Duff ’n Stuff, Jan. 15, 2012
I recently went home to the Boston area to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. My five siblings and I were there for a long weekend and we all had a lot of laughs remembering the old days. As the years go by, you realize more and more the preciousness of the time you have left with the people you love and the stories become more important.
My parents are no longer together and have been divorced for a long time. My father lives in the fog of Alzheimer’s out near Palm Springs, Calif. But, as a history professor early in his career, he knew the value of a story, and he was always the first one to open up with a story at the dinner table throughout my youth. It’s hard to know that he will never share the family memories again with us and, for some reason, this makes me more determined than ever to keep them alive, to record them for posterity.
Lately, I’ve been asking my mom and my brothers and sisters to recall the people, places and dates of the family stories. They oblige me and do their best to add the details. Here are some things we remember:
- Our house in Livingston, N.J. where we lived for the first part of my childhood was a yellow, Cape Cod Colonial with a sun porch and was the first house on the street when the Thompson Dairy Farm owners built it sometime in the 50s or 60s
- The dairy plant was still there behind our house where we could go and buy small cartons of chocolate milk or grape juice out of the walk-in freezer for a quarter and how kind the dairy plant workers were to us kids
- The Ford Country Squire station wagon with the faux wood paneling, which we drove to Cape Cod every summer packed to the gills inside and on top and going over the Tapan Zee Bridge and seeing the castle on the hill in Tarrytown, N.Y. which we always said was the one from the “Wizard of Oz” but it wasn’t
- The Suburban Market, which we called “Joe’s,” at the end of our street where we rode our bikes to get ice pops and small brown paper bags full of penny candy that really did cost a penny each
- The games in the backyard at our house which became the meeting place for all the kids in the neighborhood and where we played kickball, baseball, football, hide and seek, red rover, spud, dodge ball, tag and running bases
- “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare” book on parenting, which my little brother John found in the back of a closet where my mother had chucked it, and from which he learned there was no Santa Claus and then proceeded to tell the rest of us
- The room with the yellow checked and flowered wallpaper, which I shared with my older sister for 11 years, and momentarily in which we had “borderlines” and a phone that my sister would take into the closet to talk to her boyfriends
- The phone call from St. Barnabas Hospital in the middle of the night from our father who told us our youngest sister Emily was born and all of us five older siblings hooting and hollering and jumping on beds in great celebration with the news
- The day my mother received her mantelpiece ship’s clock from my father for Christmas and her shouting “Shreve, Crump and Low! Oh John! Shreve, Crump and Low!” when she unwrapped it and saw the writing on the box with the name of the store
- Eppes Essen Deli, Bonvini’s Pizzeria, Sliverman’s Drug Store, Friendly’s Ice Cream and the Old Colony Theatre; all the places we went to often in our New Jersey town
- The turn-of-the-century house built by a timber merchant that we moved into in Lowell, Mass. when we left New Jersey and that day we tentatively explored its 21 rooms after we first arrived there
- The widow’s walk on the roof of the Lowell house where we smoked pot without our parents knowledge and where we could see the Merrimac River beyond the neighbors’ roofs and where the river flowed out toward the direction of New Hampshire
- My little sister Emily growing up in that big house with mostly teenagers for company and who could not be fooled and knew at a very young age that, no it wasn’t root beer in the cans my brothers liked so much because it says it right here, Johnny, “Budweiser, King of Beers”
- My mother’s incredible cooking because she’s Italian and how all our friends would end up at our house because Elly welcomed everybody into her kitchen that had pineapple wallpaper and good smells and they’d come to say hello and have a laugh and they always came back
The list will continue and perhaps I will never be able to record every legendary moment of the Duff clan, but it’s a start. Maybe none of our children will even bother to look at these memories when we’re gone, but the process of remembering the details of our growing up together and writing them down feels good to me. It is a history; a chronicle of lives that reveals the human condition, as all our lives do.
But it also helps me not to forget.
From the heart,