Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year's Love Letter: Going Back Home

I grew up on a street that was part of the Massachusetts Audobon Society, but since my parents were from deepest Brooklyn in New York, they didn't know the first thing about living in the woods. They weren't into identifying birds. Yes, it was actually a bird sanctuary. This Christmas, as usual, we stayed at my brother's house one town away from where I grew up in Sharon. Filled with gorgeous furnishings, too many to describe, it's a Victorian house on an old New England street--a house was built in 1835 for Foxboro's tailor. It's a few miles from the house where I grew up--also once cozy and beautiful, especially the living room, with its fireplace, framed paintings, and myriad oak furniture and wool rugs.

In years past, we've come back here, and communed with my parents and my brother's family, my two teen-age nieces and my brother's very stylish wife--the whole package is a perfect dose of femininity and familiarity for me and fun for my boys and husband. This year is the same, but of course, very different without my Dad. This sense of drastic change and loss must have settled in the part of my brain that makes dreams--that part that accesses my intentions early in the morning, because when I woke up on my first morning here, I'd constructed a plan to go visiting all my special places from growing up. In a sudden flash,  I understood that for the last decade, I hadn't been paying any attention to my own hometown and my history there. My parents had sold our house and moved into Boston. They'd moved on. So I'd been coming back to my brother's world in the next town, and doing all of the "new" things there are to do here. Big movies theaters, great shopping centers, and that type of stuff. The outlet mall! But I awoke that morning with a fully formed list of things I'd not been doing--places I wanted to show my family, places I wanted to see again.

It was 7:04, and I awoke in front of a giant flat screen in the family room. Excited, I went to tell the boys about my plans. But they'd be asleep for a good while, and soon I was dressed, outside, and in the car by myself on a cold New England morning.

Oh. Sitting in the driveway I knew. I didn't want to show them everything. I wanted to visit all these places--by myself. So off I drove, and I guess I traveled back in time in my own mind. First past the town lake (swimming lessons), next came a peek in at my old High school (everything happened there), I drove past my childhood playground (champion jump-roper), passed the temple where me and fifty of my closest friends were bar/bat mitzvahed. I'd passed by my best friend, Janet's house. She died when we were thirty. Without her around these past years, I wonder if many of my childhood memories were buried. I guess I  hadn't understood that before today. I envisioned myself dropping in on her folks, but at 7:10 AM, it seemed unlikely. Now, driving through the town square, I remembered the penny candy shop, Bendinelli's, made out the Unitarian Church where I first heard the sound of folk music, and I left Sharon.

As in writing, the mind often sees where it's heading before it arrives. I felt my dad's presence because now I was enroute to the next town over. Stoughton was his refuge for forty years. That town was much more vast than Sharon, filled with a wide array of interesting locals--Portuguese, Irish, and just regular New Englanders with those New Hampsha accents, like Mark Wahlburg and Adam Sandler. For the years I was in High School, my dad dropped me at 7 am on his way to work every day. This early time of day in winter was one of our times. We'd sit in the freezing car as it warmed up, and he'd drop me off at school. I'd kiss his cheek and off I'd go. And off he'd go.

Now I'm in Stoughton, and getting closer to his former life. Callahan's was his donut shop, just a block away form Stoughton High School. Driving toward the general area, I wondered if I'd find it easily, or if I'd gotten confused--possibly driving the wrong way on one of the forks. But soon I saw the place. It wasn't Callahan's, it was a little cafe, a tiny diner. Was I really going to look for a parking spot and walk in there? A sign said OPEN, and I swerved into a sort-of parking lot, looking for a spot in this odd little industrial corner of Stoughton.

Walking in, I found the place small and empty, except for a man--about fifty, behind a counter. I looked for crullers. First things first. Muffins. Instead I saw muffins, and I saw the owner's face. He had the distinct look of a Stoughtonian--a bit gruff, very kind, maybe a little worse for the wear, working class. Plus the unmistakable accent. I never "acquired" the accent, though my folks did pick up a few examples of the regional dialect in all their years there (here). I knew that if I talked about my dad with this man, he wouldn't be my dad--he'd be my fah-tha.

I said: Hi. My dad used to come in here. He came here for about forty years.
He said: Well, I've been here about ten years.
Me: His name was Dan Davis. He worked at the high school forever. He died about a year ago, so I'm just here on a little pilgrimage.
Him: I know how ya feel, I lost my fah-tha not even a year ago.

