by Jeffrey James Higgins
Published July 10, 2018
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Simon and Garfunkel, “Bridge over Troubled Water” (1969)
I drove along the George Washington Memorial Parkway under a slate gray, northern Virginia sky, with thick fog hanging over the Potomac River beside me, vapor tendrils twisting and curling off the black water. Beyond the river, the Washington Monument peeked through the turbid stew. I’d lived in Washington, DC for over a decade, fighting terrorism as a special agent, and often passed that monument on my way to war in a distant land. Now, I drove by that landscape of my adult life in search of my past.
Fifty years ago, my parents, James and Nadya, moved the three of us to Vestal, a quiet town on the outskirts of Binghamton, New York. I lived there from the ages of two to ten and despite going to high school and college in Massachusetts, I always considered Vestal my childhood home. My earliest memories were there, surrounded by loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, exploring the world as a young boy, my dog by my side.
The idea of visiting Vestal had percolated for some time, but as I lay on my couch reading a book, Jim Croce’s 1972 hit, Time in a Bottle, came on the radio and evoked a flood of memories, the way only music can do. The impulse to revisit Vestal was overwhelming, so the next morning I packed a bag, kissed my wife, Cynthia, goodbye and left to find my childhood. Cynthia was supportive, but I saw the questioning look in her eyes. I had the same question.
Why was I taking this trip?
Many people revisit their childhood homes to confront demons in an attempt to heal old wounds and find peace. Many memoirs become literary roadmaps to childhood trauma, but my experience was quite the opposite. I had parents who loved me, food on the table, a safe home, a wonderful dog, and family and friends nearby. I idealized my life in Vestal, romanticized it, cherished it. Thoughts of home conjured deep feelings of love, safety, and happiness, but were my memories selective? Were they fanciful reconstructions of reality or were they genuine?
Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as “the state of being homesick” and “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” I was certainly experiencing that, but why? Was I thinking about the 1960s and 1970s because I was having a midlife crisis at age 52? Was I contemplating my finite existence and hoping to view the beginning of my life through wiser eyes? I had recently retired as a supervisory special agent and had returned to my childhood ambition of becoming a writer, so was that career change the reason for this field trip to 1967?
The fog worsened as I followed the river, passing the cold, stone arches of the Key Bridge and the woods of Arlington County. A blanket of rust-colored leaves lay on the thawing ground, moist and decomposing, below thin branches on barren elms waving in the wind and the limbs of sturdy oaks twisting upwards like ballerinas’ arms. I drove north on the interstate highway into Maryland, the silver sheen of rain turned the black pavement into a sugar-covered gumdrop, below clouds, hanging like apostrophes, barely moving as they unleashed a heavenly mist. The brume thickened, creating a hazy canopy over the highway, enveloping everything beyond the road before me. It obscured the earth and reality, allowing my mind to drift back through the fog of time.
In Pennsylvania, the sky was as gray and bleak as it was on this day in 1975, the year my family left Vestal, over my futile protests and broken heart. I could see nothing but the road in front of me, my car a time machine transporting me through the misty vortex to 50-years in the past, where my memories were as murky as the fog. Einstein said, “…Physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”
The innocence of my childhood comes back through fleeting images and a contented feeling, like being wrapped in a warm blanket. It was a time surrounded by loving family, a time before I knew of the cold ugliness lurking inside people. Today’s youth, with their bicycle helmets, computer games, and peanut allergies wouldn’t recognize 1967. It was an era of personal freedom, especially for a young boy.
I remember climbing trees, riding my bike, and walking with my best friend, Treasure, a golden retriever with a golden heart. I can smell the earthy woods and feel the cool, sweet air of the Bunn Hill Creek behind our house as I jumped from stone to stone hunting for crawfish and salamanders, my explorations as much in my imagination as in reality. I remember the smell of fresh oil on my baseball mitt, getting sap on my hands as I climbed the pine tree behind our house, the bristly hair of my GI Joe, and my bike with the blue banana seat, chopper handlebars, and baseball cards affixed to the spokes.
Holidays were magical, visceral, exciting, and full of bright colors, flavors, and rituals. I recall trick-or-treating in vampire fangs and a black cape, a plastic jack-o-lantern filled with candy corn and chocolate, ghosts fashioned from white sheets, and monsters and goblins trolling through the neighborhood. Christmas was red and blue lights, hanging ornaments, the smell of the evergreen, and presents stacked high under the tree.
