by Brian Heir
Rated "G" by the Author.
edited: Friday, October 12, 2007
Posted: Saturday, June 09, 2007
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What is Real Estate? Is it physical land and buildings, or do dwellings take on, and absorb our humanity?
Real Estate an essay by Brian B. Heir
re·al estate (rē'əl, rēl) Pronunciation Key
n. Land, including all the natural resources and permanent buildings on it.
48 Revere Ave, Emerson Boro, NJ Cozy Cape, frontage 100 ft. Offered with Amana refrigerator and washing machine. 3 BR with 1 tiled Bath.
The Emerson, New Jersey home I was born into was sold when I was 3 years old. My parents had built a new house, just a few miles up the hill, in a new neighborhood. It promised the advantages of more rooms and space, with lower taxes.
I don’t remember much of anything about that first house from my toddler years, even though my favorite aunt and uncle, and their kids, lived on the next block, there in Emerson. By the time I was four, home was just up the road in Paramus, where cognitive memories were imprinting upon my growing mind. Looking back, there are thousands of anecdotal remembrances, spanning three or four remodeling and furnishing themes.
If you’ll pardon this digression, a bit of fast-forward, when I was about 15, I was hitchhiking somewhere, when a young driver picked me up. At that age, without knowing it at the time, I had come into about the halfway point of what was to be my tenure in Paramus. “Jim” announced that he was from Emerson, 48 Revere Avenue, in fact. Some little bell went off in my head, and I later told my parents the address of my borrowed ride. They were intrigued, and reminded me that it was the very house I grew up in. They remembered his last name from the Real Estate closing, years earlier. The thought occurred to me that the accommodating driver could be living in my old room.
499 Princeton Terr, Paramus, NJ Spacious Center Hall Colonial, 5 BR/3 Bath with large lot, extensive landscaping, offered new by builder. Full GE appliances, Central Air, every upgrade, utility room attached to garage, with mother/daughter BR and extra bath on ground floor.
Well, getting back to Paramus, my first best friends were made in the neighborhood. My elementary, middle and high schools were there. As a pre-teen, I camped with my friends in the woods at the end of the block, behind Roy Schneider’s house, years before that tract was developed. I caught and released wildlife at the brook behind Jack Barben’s house. There was a nearby farmer who repeatedly chased my friends and me from his land, adjacent to the most recently residentially built street. He purportedly kept a shotgun full of salt cartridges, to protect his crop of pumpkins and gourds.
You see the town I grew up in was a new suburb, sprung up from the agricultural roots that had come before. The progeny of the original Dutch Settlers had begun to sell their old farm tracts to builders, who in turn, sold upscale suburban homes to a mix of successful blue-collar families and executives from more urban climes. The children of the many townies remained, and held contempt for the kids of parents who bought these big, shiny new houses, on the other side of the tracks.
I was oblivious to this while growing up. Only when I look back from adulthood, do I realize the origin, or perhaps proper cause of their resentment.
As I entered my teen years, Charlie, my beloved beagle, and highly prized seventh birthday present, became less important than girls and finding trouble. By the time I started my first year of community college nearby, it was startling to discover that she (yes, Charlie had been misnamed, as she proved by her several litters of puppies over the years), had to be put down at 12 due to stomach cancer. For an instant, I saw a puppy with dancing feet, and the thousand walks together, a mother dog birthing puppies in a whelping box we had made for her in my father’s home office, off the garage. Charlie’s final trip to the vet served as a milestone of change that made me realize that constancy was perhaps no more than a false comfort, a construct, or illusion.
By nineteen, I had moved in with a girlfriend on and off, although my parents always kept the door open. If they didn’t, I knew how to grab onto a piece of decorative molding, just over my head, on a pillar post. From there, one good pull-up brought my 135 pound frame up to the rain gutter, where I could further hoist myself up to the roof, and open my parents’ master bedroom window on the second floor, which for some odd reason was never locked. The alarm would sound, but it was local, and no security company was summoned in those days. I’d just run downstairs, and hit the off button. There was tremendous comfort in knowing that home was always home, even if I couldn’t find my keys, and Mom and Dad were out. And they would always be home soon.
