It was the early 1960s, and for many families the cities were starting to lose their appeal. My family was almost the exception. Notice that I said “almost.”
The three Mandricks had been enjoying life immensely in their third-floor apartment on New York Avenue in Union City. I loved walking to the park with my parents and stopping in at the corner candy store owned by my mom’s Aunt Rosanna and Uncle Lou, where my mother’s beautiful teenaged cousin Dorothy Ann was always willing to whip me up an egg cream. My dad enjoyed the proximity to his job at the Hostess Cake factory in Hoboken, and heading to the bar across the street or to the roof of the apartment next door to enjoy rooftop beers with my Uncle Mike and his friend Teddy Johnson (who was, ironically, the Uncle of my future mother-in-law). My mother treasured being literally steps away from members of her close-knit family — almost everyone we knew lived in our apartment building or the surrounding area including her mother, sister, brothers, cousins, aunt, and uncle.
Frankly, we felt like we could have stayed in Union City forever.
But then in 1962, when I was four years old, my Aunt Millie and Uncle Sal moved to a newly built home in Jackson, New Jersey — taking with them the three cousins I adored and, perhaps even more horrifying, my beloved GRANDMA ANNA! The bloom started to come off the rose, and my mother’s resolve to stay in Union City to the end of her days had begun to weaken. Worse, my mother became depressed when a plan she had hatched to adopt (OK, more like kidnap) an 8-year-old girl named Maria blew up in her face. Maria lived in a nearby apartment building with her single mom, who had been reduced to taking part in illegal activity in order to support herself and her daughter. The stunningly beautiful Maria spent quite a bit of time with us, to the point were I was certain that she would someday be my older sister. That was certainly my mother’s plan. Perhaps getting wind of this, Maria’s mother absconded with her to parts unknown — leaving my mom broken-hearted.
(This was actually my mother’s second attempt in a year to provide me with a ready-made sibling. The story of my best friend Bobby’s near-adoption is a long one — but suffice to say that if we had stayed in Union City much longer, a billboard featuring a photo of my mother and something along the lines of “Hide your children” would not have been out of the realm of possibility.)
Sensing my mother’s sadness and need for change, my father’s sister Bernice suggested a move to her town of Ridgefield Park in Bergen County. We had always enjoyed visits to Aunt Bernice and Uncle Paul, and my parents decided to rent the top floor of the house next door to them. I became very close to my cousins Bob and Nancy next door, and was enjoying life and school to the point that my parents started thinking about buying a house in the village of RP.
It took a little time but in the summer of 1966 a local realtor found a house that fit my parent’s small budget. It was a fairly nondescript grey bungalow set on a rise on a dead-end street. With its large and leaf-shaded yard, it was for my father a small slice of paradise. My mother, a true city gal, was skeptical from the start. With her fancy clothes and lacquered hair, she was like the Eva Gabor character on “Green Acres”. Mr. Schultz, who sold the house to us, was a grizzled but good-natured older man who had raised his family in the house. Perhaps sensing my mother’s trepidation as he handed over the keys, he tried to reassure her. “My wife loved this house,” he said. “In fact, she died here.”
If my mother needed one thing to put her over the edge, that was it. She was still smarting from a remark her mother had made as they sat in my Aunt Millie’s spanking-new and very spacious split-level home. My Grandma Anna was remarking on the beauty of Aunt Millie’s new home when my mother showed her the realtor’s photo of HER newly purchased home in Ridgefield Park.
“I think maybe you should tear it down and start from scratch,” Grandma said helpfully.
Yes, the critical apples in my family did not fall far from the Grandma tree.
The move to Overlook Avenue was a bit rough on my mother. Ours was the smallest home on the block, and not in the best of shape. My mom’s fancy Chippendale style furniture did not mix well with the wood-paneled living room walls. Every time my mother complained about the size of the house or the fact that the front porch was sagging, my father would say, “Mrs. Schultz loved this house.” And although my mother was not a believer in the supernatural, she was truly freaked out that Mrs. Schultz had made her transition in one of the house’s ﬁve rooms.
My dad and his three sisters had grown up in apartments. He loved everything about being a homeowner, but the best part was most likely the fact that he could actually get some distance from my mother and from me as well. My dad would often head downstairs to his expansive model train table in the basement, which became the talk of the neighborhood. My province was the great outdoors, since our new neighborhood was filled with children. But on rainy days my new friends and I always headed to the attic. It was spacious, with large windows at either end. From this vantage point we could spy on the neighborhood, share secrets, or browse through boxes ﬁlled with all kinds of treasures since my parents were true packrats. One item of interest in the attic was an old rocking chair. It was spacious, sturdy, and comfy. I only sat on it once, since my mother had said that Mr. Schultz had left it behind. We did not know when or if ever he would come back for it, so we did not touch it out of respect for kind Mr. Schultz and his wife who had loved our house so much.
One night soon after the summer we had moved in, we had one of those cold nights that sneaks up on you sometimes in early fall. We had a good heating system and my mom was always one to not cheap out and keep a home really warm. But on this particular night I woke up freezing cold in the middle of the night. Being a self-sufficient eight year old, I took matters into my own hands. “Mom, I need a blanket,” I yelled.
I knew my mom slept like a rock, and even though she was right in the next room my chances of her waking up and getting me a blanket were slim. This did not stop me from trying. “Mom,” I yelled again, and miraculously my mom popped into my room, lovingly placed a warm blanket on me, and glided away. Glided? Wait a minute. Although a bit dazed, I took a good long look at “Mom” as she walked past my bed toward the kitchen. She was wearing a long ﬂoral robe, she had her hair in a bun, and she was ﬂoating rather than walking. I was confused but, feeling warm and cared- for, I drifted back into a deep sleep.