I remember watching the Watergate hearings and Vietnam War on television, playing with Treasure on the floor, and reading, always reading. I was transported by Charlotte’s Web, Lassie Come Home, The Hardy Boys series, and my favorite, Treasure Island. I remember playing with my cap gun and wearing cowboy boots, chaps, a white cowboy hat, and a mustard yellow shirt with shiny buttons.
The fog lifted as I descended out of the hills, crossed the New York State line, and entered Binghamton, a city only three-hours from Manhattan, but a world apart. Binghamton had been a thriving industrial city for more than a century, but businesses fled, leaving a fossil of past affluence, a place where hope turned to despair. I drove over the Susquehanna River into Vestal, the hills around me familiar beacons of home. Businesses and people may have come and gone over the past 50-years, but those were the same hills and trees I stared at as a child daydreaming of adventure. I thought of all of my extended family members, who had lived here, and smiled out of happiness and out of longing.
Simon and Garfunkel played on the radio and I felt as if my time machine had returned to 1967, my past now before me in living color.
I drove into my old neighborhood and turned right down my street, Lauderdale Drive, passing the same evergreen trees I’d ridden my bicycle by as a child, the scene of my youth. Along the lush and winding street, beyond yards covered with fluffy white snow, yellow lights glowed warm behind living room windows. The ranch style homes, built with red-brick and white trim, were well maintained and it still looked like a place where I could ride my bike, take after-dinner walks with my parents, and explore the creek with Treasure by my side.
To my right were Martha Road and the house where Mandy lived, the thin brunette with the fair complexion and red lips, the object of my innocent affections, the girl who made my chest flutter. I remembered racing my bike down the block and doing wheelies in front of her house, a ten-year-old boy’s mating ritual for a girl who probably never knew I was there. It was an urge I was too young to understand.
I passed Avondale Court and remembered riding my bicycle down the street with my friend, Josh, and hiking through the woods to a candy story where we bought Big Buddies, Sweet Tarts, candy cigarettes, Bazooka Bubble Gum, and Archie comic books. To my left was the oak tree where I played tag with all the neighborhood children as the night grew dark and my mother rang a brass bell signaling me to come home. I could see the crew cuts of the Polanski brothers who bullied all of the neighborhood children and the day when I finally had enough and dove into the older brother’s legs, knocking him to the ground and the air from his lungs, then walking home a victor, my enemy vanquished.
The road curved to the left up a hill where my father taught me to ride my bike, holding the banana seat and running along beside me as I talked and talked until I realized he had stopped holding the bike and was standing near the bottom of the hill. A wave of insecurity had passed through me and into the bike, which began to wobble and I crashed, leaving me simultaneously angry and proud.
At the base of the hill was my childhood home.
My house was a small ranch-style home with three bedrooms, one bath, and an attached garage. To the left of the front door were large living room windows and to the right, the bedrooms lay behind a red-brick wall with small windows. A light glowed from inside and my first thought was that someone was in the bedroom, my bedroom. The gray-shingled roof was covered with a white blanket of snow. The house looked almost exactly the same.
I walked up to the house and climbed the stoop, where I’d played with Treasure when we brought her home from the kennel. She was a puppy, I was five-years-old, and we were best friends. I pulled back the screen door of the house and realized it was the same screen we had in 1967, the moment catching me off-guard.
With a lump in my throat I knocked on the door.
I introduced myself to the owner, Frank, telling him I’d grown up here, and he kindly invited me inside. Frank bought the house from my parents in 1975, when he was a young man with a baby, and now he was retired with grown children. To my surprise and delight, the interior was relatively unchanged since the day we left. The bookshelves were shorter than I’d remembered when I would climb up them in my footed pajamas, hang a bright orange Hot Wheels track off the top shelf, and launch toy cars across the room. My muddled memories were suddenly alive in front of me.
I looked out the large living room windows at the snow and thought of winters as a child, when my mother stuffed me into a blue, hooded snowsuit with racing stripes and tucked my feet into rubber boots. I’d make snow angels, roll snowmen, and dig forts, the snow falling over the top of my boots melting under my feet.
I stepped into the kitchen and froze. The cabinets and counters were the same I had used when I was two-years old. I was in one of my dreams, but wide-awake, seeing the dark grain of the wood, the design of the bronze cabinet handles, all of the detail that had faded in my mind. This was where my mother froze homemade popsicles from grape Kool-Aid and orange juice and I blew birthday candles out on my cake.
I felt like a giant inside a child’s memory.
