Mom handed me the piece of paper from a large manila envelope containing old records from her life. Mixed in among copies of birth certificates, deeds and an essay I had written as a class assignment in the early 1960s, she had found a copy of the original survey of the house she and Dad had lived in since 1955.
"They say I need a new survey before I can sell the house," she said. Her calm tone belied the storm of emotions I knew she had been going through the past several months. As Dad continued to fall deeper into the hazy world of dementia, she had become increasingly consumed in her role as his caretaker. Some of my brothers and sisters had decided it was time for her to move on, nearer to where they could more easily assist her with the stress and strain of caring for our father.
"I'll take care of it for you, Mom," I said. It was the least I could do. Mom doesn't ask for much. In fact, she never asks for anything, never wanting to bother us from our own busy lives.
The following morning I prepared to make a copy of the survey. I stared at the paper, yellowed from age. It was a simple drawing of a small 100-by-100-foot corner lot in Brentwood. A rectangle, representing the house, sat kitty-corner in the lot, facing southwest: two small geometric shapes drawn in blue lines on an old piece of paper. The simplicity of it contradicts the significance of what it represented.
It was the summer of 1955 when we drove up to the new subdivision carved out of the oak pine woods in western Suffolk County. I was not yet 5 years old, but I can vaguely recall the dust from the unpaved roads and the first view of the small ranch house where I would grow up.
Dad had just completed seven years in the U.S. Navy, where he had served as a corpsman in the Korean War, attached to the U.S. Marines. The war was over, life was new, and this subdivision, like so many on Long Island, was built with returning veterans in mind as suburbia marched ever eastward in what had been a rural landscape just a few years before. Mom and Dad liked the corner lot that looked out over a short dead end leading to the woods. The woods would become indelibly etched in our memories for years to come.
Although hard to imagine now, it was a much different way of life from what it is today. We barely had a television set, never mind the array of electronic gadgets kids grow up with now. Our day-to-day activities, when we weren't in school or church, revolved around the outdoors. We played baseball in the street and in vacant lots.
There were acres of woods to play in and the "old shack" up the hill that opened onto a large field of golden bluestem grass, waving in the wind under open blue skies. There were a few gnarled orchard trees that were protected by "the old man on the tractor," as we called him.
He chased us once on that tractor, for reasons unknown to us, yelling to his daughter, "Get the gun!" We ran for our lives, with my younger brother Pat screaming all the way downhill through the woods, crying out that he "didn't want to die!" Neither did I, as we flew down the trail toward home — Pat dangling by his hands between me and one of my childhood friends, Dean Onstead.
Those woods held more adventure and imagination than any 300 electronic devices ever could during endless days of exploration and discovery.
Now, staring at the survey, I thought it sad, somehow, that someone else looking at it might never know the life that had gone on within those squares on the paper. Mom and Dad had raised nine kids in that little rectangle. I don't know how we all fit in that house, but we did.
We didn't have a lot, but we never wanted for anything either. Maybe we were too busy growing up to realize it, for in that household there was hardly a dull moment. It seemed it was always someone's birthday, or a holiday. Nearly 60 Christmases had been celebrated there, and countless Sunday dinners, when my grandparents would often visit.
We were always glad to see Nana and Pop, their images fresh in our minds, thanks to the old 8 mm films Pop left us. Watching those old movies, I always marvel at how fresh and raw the neighborhood was. It was a time when anything and everything seemed possible, not only in our own lives, but also in everyone's, and certainly in America.
As time marched on, the little house changed. Dad had an addition put onto the kitchen to accommodate an 8-foot-long dining table where the family could gather. Nine kids, something nearly impossible to imagine today. Though we sometimes fought when we were children, we somehow all got along, and still do. If Mom and Dad taught us nothing else, it was to love and respect one another, within and outside our family.
We still gather around that long table sometimes, though rarely all together anymore; we couldn't fit there if we wanted to. As the oldest, I was the first to move out, to attend college, marry and have a family of my own. Soon all of Mom and Dad's kids had families of their own, and now our children have children.
From that little rectangle on the survey, there are a dozen other surveys with households where we carry on the lives that Mom and Dad taught us to live. We hold onto the old values, celebrate the same traditions, and continue to try to share the optimism and promise of life with our children and grandchildren — the way Mom and Dad somehow did in that little rectangle on an aging survey.
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