2903 PalmAire Drive Pompano Beach, FL Elegant, luxurious 2/2 dual master layout villa, completely furnished and professionally decorated with the finest European fixtures and antique pieces. 2400 sq ft under air. Italian marble floors and premium 4” wool shag carpeting. Adjacent to world renowned PalmAire Spa, Elite country club lifestyle for the discriminating. Brokers and principals welcome.
Then, without warning, came the next house in my life. My parents had been visiting PalmAire, then a famous spa community near Fort Lauderdale, FL. Celebrities spent long weekends there. Elizabeth Taylor, and Dean Martin, and Ben Gazzara shared the Jacuzzi with my Dad. My aunts and uncles bought high-rise condos there, and my parents followed, but with distinction that was typical of my father’s style. They bought a Villa. That was a freestanding house, amidst the high-rise condos that Aunt Derry and Uncle Milt, and Aunt Nina and Uncle Harold, and Aunt Rudy and Uncle Al had settled into. My parents were anything but snobs; they had simply found the nicest option, the prettiest lot, with a fully equipped house on it. Some wealthy European had professionally furnished and decorated the villa, right down to the details of wall sconces, and etageres, and built-ins and custom made 20 foot long couches, that were too robust and heavy to ever leave that place. At some point the Italian, or Frenchman, or whomever the seller was (PalmAire had been a worldwide second home spot in those years), simply had his agents dispose of the place, replete with a set of modest, but very real diamond earrings, left in the large dressing closet. My parents were the timely, fortunate finders of it all.
My mother Rosamond had fallen in love for the second time in her life. The first time was when she met her “Kalmy,” my Dad. The second time was this house. My mother was an extremely self-educated, erudite woman, and she eschewed profanity. But the story goes, after her first walk through at the villa, when my father asked, “what do you think?” She answered, “Some f-ing house!” My father, without hesitation, bought that place with cash for his beloved wife. My parents were now snowbirds.
When I first visited PalmAire, my mother, who had always put me, her youngest child, above all, proved to be very territorial of this place. “Don’t pull hard on those pocket doors,” she warned. “No scuffing shoes on the marble floors!” My Ma had graduated from years of taking care of all of us, and found something new that was her pleasure and her pride. And being there made her truly happy. The floor plan was all on one level, and she marveled that she no longer had to drag vacuum cleaners up and down stairs.
I found it exciting to have a Florida house in the family, yet at the same time, an uneasy sense of competition for my mother’s attention and priority. She seemed to love this house more than me! I may have even imagined her new great passion as some sort of threat. To be fair, a big part of her infatuation with this new life-style was that she was among her three surviving sisters, and their husbands. What a charming retirement, for all these kids who had grown up together in Jersey City, to be young again, having completed the struggles of making a living, raising families, and putting us all through college. Palm Aire seemed like the rejuvenating waters from the film, “Cocoon.” Now, the only concerns were how to enjoy each day’s leisure.
Around that time, I had bought a first home of my own, in Hackensack, NJ. It was nowhere as near as nice as the family domicile I had lived in and out of for nearly 30 years, but it was mine. It was an attached townhouse, and I did lots of little projects to make it seem less homogenous from the neighbors’ units. I planted a Thundercloud Plum tree right in the middle of the front lawn. It was so small that I brought it home from the landscape nursery sticking out of the back of my hatchback. A dozen years later, it was the diameter of a telephone pole, covering the front yard of that townhouse with shade from its abundant burgundy colored leaves.
My Aunt Nina and Uncle Harold had stayed in Emerson, a block away and parallel to the house I was born in, through all the years since my folks had moved to Paramus. Like I said, I didn’t have much memory of my first house. But through the years of growing up, and frequently visiting Nina and Harold, only a couple of miles away, I felt a strong attachment to their house.