Out back, the patio was white and barren. Cardinals and blue jays had once nested in trees along the creek, but Frank had cut the trees down. I remembered trying to identify the birds darting passed our windows, watching them disappear in flashes of red, brown, and blue. In the summer, I’d play in a sandbox with a hot metal bottom or lay on my back in a shallow, inflatable pool. I remember running through the green grass chasing Monarch butterflies and catching lightning bugs in a Maxwell House coffee can with holes punched in the top.
Of course not all of my memories were good, like the time my parents invited a couple from the neighborhood over for drinks and the husband arrived drunk and chased me through the house. Terrified, I ran out front door into the yard and when I looked back and he was right behind me. I ran to the big pine tree behind our house, swung myself up the first branch, and climbed out of his reach just as he lunged for my foot. I was panting from fear and exertion and when I looked down, to my horror, he was climbing after me. I clambered up the thinning branches as quickly as I could, my heart beating out of my chest, going higher than I’d ever gone before, not knowing if the branches could hold my weight. The tree began to sway.
The man slipped in his loafers and his wife yelled for him to come down, so he stopped and lowered himself to the ground. He had been intoxicated and was probably just showing off, but I didn’t like the cold, black look in his eyes or his darkening expression as I evaded him. I sat in the tree for a long time, watching the man talk with my parents and caught him glance back at the tree with dead eyes. He was waiting for me to come down. I felt angry and betrayed because my parents hadn’t stopped him, but I was proud I’d saved myself and I knew I was safe if I stayed in the tree. I was always safe in my tree.
Frank and I looked out the rear windows of the house at that pine tree. It had grown much taller, as had I. The trunk was impossibly thick and a wave of disappointment washed over me when I saw the lower branches had been cut off, making it impossible to climb. That tree had saved my life.
When I lived here we watched three VHF and two UHF channels on a small black and white television, with a rabbit-ear antenna, and all programming ended sometime after midnight leaving only static. I was captivated by old movies of swashbuckling pirates and daring pilots flying into war, stories that probably instilled a sense of adventure and propelled me to war as an adult. On Friday nights we would watch the Brady Bunch followed by the Partridge Family and if I was really lucky, I could stay up and watch Love American Style. I remember my parents waking me up to watch the moon landing in 1969. I was an only child until I was seven, so that television played an outsized role in my life and when we bought our first color television in 1975, I felt like I was losing an old friend.
I remember slipping out of my bedroom and crawling under my mother’s desk as she sat there typing, listening to the clack of the metal type bars striking the paper and the ding of the bell when she hit return. I felt safe. When I was a little older, I would sneak out of bed to write stories, the words coming faster than I could scribble them down. I knew then that I would become a writer.
Frank walked me out to the front yard and I could see Treasure running after a ball, her tail wagging and joy on her face. I can still feel her soft hair, the pads on her feet, her cool nose. There is no stronger bond than between a boy and a dog and though it has been 37-years since she passed away, I still think of her every day. I remember running through the yard with her and diving into a pile of red and yellow leaves, the smell strong and earthy, the leaves dry and papery, laughing as my father raked the pile over me.
I told Frank he lived in a perfect place and he smiled widely, seemingly pleased that someone else recognized what he had here.
Images from kindergarten flickered in my memory, my Woody Woodpecker lunch pail with the smell of baloney and cheese, a ring ding wrapped in foil, and a thermos that smelled like sour milk. I remember sitting in the grass in a large circle of classmates playing duck, duck, goose and not wanting it to end, taking naps on matts, and the day my classmate Francis wouldn’t come down from the monkey bars.
I attended Willow Point Elementary School through the fourth-grade. When I was in the first-grade, I missed my bus and my mother told me she didn’t have time to drive me to school. She didn’t mean it, but I walked out of our house, driven by stubbornness and a sense of adventure. I remember looking over my shoulder as I turned the corner at the end of our street and realized she wasn’t coming out to stop me. I made the 1.3-mile walk, across the Vestal Parkway and up a long hill, excited at my independence. To this day, my mother feels awful about my walking alone; showing what a good mother she was then and still is today.
I drove up the hill where I thought the school was, but found a building with a “WSKG Radio Station” sign and satellite dishes looming behind it. I pulled into the parking lot triggering a vivid memory of yellow school buses parked in a line, the air heavy with the sweet smell of diesel fuel, and searching for the number of the bus that would take me home. I remembered the ripped green vinyl seats with exposed metal bars and yellow foam sticking out, and the older girl, with long brown hair and a fluffy sweater, the one who always smelled like perfume.
This was my old school.
