.

We played outside for hours at a stretch – in the creek, trees, streets, backyards, and basements.

We lived by simple truths:

Older brothers and sisters were in charge.

Mr. Rosenberg made the best pancakes.

The O’Connors had the biggest kickball team (11).

But perhaps one of the greatest but forgotten places to be during my childhood were the far flung regions of my friend’s parents’ station wagon – what we called “the way back.”

1970-Kingswood-Wagon“Can we sit in the ‘way back’?” was our plaintive plea at the announcement of every road trip, grocery store run, or rainy day ride to school.

In literal terms, the “way back” was so physically far from the front seat it may has well been in a different universe, which I suppose, lent it its magic.

I remember crawling over the back seat to the “way back,” the scratchy feel of the avocado felt, like the fuzz of a new tennis ball, wiry enough to give you a rug burn, soft enough for hours of travel or adventure.

1976_Chevy_CapriceSometimes we leaned against the leather-covered sideboards. Sometimes we lay on our backs, heads close to the back door and watched the sky whisk by, thin clouds racing, sunlight and shadows making patterns across our faces. On long trips, we made beds out of sleeping bags and pillows in Stars Wars and Muppet Show pillowcases.

The “way back” was a safe zone. You were much less likely to get pinched or punched or kicked or glared at by an older sibling if you were there.

On some summer evenings, while our parents sat in lawn chairs, talked and smoked (it was the ‘70s) in the backyard, we kids hung out in the front yard and driveway – sometimes sitting in the parked “way back” with the door open, like a kind of club house.

What I didn’t realize when I started digging into my “way back” memories is that the station wagon was much more than fun for us kids. It was a literal vehicle of empowerment and independence during the ‘70s. It was a call to take to the open road.

Don’t think so?

Think of The Brady Brunch journeying to the Grand Canyon.

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Think of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the movie on which the sitcom “Alice” was based. Alice packed up everything she owned in her station wagon, and she and her young son set out on a journey to find a better life. The station wagon their transitional home, big enough to hold all or most of their possessions, big enough to sleep in if they had to.

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Think of One Day At A Time. Ann Romano as the quintessential ‘70s single Mom divorcee. She dumped her husband and packed up her girls and her life in their station wagon – and unpacked and remade them all in an apartment of their own, on their own.

bonniefranklinAnd, let we forget, perhaps the most memorable station wagon of all, from National Lampoon’s Vacation.

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I’m assuming the station wagon went out of fashion fast when the gas crisis hit, and when times got better, someone came up with the next generation: the minivan.

God, forgive us.

I guess the “way back” is gone forever. Children without seat belts romping around in the backs of fast-moving cars? Well, no.

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Oh, 1970s, we miss you and your cavalier attitude, your winged hair, your independence.

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But mostly, we miss the “way back.”

Home

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in a small town called Berkeley Heights. It’s very easily whizzed by if you’re traveling at high speed on Interstate 78.

I attended public school and graduated high school with 140 kids, many of whom I have known since elementary school. When Facebook began taking over the universe, I reconnected with tons of people from home, amazed at how everyone had grown up. Now, it’s a pretty normal occurrence to skim Facebook and see the photos of  babies, dogs, vacations, and homes of the same people I played kickball with so long ago.

Almost two weeks ago, I received a group message that one of the girls I grew up with had suffered a massive heart attack. The message was sent by her best friend, the same best friend she had when we were in grade school. Over the past two weeks, we’ve received regular updates on her condition (please think healing thoughts). And while the initial reason for getting us all in contact was and is frightening and upsetting on so many levels, it is also full of joy, nostalgia and gratitude.

Because along with our fear and concern, we’ve gathered up armfuls of laughter and childhood memories. Photos have been posted, like this one:

Circa 1982. Attitude courtesy of Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Madonna.

It’s funny, a while back I wrote about the collective power and energy of this same band of girls from my childhood. And just as we did then, here we are again, shoring each other up with laughter and a certain kind of gratitude that perhaps comes from the place where we first tested our boundaries and ourselves: a town where you could play outside until your parents called you home, a place with creeks to cross and small mountains to climb, a place where the kids you knew become the people you always want to know. Home.

 

Driving home

There is an interstate I travel here in the Lowcounty, an east-west exchange. From certain glimpses, in the right early evening light, this stretch of road reminds me so much of an interstate in my native New Jersey, I am nearly transported back there.

I suppose it’s not shocking that one Southern interstate could mimic one so far North. Maybe it’s a bit of nostalgia. I imagine taking the exit that would eventually lead to my childhood home. I park the car in the driveway, walk up to the screen door to see my Dad sitting in his favorite chair inside, tapping his corn cob pipe empty of old ash.

Not that all of this makes sense. My Dad stopped smoking years before I could drive. The pipe and he both gone. The house no longer ours.

But the drive home with green leaves of trees half lit by early fall sun brings it all back.

I see the very first hint of color in a tree. I watch for the sky to move into its deeper blue. I wait for the heat’s reprieve.

These are the days worth gathering up by the armful. I stack them like good firewood in my mind.

 

Love song for Clarence

Last Saturday, we lost Clarence Clemons, the dynamic saxophonist and partner in musical crime for Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, far too soon.

If you haven’t yet done it, read the beautiful tribute, Bloodbrother: Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011, David Remnick wrote for The New Yorker.

