Over the River and Through the Woods
I’m pretty sure this is why it started. You know “it”: that tickle in the gut when you see a picture of a sunset, the lightness of being when you hear a foreign language, the weight in your chest whenever you hear a plane flying above you or witness a fellow human being running down the street overladen with baggage …. an oh-so-sweet burn of realizing that there’s a “there” that isn’t “here” and that fact feels very, very wrong. We can call it “wanderlust”, for the sake of a common language … but it’s more than that. I’m sure some other country has coined a better term (note to self: look up that term). Semantics aside, I’m pretty convinced that “it” started, as many afflictions do, because of New Jersey.
My first real memories of these trips to Garfield, NJ are from when I was just getting into school-aged territory, maybe kindergarten. I remember lying down in the backseat, on the floor, with my square car pillow (older sister spread out on the actual backseat), listening to the low hum of the wheels rolling across the road just underneath me. Of course that was only when my Raggedy Ann & Andy tapes got a few listening cycles, and it was too late and dark to read a book or argue with my sister about whether she or I had crossed the “invisible line” (an argument that was frequently skirted by said lying on the floor and giving her the seats). I remember the fun of stopping for food, looking up and realizing we had arrived in a different part of the country while I was distracted with my toys and books (and other things from my “car bag”). And I remember the whole family (sometimes even our dog) singing along in the car to my father’s favorite mix tapes (collections which had charmingly on-the-nose titles, like “Weather” and “Road”).
The whole trip would take us about 12 hours, between rest stops and meal stops and water for the dog stops and speed limits back in that day which make absolutely no sense to me now. I2 hours — now there was a timeframe that made sense to me as a child — you could set your clock to it, quite literally: a handed clock would be in roughly the same position when you completed the journey as when you started. This seemed true, and right, and just to my kindergarten brain.
At the end of that long car ride, was a pot of gold: Gramma and Grampa’s house. While we would often make this trek in the summer, I can’t help but associate these memories with the day after Christmas, which meant a bonus day of Christmas presents — piles and piles of them, so many that you couldn’t see the furniture anymore — and stockings, filled to overflowing. While they put equal focus on Christmas being about the birth of Jesus (Polish Catholics), my grandparents were pretty committed to giving Santa Claus all the gifting credit, and would assure us that Santa ran out of room at our house in Michigan so needed to make a second stop. (I would easily ignore the fact that Gramma seemed to always know what we were about to open, uttering such psychic phrases as “hope it fits” or “open this one first, this one’s good” — because Gramma was apparently good pals with Mr. Claus, so why wouldn’t she know what we were getting before we did?)
Our summer road trips to Garfield were also an exciting event, although the travel time wasn’t quite as satisfying (a mere 10-11 hours, no ice and snow makes a huge difference). There was a pool around the block, which was a fantasy of mine growing up (there was no pool around the corner where we lived). They had a homemade chocolate shop on the corner, where the owners knew our whole family by name and always gave us something amazing to take home (again, my home was sorely lacking in this department). Also the house itself was fodder for imagination and excitement: there was a front house and a back house, with a small yard in between — 2 houses!! I was convinced my grandparents were filthy rich. It even came with a secret entrance: to get to the front house, you could either go around to the street and enter through the front door, or you could be a Cool Kid and go to the basement stairs in the back of the house, and pretend you were exploring an abandoned building or a forgotten dungeon … but the front door was okay, I guess.
My great-aunt and great-uncle lived in the front house with my great-grandmother (Babci) … but without question, we went over for Aunt Wanda. She was my idea of a Perfect Person. The first thing I’d brag to my friends about was her love for stray cats (and sometimes kittens) — there must have been a dozen of them at one point, just hanging around her porch, waiting for mealtimes. She was also generous about feeding her grand-nieces, and it never took long from walking into the front house to getting her inevitable offer to eat chips and cough drops (which I thought were candy) and drink as much Coke as my little heart desired. As if that weren’t enough, she had the most amazing collection of costume jewelry and dresses and all sorts of “old things” that I was encouraged — never chastised — to incorporate into my make-believe (or what I fondly refer to as, “my daily reality”).
They were no Aunt Wanda, but I thought everyone else at the house was pretty great, too. Back in the back house, Gramma cooked and shopped and squeezed my cheeks, and told me I was a “skinny-balinky” to make me smile. Grampa drove us wherever we wanted to go, and was constantly offering us lemon ice, popsicles, creamsicles, spice ham, ice cream … he would go on and on, like a carnival wheel, until you finally agreed to one of his choices (if you were lucky — other times you’d choose one and he’d go right back to the “spinning wheel of infinite edibles” because certainly a kid could never be fully satisfied with just one of these amazing treats). In short, they were loving, adoring, quirky, beloved. I’m so grateful for these people, and these fragments of memory of these trips, more than I have room in my heart and head to share.
And there you have it: Garfield, New Jersey. The first domino in what would ultimately become a life of “it”, or wanderlust, or whatever that word is (seriously need to look this up). And so it goes …