I walked behind the building and saw the short hill I would run or roll down every day with dozens of children, fleeing the confines of the classroom for recess. In the distance, three rusting baseball backstops stood like ruins from my past. This was no longer a school, but there were dozens of little footprints in the snow, like the ghostly tracks of children who once played here, frozen echoes of the past. In the wood line I saw three jungle gyms with flaking red and yellow paint, the same equipment I’d climbed on in elementary school and forgotten about until that moment. Suddenly I was back in first-grade, hanging from the monkey bars, pulling myself hand over hand up the hot metal hot pipes. I looked back at the school expecting to hear the teacher blow the whistle for us to return to class.
Nana and Baba
My mother’s parents, Nejm and Najla Aswad, were first-generation Lebanese immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island as children, met years later in Niagara Falls, then settled in Binghamton and had three sons and a daughter. My ten cousins and I all affectionately referred to them as Baba and Nana and they were the epicenter of the Aswad family.
On Sundays my parents would take me across the bridge over the Susquehanna River into Binghamton for dinner at Baba and Nana’s house. For the Lebanese, family and food are the center of life and Sundays at Baba and Nana’s meant eating grape leaves, stuffed squash, fresh Syrian bread, and salads with dandelions and tomatoes from Baba’s garden. I would start to salivate on the way there.
Sometimes we stayed overnight and my cousins and I would scamper up the steep stairs to the third-floor bedroom, the sound of the wood creaking under our weight. We would push the beds together then jump onto the old mattresses, as loose as waterbeds, bouncing around and giggling. The beds would slowly slide apart and whoever was in the middle would slip between the mattresses, pulling the sheets and covers with them onto the floor, eliciting uncontrollable laughter from all of us. I remember Nana yelling for us to quiet down from her bedroom across the hall, a room filled with odors from creams and perfumes, but I would laugh until my abominable muscles ached.
Baba passed away in 1987 and Nana in 2000. The last time I saw Nana she was laying in a bed in her living room. She told me she was dying and I wanted to say everything would be okay, but I couldn’t lie to her so I just said I was sorry. She looked at me with love, communicating without speaking.
I drove up Front Street and the excitement I’d felt as a child returned and I could almost smell grape leaves cooking in tomato sauce. I turned onto Cypress Street, and there was Baba and Nana’s house, a three story, 1,305-square foot house was built in 1890 and except for new siding, it looked the same as it did 50-years ago. I had the momentary urge to go inside to see Baba and Nana, and then remembered they were gone.
Between the house and the detached garage I looked into the backyard at Baba’s garden and I saw the grape arbor my parents had built for him was still there, the wood dark and aging. I couldn’t believe it still stood, 43-years later. My memories had faded with time and I had assumed everything I remembered had faded or gone as well. My childhood was gone, my grandparents had passed away, and I thought this place only existed in my memory, yet the homes were still there, the terrain was still the same; the artifacts of my life still existed. While the memory of childhood had slowly dissipated, the structure of my previous life remained in the physical world.
I had left, but the grape arbor stood, waiting for my return.
I knocked on the door, half expecting it to open and to see Baba sitting in his favorite chair wearing a grey fedora and a cardigan sweater, with newspapers stuffed inside to keep him warm. It’s strange that the house is here but they are not. Baba and Nana were buried in the cemetery at the end of the street, but I don’t associate them with their graves. I feel them here, with me.
An elderly woman with short white hair and a dirty tee shirt opened the door. She wore a grimace, set into deep wrinkles likely formed by years of scowling. I told her my mother had grown up in the house and I had spent a lot of my childhood here. I asked if I could walk into the backyard to take a couple of pictures of the garden my grandfather had planted. She asked why I was bothering her then told me to come back later when her daughter was home.
My grandparents were the warm and caring people who exemplified the Lebanese tradition of welcoming guests and now a bitter, old woman stood as the gatekeeper to their home. I told the woman I would come back in the afternoon, knowing I wouldn’t return. It was the same house, but not the same place I had loved, because homes reflected the people who inhabited them and Baba and Nana no longer lived there. Some things do change.
I drove to Cleveland Avenue, where my father was raised with his parents, James and Madeline, and his four siblings. I recognized the house immediately, though I hadn’t seen it in decades. It was three stories, with concrete stairs and a rusted pipe handrail leading up a short, steep hill to the front porch. My grandfather passed away before I was born, but I knew Madeline, though only as “Grandma.” She was Irish and German, with fair skin so thin I could see blue veins beneath and so slender and frail and I could feel her bones when I hugged her. She wore horn-rimmed glasses with a chain dangling around her neck and support stockings that slid down her ankles into worn slippers.