The next morning at breakfast I thanked my mother for bringing In the blanket. “What blanket?” she asked. I explained what had happened the night before and in the middle of the story I realized that the woman I had seen was not my mother. My mom had short hair and would not be caught dead in a ﬂoral robe, no pun intended. Confused, the three of us went to look at my bed which did indeed have an extra blanket on it. So much for calling the kid a liar. “Maybe it was Mrs. Schultz,” I suggested. My mother turned white and my father laughed. “Geez, you can whine loud enough to wake the dead,” he joked.
My mother was a bit freaked out, but not enough to consider selling the house. She was resigned to her fate as a captive in this tiny place nestled at the bottom of a steep hill. Still, I found it somewhat sad that the more my father fell in love with the house, the more my mother disliked it.
“No buses run around here.”
“But it’s nice and quiet.”
“I don’t drive, and I can’t walk up that huge hill to get to the grocery store.”
“I’ll drive you to the Valley Fair when I get home from work.”
“I hate living on a dead- end street, it’s boring.”
“It’s safer for the kids to ride their bikes.”
“This old house is falling apart.”
“This old house will outlast us all.”
To be fair, the house was rustic. My mother, being an Italian princess type, would have been much happier in a brick ranch house in nearby Fort Lee with easy access to shopping and a chandelier in the dining room. Making matters worse, the poor woman was totally out of her element socially. She sorely missed her sister Millie and her mother, and even my father had to agree that the women in our new town were not her cup of tea.
Mom had a long list of reasons for not befriending any of them.
Some of the women joined “coffee clatches” and gossiped. They smoked and wore pantsuits, or even slacks and blue jeans. They drank and swore. Even worse, they baked their own cakes when there were perfectly good bakeries in town. And they joined the PTA so they could boss other people around instead of staying in the house to raise their own kids.
(The last two pronouncements were the result of the sizable influence wielded upon my mom by Aunt Bernice — she was a presence and an absolute hoot, for sure).
Luckily the women on our block were pretty much like my mother — God-fearing, non-drinking, non-smoking, and anti-PTA. But unlike my mother, they embraced the casual side of “country” life and their older homes with their many imperfections. I guess they just weren’t as “fussy.”
One day my parents were having their usual discussion about the house when my mother shouted, “I hate this house.” This was her strongest declaration yet, and both my father and I were shocked into silence. The quiet was broken by a rhythmic squeaking
sound in the attic. “What was that?” we asked, but then we all had the same realization. It was the rocking chair! Why, good old Mrs. Schultz was making a declaration of her own. “Say it again,” I told my mother giddily. For some reason, she did. The rocking started again, this time faster and with more determination. My mother wore an expression of absolute fright, but I will never forget the look on my father’s face. It was a combination of bewilderment with a good dose smug thrown in, as if he was secretly pleased that my mother had gotten her comeuppance. I almost wished that good old Mrs. Schultz would come gliding into the kitchen, so she and my dad could shake hands over this hard- won victory. To a somewhat goofy and naive kid, this was seriously funny stuff.
Not wanting to be the butt of neighborhood or family jokes, my parents and I kept the secret of the presence in the attic to ourselves. I no longer went exploring there, as it now did feel a bit creepy and I felt a chill whenever I went near the rocking chair. My mother did forget herself occasionally and insult the house, though fortunately usually only when the three of us were alone. We always heard the resulting squeak squeak of the rocking chair. One time my elderly grandmother was visiting and witnessed the event. When my mother explained the cause of the strange noise in the attic, I thought my poor grandma would faint!
(Actually, I thought it was a proper payback for her thoughtless comment years ago — I too loved that house).
After that happened, my mother vowed to never complain about the house again — not because she feared the rocking of the chair, but because she was finally beginning to realize that her remarks were hurting her own chance for happiness in the place she grudgingly called home.
The passing years brought with them many happy occasions and gatherings that took place in the house. Over time, my mother actually became quite attached to it. And why not? It was an unpretentious little home, and laughter often filled the air. A large number of family and friends lived nearby, and my mom and dad were gracious and generous hosts to their frequent visitors. My dad was always more than happy to show off his impressive train table setup, spin some vinyl on his vintage record player, or enjoy a beer with guests on the back deck. My mother was always ready to serve up an excellent cup of “cawfee” or one of her Italian specialties.
Sadly, at the age of eighty, my dad lost most of his vision in both eyes to macular degeneration. My husband and I convinced my folks to sell the house and move closer to us. My dad was heartbroken. He deﬁnitely thought that, like Mrs. Schultz, he would take his last breath in his beloved home.
My parent’s little house sold quickly. The new owners immediately turned the attic into bedroom space, adding dormers on both sides. We did leave the rocking chair in the attic on moving day, out of respect for Mrs. Schultz. As much as the house was ours, it felt like it was hers as well. I found myself worrying about what would happen to “Mrs. Shultz” and her rocking chair. It was then that I realized that “Mrs. Schultz” was not so much an actual presence as she was the remaining “glow” of a woman in love — with her house, her husband, her family, and her life. And maybe, as well, with my handsome dad who also loved that house.
I often wish that my dad had been able to live in the house on Overlook Avenue until the end of his days, for so many reasons. If he had, that rocking chair would have remained untouched in the attic. And if anyone dared to say “I hate this house!,” they would be treated not only to the eerie sound of a chair rocking in the attic, but also the happy “whoosh” of a beer can being popped open on the back deck.