I live in a quaint, century-old Dutch Colonial located just north of NYC and on the Jersey side of the Hudson River. My home also happens to be located in an area rich in American history. The emblem of the town I now live in bears the sketch of an unknown horseman who rode to Fort Lee, NJ and warned George Washington’s troops about the British crossing the Hudson River. His ride started just about half a mile from my house and a little less than 250 years ago. Obviously, there is no one in my neighborhood still around from that time period but the father of my elderly neighbor, “Meredith”, built my home. On nights when we gathered, I would ask Meredith about the history of not only my home, but of all the homes on our street since she lived here most of her 90 plus years. Our conversation led to story after story about what took place within the walls of each residence. Every home has its own tale of turmoil but just like the courage of the unknown horseman, the spirit to forge ahead remains in the character of our neighborhood.
There is the home up the street where a woman once lived with her adult son and daughter. The daughter had been engaged for a lengthy amount of time but experienced difficulty in finalizing a wedding date. According to Meredith, the fiance’s mother feared losing her son to the marriage and so he continually postponed any wedding plans. By the time he was near the age of 50, his mother passed away and so the couple finally set their wedding date. Shortly before the wedding was to take place, the groom suffered a massive heart attack and died as a result. It was as though his mother shadowed the couple even from the grave. Not too long afterwards, the brother of the bride-to-be, a rather young man, also died unexpectedly. The home indeed housed much sadness but fortunately, its “curse” does not linger today.
In the house directly across the street from mine, lived a single elderly woman. “Ruth” would purposely break her basement windows so that animals could seek shelter from the elements. She had started to “lose her marbles” as they say but Meredith and Ruth became close friends over the years. During one particular week, Meredith noticed that it had been a few days since she had heard from or seen Ruth. It was winter so not an unusual time to go for days without seeing much of your neighbors but still, Meredith bundled up, went over to Ruth’s house, and persistently knocked on the door. No one answered. Meredith returned home and called the police so that they could investigate further. When the police entered the house, they found Ruth’s body upstairs in her bedroom and slumped over a radiator. The heat had been on and Ruth had obviously been dead for days. The stench between the poor woman’s body and that of the animal feces coming up from the damp basement, was more than the police, or anyone, could handle. But Meredith’s friend, Ruth, was finally at peace. The home has since been repaired and many a happy family has found warmth and comfort within its walls.
As for our own home, on the first day of moving in we found a loaf of bread and a box of salt sitting on the kitchen counter with a note that said: “Here is some bread and salt so that you may never go hungry. We raised 4 children in this home and it provided us with much happiness. We wish the same for you.” Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, the couple we bought the house from, were fine people. We carefully saved that note, and went about our business of packing and unpacking. While storing away one of those boxes in the attic, I found a small door that opened to a section of exposed beams. I poked my head in and just looked around since it wasn’t big enough to enter. Tucked away in one of the corners near the door, was a very old camera. I didn’t think much about it at the time, and kind of forgot about it until I attended a neighborhood barbeque years later and mentioned the dusty relic I found in my attic. Meredith elaborated that Mr. Cunningham was not only a photographer for the New York Daily News, but one of their Pulitzer Prize winning photographers who took that iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe – the one with her skirt flaring high in the air. In disbelief, I Googled Mr. Cunningham and came across his obituary from The New York Daily News. It stated the following about Thomas Cunningham: “One of the most famous of his nearly 3,000 photos in The News’ archives is of Marilyn Monroe standing over a Times Square subway grate in 1955, the hem of her dress blowing up to reveal her thigh-highs.” He was also described as someone “…who made pictures of actors, mobsters and hero cops while roaming the streets of New York after dark.” This man was extraordinary. And here we had bought the house from a couple we subsequently became friendly with and not once, did they ever mention Mr. Cunningham’s career successes and achievements. A humble home indeed became ours where we also raised 4 children.
The home that Meredith was born and raised in was eventually sold and a modern home built in its place. By then, Meredith was living directly across the street from her childhood home – right next door to mine – and in a house that her father had also built. It was with much sadness that Meredith witnessed the tearing down of the walls of her youth since they held far more than the sum of their brick and mortar parts. Gone was the home of her upbringing that held a treasure chest of memories for her from days gone by. Sadly, Meredith recently passed away and not too long afterwards, her home next door (pictured above) was also demolished in order to make way for yet another modern style home. As of this writing, all that is left of her home is an uprooted trunk of what was once a majestic 60 foot pine tree and surrounded by a pile of dirt.
With Meredith’s passing, even more tales from our neighborhood are buried. She once told me that I would have to brace myself for the horror that took place in one particular home on our street but that she could not repeat the story until she was ready. That time never came. No doubt, many spirited and interesting tales remain within the walls of the older homes on my street. Maybe I will learn of them before it is time for my husband and I to sell our home. Hopefully, not to a builder – who would further uproot the unique charm of our neighborhood – but to a young family. A family that would also be fascinated and inspired by the history etched in the gentle curves of these old walls. They too would inherit our home’s personality, history, continuity, and happiness associated with its carefully assembled pile of plywood and plaster, that for most of us, makes a house a home.