542 Sheridan Ave. Roselle, New Jersey. That’s where I grew up. Zip code (which came in later)— 07203. Phone number 245-7097, memorized as CH(estnut) 5-7097. These are things we apparently remember forever, emblazoned in the brain and stamped forever on the heart. 18 years in the same house before going off to college and my old room there for me for years later. Until 1992, when my folks moved to follow my sister and I out to California. I was thrilled to welcome them and sad to say goodbye to that house. In fact, I wrote a letter just to the house, thanking it for everything it meant to me. I never got an answer.
I still dream about it, often with my folks in it. In these dreams, I’m aware that the house has been sold, but the new owners are indefinitely away and seem to feel fine about us coming back there to live. And so I tour the old place in that dream world, happy to see the chin-up bar in my bedroom doorway, the oak tree out the window, the fireplace that rarely had a fire, the back studio with glass windows looking out to the apple tree and our tilting garage, the organ in the living room and piano in the dining room, the long couch and small TV and big dining room table where my Dad paid bills and played solitaire, the cozy kitchen nook and the milkbox by the side door and on and on. I always awake refreshed by these dreams, ready to face the next day of the future warmed by the embrace of the past.
I dreamt about it again last night and realized why. I had just seen the film Nebraska and there’s a scene in which the aging father returns to the house he grew up in, now abandoned and sitting empty in some field. His son asks whether he was moved to see the old place and he replied something to the effect of “Why should I be? It’s just a bunch of wood and weeds.” And yet one could imagine the lives that had once been lived in those rooms with now broken windows and if one cared to, feel the presence of the old ones alive again in that collection of wood and weeds. But some such houses were filled with constant pain and why would one want to remember?
Though I haven’t seen it for some five years, I’m sure that 542 is still standing and new lives are being lived there. And that the mostly happy childhood I lived there is untouchable and visitable through the dreams that come unbidden and also the ones I conjure up. I can smell the fresh pine of the Christmas tree and don’t need to strain a neuron remembering the Silent Night Christmas ball ornament, for it sits in the center of my tree here, now, in this moment. The wood is freshly painted and the weeds pulled up through the caretaking of memory. It’s a wonderful life indeed.