Wow. So here we were. This guy was in much worse shape than me. His wound more recent.

Me: How's your mom?
Him: My mom's a mess. He's buried over in Canton and she visits him like every other day and brings flowers.
Me: I'm so sorry. Was he sick?

He was sick, but we talked and realized it didn't really matter. Losing your dad too soon is losing your dad too soon. His was only 68. So his was younger than mine. Poor guy. If my dad was here, he'd have given the guy a hug and called him a sweetheart to his face. So we hugged, teared up, and talked a bit more. I loved hearing that the old timers had just left. He told me those would have been some of my dad's friends. But I couldn't think of any old-timers that lived so close by, so instead I just pretended that if I'd come a half hour earlier, I'd have seen them all: Leon Kahn, Frank Coen, Gary Hilander, Nuno Viera, Frank Santoro. Boy. Now I think about it a week later, and I can't imagine too many things he'd have liked better.

I asked him what he'd be doing for Christmas, as we Sharon Jews were always conditioned to do--and he said Christmas would be at his house. That his son, an actor from LA, was coming home. I turned around to see a poster from the remake of Footloose--and that's him--lying there on the car in the film poster, the man's son. His name is Kenny Wormald. I kept forgetting the dad's name because I'm so bad with names--but I must have asked him three times. I felt like I was in a movie.

I finally left and drove myself to Stoughton High, took a drive in the parking lot where I'd been with my dad so many times over so many years. I wished my kids could have gone there with him. I'm pretty sure they went as babies, and I can see the look on his face, the sparkle in his eyes--how excited he would have been to show them to his Stoughton family--especially the women. I'm sure he brought my oldest niece, Sophie in a lot. I know he did lots of things with her when she was little--just like things he'd done with me. Why else would she have had occasion to say: Oompa gave me soda and lost me. (After a trip to his favorite place, Marshalls.)

I called my mom on the phone as I drove back through Sharon on my way back to Foxboro. The sun was shining--and driving that route felt like the most natural thing in the world.  My mom told me that the Callahan's--who'd owned the Cruller store for so long--had sent a beautiful letter when my dad died. I still haven't seen it. I'm saving it.

The last thing I did was drove up my old street to look at the house where I'd grown up. The family who lives there now had holiday lights on the two big evergreens in front of the screened-in-porch where my mom loved drinking her coffee in summer. Peering into the porch I made out  a big Santa cut-out. Fun. Moose Hill is still wild and beautiful. I felt this great yearning to get my family and bring them back so we could tromp around in the woods, among the pine needles, and the trees, and the New England smells. They've probably never had that nasty pine sap on their hands, and they've definitely never raked pine needles. I don't miss that part. But I miss the woods. I miss the small towns near where I grew up. I miss seeing people I know in those places. I miss my dad.


  1. This is gorgeous, Jill.

    A year ago, I passed my childhood home after I did an Adopt-a-School program at my old elementary school. The strangeness of Christmas decorations on our Jewish house, twenty-three years after my mother died, it still felt like our Jewish house--it was weird. But fun.

  2. Wonderful. When Deb and I visit the area again it will be with a fresh view.

  3. Aw, Honey! This is wonderful! I love all the senses it tickles. And I love your descriptions. We gotta' coordinate a Foxboro visit one of these years. So parallel. Kiss Kiss!

  4. So beautiful...I know where you are coming from. I have made the "memory lane trip" many times both alone and with my kids. But after my Dad died I saw things in a different light, now instead of a memory it's A memory of Dad. We had some great times growing up in Sharon, it's a special place that's for sure. I often wonder thought did we realize it 30 years ago when we were living it? HUGS to you...

  5. I was googling Frank Santoro, a Spanish teacher of mine at SHS and ended up here. This post is beautiful. Dr. Davis was by far one of my favorite teachers ever at SHS and just the epitome of a "good man." Even though I have been gone from SHS for over 20 years and gone from Massachusetts for 10, I still remember him fondly and think about him often. In fact, I just mentioned him in a "Teacher Appreciation Week" Facebook post as one of ones who had a huge impact on my life. I'm sure you know how many people loved your dad, but I bet it never hurts to hear from another one.

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