Sometime around the early 1980’s when my parents, and aunts and uncles were all snowbirds, Nina and Harold were the first to retire, deciding to enjoy their PalmAire condo year round. I met them on their last day in Emerson, just in time to find my Uncle Harold cramming a final suitcase into the trunk of his Sedan De Ville. He and my aunt seemed rushed. From the driveway, on the side of the house, there was a full view of the large backyard, which had hosted so many barbecues and parties over the years.
“Are you sure about this, Uncle Harold? I mean, you’re leaving New Jersey for good? You want to be in Florida year round?” He looked at me quizzically, lowered his eyebrows, and shook his head.
“Brian, I’ve worked and waited all my life for this, I can’t wait to become a full-time golfer!” My uncle, normally a conservative driver, burned rubber to leave that driveway, and headed towards his perfectly conceived and executed retirement.
Some months later, my folks broke the news to me that they too were leaving New Jersey for good. There was no dissuading them. They emptied the Paramus place, with little help from me. It’s true that I could be a lazy kid, but I think it had more to do with an unwillingness to take part in dismantling what I had always thought of as my lifetime home. I wonder what ever happened to all the board games that were in a closet on the first floor, the ones that were brought out on rainy play days during my pre-teen years. And the big knock hockey game, like the ones that you see in yard sales, if you’re lucky these days. In any case, my parents put the last trash at the curb, and flew to Florida forever. Then, I got a phone call late that night, from my Dad. He explained that by some error, an expensive piece of jewelry had likely been thrown out with trash, which would be collected early the next morning. I drove from my nearby, newly proprietary if squalid Hackensack place, to Paramus. There was an old hat box left at the curb, and I opened it to find the gleaming half-pound gold necklace that my parents had misplaced, miraculously before the garbage pickers got to it. I tried my front door key (by some organizational unlikelihood, I found it in my pocket this time) and entered the empty building. The Princess wall phone was on the otherwise bare wall, and it had dial tone. My parents were elated to learn that I had retrieved the jewelry.
After I hung up the phone, I walked through each room, first through the foyer of the center hall colonial. There was no mirror to greet my familiar, hollow cheeked visage. I continued through the “rec room,” and up the two steps to the kitchen. Where the kitchen table had been, there were scratches on the tile from where the legs once slid. Next, I walked through the kitchen, across the threshold where the deep pile, wool green carpet began, it covered the formal dining room and living room spaces. Gone was the dining room table that had held my immediate family for dinners, and hosted my friends, who often managed to be included spontaneously or surreptitiously. There were a thousand meat loafs, briskets, and roasted chickens and even some experiments. The best of my friends, or at least the wisest, could be certain of good food and wine, stimulating conversation and time well spent at that table. My father and I had, with suitable protection on the tabletop, built my Cubscout Pinewood Derby car, the one that brought me first prize, and lessons from my Dad of incalculable value. Dozens of Seders were accommodated over the years by the addition of two added table leaves. Now, there were only blurs of cousins, and aunts and uncles, some still living, some having passed on. I almost panicked when I turned towards the wall where the “green grenade” stood for thirty years, taken away with the rest only days earlier. My mother had called it the green commode, a tall, olive green chest with gilded glass doors that held our fine china and such. As I child, I failed to pronounce that properly, hence the nickname that stuck to the piece. My mind saw the matching green chest on the opposite wall.
It was low and long, and it had held all the fine linens from my parents’ parents’ homes, and some more china and finery. Content with those mirages, I moved into the living room. In place of art on the walls were faint discolorations, and perimeter lines on the carpet traced the edges of a long piece of furniture that had held a hidden Lafayette stereo system. I sat down on the spot of carpet where I had listened to my older brother’s and sister’s LP’s, and remembered my mother’s inquiry about the baritone tenor coming through the big speakers, asking without a trace of prejudice, only genuine curiosity, if “Cat Stevens was a Black man?”