Grandma kept a clean, and orderly house and I remember the cuckoo clock ticking in the hallway, the smell of the old wood steps leading to the second floor, the same stairs my father climbed up and down as a child. From her kitchen with old appliances and a linoleum floor, she would serve us potato pancakes, roasts, boiled potatoes, with gravy on everything. This wasn’t the comfort food of the Lebanese and where Baba and Nana were effusive with their expressions of love, Grandma was more reserved, probably a result of her difficult life and the remnants of Irish and German culture.
I remember the heavy, black telephone on the hallway table and waiting for the neighbor to get off the party line before straining my finger to dial a number. Most of all, I remember Grandma humming and sitting in her green chair with the extendable foot rest, a stack of National Geographic magazines in a basket beside her and Reader’s Digests piled high on the coffee table. I can see her knitting a blanket with long sharp needles, her arthritic fingers and deformed joints rapidly moving as the needle tips clicked over and over.
Every year Grandma renewed my subscription to National Geographic magazine and I covered my walls with the maps inside, which probably inspired me visit more than 50 countries since then. Grandma passed away in 1991, but if I close my eyes, I can still see her humming, rocking, and knitting, with a twinkle in her blue eyes.
I felt deep loss when we moved from Vestal, but the values I learned there followed me throughout my life and Cynthia, the prize I’d earned by searching for those virtues, was now waiting for me at home. Moving from Vestal had taught me to accept new challenges, which I did when I moved to Florida to become a police officer and to New York City to become a federal agent, and later to Afghanistan and Washington, DC. Maybe leaving Vestal was what gave me the courage to test myself against the world.
I grew up knowing I would be a writer, but when I was between jobs as a newspaper reporter, I took a position working for a private investigator, thinking the experience would help with a novel and soon became enamored with law enforcement. Now, after an exciting career chasing the world’s most dangerous criminals, I was ready to write again. I felt guilt at not following my calling sooner, but I was proud of the work I had done and I didn’t regret my career choice, because it was the adventure I had fantasized about as a child. I wondered what that little boy would think about the path I had chosen. Would he feel betrayed or happy? I know he would be glad I was writing now. Maybe this trip was a way for me to reconnect with my young self, to validate a 25-year divergence. Maybe I wanted that five-year old me to know that I was back on course, that I hadn’t forgotten.
When I was a child I did things because I enjoyed them, not because I was supposed to do them. Maybe who I was as a child was my real self, the true evolutionary pneuma, before society and experience influenced my genetic predispositions. Maybe I wasn’t just grasping at fading memories. Maybe I was grasping for the real me.
I drove south on Interstate 81 towards Virginia and I felt more complete, more peaceful than when I arrived. It was so comforting to learn those wonderful places from my childhood still existed and knowing my past was still there somehow made going forward easier. I came looking for my childhood and found it to be everything I remembered. Those memories and feelings had carried me through the hardest times of my life, like a bridge over troubled water. All the way home, the skies were clear of fog, as clear as my memory had become.
Cynthia met me at the door, her eyes wide and teary from longing. She kissed me and pulled me into a warm hug, pressing her soft cheek against mine, her embrace filling me with unconditional love. We were talking about having a baby and I knew we could share this love with a child and give it the childhood I had been fortunate to have. Everything I’d learned in Vestal about family and love, I’d sought and found as an adult.
I sat in my home office and began to write. Listening to my recorded notes, I realized my Vestal accent had returned after being dormant for almost half a century. The toy police badge I’d worn when I was five years old sat on the bookshelf behind me, not far from my gold retirement badge. My toy swords were replaced by antique Afghan sabers, souvenirs from a war zone. Gone was the cap pistol of my youth, in its place a Glock handgun.
In front of me was the writing I’d promised to do.
I left on my trip assuming everything had changed, hoping to find shadows of my former life, but instead, I discovered the setting of my childhood largely preserved. I had grown and my family had moved or passed away, but my old house and Vestal were the same. There is fragility in humanity, but the physical world can endure. I’d lived in so many places, done so many things, and grown so much, yet home was the same.
In many ways, I was too.
About the Author:
Jeffrey James Higgins is a former reporter and supervisory special agent. He recently completed a nonfiction book about the first narco-terrorism arrest and conviction. Jeffrey is represented by Inkwell Management and is now writing his first thriller. Jeffrey has appeared on CNN Newsroom, Discovery ID, CNN Declassified, and numerous other television programs, radio shows, and podcasts. His recent articles and media appearances can be found at JeffreyJamesHiggins.com.