“His horn gave the band its sound of highway loneliness, its magnificent heart. And his huge presence on stage was an anchor for Springsteen, especially when Bruce was younger, scrawny, and so feral, so unleashed, that you thought that he could fall down dead in a pool of sweat at any moment. At the brink of exhaustion and collapse, Springsteen could always lean on his enormous and reliable friend—an emblematic image that is the cover of “Born to Run.”

As a New Jersey native, I came to Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band early in life. It’s no exaggeration to say that my early definitions and vision of what it meant to be in love, to struggle, to long, to want the hell out of my hometown, were formed listening to those haunting, heroic albums – devouring lyrics and singing to the breaking point of my voice, eyes closed, arms outstretched.

That Clarence Clemons could, through his saxophone, breathe longing, loss and triumph into a song, into people’s consciousness and souls, was his gift – and one that thankfully lives on.

To me, there was always something so heartbreakingly beautiful about the bond between “The Boss” and “The Big Man.” That their relationship broke racial barriers is an incidental, albeit important, social statement. That their musical and physical chemistry was the stuff of other legendary partnerships – Jagger/Richards, Plant/Page, Lennon/McCartney, Simon/Garfunkel – minus the breakdowns and breakups, attests to their mutual respect that withstands life and death.

It is that elusive, intangible connection between these two men that fascinates and moves me. Their “brotherhood,” a term so cliché and overwrought with emotion, it has nearly ceased having meaning. But you need only watch them together onstage – Springsteen leaning into Clemons as the sounds of his saxophone fill a stadium – Clemons with arms raised beside Bruce as he sings his disciples into ecstatic epiphany – to understand what beauty do love and friendship and music make among men.

List of love

One of the most thought-provoking moments of my college career was when my Anthropology professor hit us with the notion that we are all taught to love. That love is learned. Like walking, talking, learning to tie your shoes, or algebra. I think of that every so often, especially when love confounds me.

What is very clear is the love I have for the items below:

The commercial that defined my childhood vision of a romantic Valentine’s getaway. Which probably explains a LOT.

Love and only love will endure. -Neil Young

Just finished reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It was so good that I simply opened it back up to the first page to begin reading again.

My niece, Callie, and me in 2001.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table. – Billy Collins, Litany


9 or so minutes in Passaic, New Jersey, 1978.

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All Will Be Well. Because it will.

The hardest battles of all within ourselves. Thanks, Katie.

Annie Dillard. Her memoir, An American Childhood, is one of my long-time creative wells.

“Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, because it makes me think of the world’s best Valentine, my Dad, who never let a Valentine’s Day pass without giving me the gift of chocolate. Oh, and unconditional love. Thanks, Dad!

Now, go throw your arms around the neck of someone you love. As in a hug. Or a good-natured headlock. Your choice. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Distinguished gentlemen

As so often happens in life, we attract people who are like us and then not like us. These stout bellied gentlemen, Mr. Finn and Mr. Smith, were friends and work colleagues of my Dad, who incidentally would be slightly chagrined that I’ve included this photo on my blog.  He was ever so mannerly that way.

I love this photo for more reasons than I can name. But mostly because it was taken at a work function. Ah yes, finding this photo was a joyful, hilarious discovery and a reminder to take care of the good people in our lives who make us feel alive, invite us to raise a glass and make us laugh despite ourselves. Gentlemen, Dad, I miss you all.

Going home

I’ll be honest. I’m still processing my recent road trip to New Jersey for my 20th high school reunion, which also coincided with the year anniversary of my Dad’s passing. It’s fair to say I’ve been swept up in a veritable sea of memory, emotion and moments ever since.

And, I’m feeling an overwhelming need to share. So, I’ll start with one moment and periodically hit you with others. Agreed?

And it’s this: walking into a room brimming with people you grew up with…some from as far back as birth, literally…some of whom you haven’t seen in more than 10 years, is, in a word, INSANE. In the most wonderful way ever. In fact, I wonder what a scan of my brain would have shown at the exact moment I entered the room.

Gathering up the folks who played roles in each other’s collective pasts is a powerful thing, and I say with joy and certainty that I grew up with the best people ever. I do not say that easily. Meaning, I don’t say it to blithely reduce one of life’s largest brain overloads to a clichéd phrase. I say it, because it’s utterly true. Which is to say that I cannot imagine my growing up years without this collection of people. Mostly perhaps because it would be a far different life and therefore not mine.

I’m not romanticizing the awkward years of teen angst and struggle. In fact, there was photographic evidence of it on display! Like any kids who grow up together, we fought, cried with and over each other, celebrated together and separately, clawed, kissed and alternately ground one another’s self esteems under our heels one minute and built altars the next. All of it, every moment, is precious beyond measure. Simply for the fact that it’s ours.

At the end of our 8th grade year, our principal, in a fit of rage, announced that we were “the most terrible class in history.” I’m quite certain that at the time, the comment was well-deserved.

Conceivably the worst class in history at one moment.

The beauty lies both in the fact that we were once “the most terrible class in history,”  and, in the very next moment, continued on our journey to morph and change into the people who, 20 years later, filled a room in Livingston, New Jersey with laughter, happy tears and stories well into the night. It is good to go home.

Ladies & gentlemen, the Class of 1990.