A quick jaunt through the upstairs only served to bring more of the expected melancholy; the room my sister had occupied before she seemingly immediately went away to college, painted in pale, feminine hues of blue-green, and the big room I got after my brother moved out. Before leaving, I revisited my original baby room. My mind went back to a big family gathering when I was about two or three. My cousin Stephen’s wife, Carol, was talking with me in that room when she suddenly sniffed the air. “Did you make in your pants?” she asked. “No,” I assured her. A minute later, I was instructed to drop my pants, revealing the little mud pie I had made. “Ah thoat ah smelled somethin bad,” she said in her southern drawl. My cousin, destined to become a devoted mom herself, cleaned me up without any fuss. But what she had missed was a little splat of doody stuck to the wall, just above the floor molding. I guess it dried over time, because over the years, that room was painted and re-painted, yet I could always feel the slightly raised, uniformly eighth inch thick poopy stain. The flat, egg-sized spot had only been spackled with moderate effectiveness by the painter(s) and had not been sanded away, even after several coats and different colors. Suddenly I felt a wicked sense of pride that part of me would remain here, hopefully overlooked for thirty more years after the new owners arrived. I reassured myself that the harmless, hermetically sealed stamp of my existence would harm no one.
I didn’t have to go down into the crawlspace to know that there were at least a million rusted BB’s at the far wall, where my pellet and BB guns were fired towards a target there. But I opened the access doors anyway, to look once more at the initials my friends and I had carved into the framing of the floor joists as kids. Then, I said goodbye to what I had always thought of as my ancestral estate, carefully locked the door, and stepped back to admire where my weight had bent the rain gutter just below my parents’ former bedroom window. I drove back to Hackensack, to my new, suddenly strange townhouse.
It took me almost ten years to run the business into the ground that my father had left me in New York, and at last I felt liberated to join them in Florida. Sadly, my mother had fallen seriously ill years earlier, only months after converting from snowbird to full-time Florida resident. There is comfort in knowing that her favorite sister (and everyone else’s favorite relative and person) Nina was beside her when she fell over from an aneurysm. The ten years prior to joining them was fraught with guilt; I made money, skied every weekend, and lived the life of a modest playboy, while my father struggled to comfort a very sick wife. At last, I could move south, and be with them, and maybe help somehow.
It did feel good to bring their granddaughter over and share meals, and life. My mother was now too sick to fuss about the care of her house, or even be aware of that.
I did little projects and fix ups and installations of things, though. My father seemed to get a kick out of seeing me do manual labor. One of his favorites was to watch me change the horrible, fluorescent tubes in the original 70’s kitchen lighting. I would curse and moan and complain as I tried to get each tube to fully glow, and then replace the Plexiglass covers. Kal’s amusement of my irritability for that chore made it fully worthwhile.
Well, I’m forty-seven or forty-eight now, and both my parents have passed away, the final survivors of all the aunts and uncles in Palm Aire. The villa must be sold. It was left to my sister and me. It’s not practical for either of us to live there, nor does it make sense to retain it for rental. I wonder if the new owner will keep the sink disposal that I installed, or the fancy paper towel holder? Probably not, as the kitchen needs a full remodel. But, in the backyard, there is a big tree and planter, about a dozen feet square, in the middle of a large, paved patio that I once built at my Dad’s request. I over-engineered it, even as my father chided me about constructing it so robustly. It consists of pressure treated boards that hold the earth around that big old Cypress tree. It is painted faux brick, and covered with lattice. I knew when I built it that it should last a long time, longer than my father expected. Lessons learned from the Pinewood Derby made me feel, at least during that project, like a master carpenter. Besides framing the tree, my project contains some other plantings, including an orchid that I put there recently. The orchid came from Renee. She is named after my mother’s eldest sister, the first of four to pass away, before my birth. Renee is the daughter of my father’s favorite nephew, Stephen. She visited Kal shortly before he died, and gave him the beautiful plant. He was touched by her gift, and placed it in the room where he spent most of his time. After he passed away, I moved the orchid outside, into the giant planter, where it has flourished in the light.
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