All expatriates should add to their existential, Proustian shopping list at least one journey back to the Old Country – not their last place of residence, but their real pays natal.
For some of us Parisians, that sacred birthplace happens to fall within the borders of the sublimely maligned pays of New Jersey. More specifically, it has been the majestic-sounding municipality of Elizabeth that has continued to get scrawled proudly as this writer’s ville natale on cartes de séjours and bank account applications, CVs and tax formulaires.
A literal lifetime had passed since this expat had set foot in the now unrecognizable suburb of Newark Airport. Thus, it was only logical – chronologically and spiritually – to begin my Homeric quest to the Garden State with a visit to the beloved Elizabeth, a town the French refuse to spell with a Z. Accompanied by my two immediate American progenitors and my Paris-born five-year-old, we set out in a late-model Pontiac to find Elizabeth General Hospital. As we crossed some noisy route cluttered with a litter-bespeckled island of bad grass and skid marks, my personal monument came into view, squattishly towering over a dangerous-looking Denny’s and a deli of ill-repute. EGH was a medical center that made its name in the rage of the now-defunct Baby Boom, an institution whose image had been hermetically sealed in a Dr. Kildare-graced inner landscape.
Into the Jersey hills the rented van hurried like we’d done once before as a young family in the era of 3-cent First Class postage and unZIP-coded letters – away from the urban plight and the battered Parkway signs. Then we detoured through New Providence, a tiny berg at the edge of Summit where I had walked each morning in Eisenhower’s America along the Cinder Path from our matchbox house to kindergarten in Lincoln School, where a blue-haired spinster named Miss Oxner ruled the roost. It was there, one day, as we slouched over cookies and apple juice, stinking of skunk cabbage and Topp’s bubble gum, that the supreme word came down that we had to stop repeating in class the 23rd Psalm and the infamously banal “God is Great, God is Good, And we thank Him for our food, Amen.”
Thirty minutes down the road lay a newer suburb where the houses were bigger and the mortgages in the sixties from the local S&L were easy. “Entering Livingston” the sign read as we sped along Northfield Road marvelling at both what still stood and what had been torn down or replaced. Sunrise Cleaners, run by a short Cypriot named Andy, seemed as prosperous as ever. Jay’s Shoe Box was still there.
Where had the 30 years gone?
We made a quick right and rounded the bend of our old street, Ridgewood, no longer at the ridge of any woods. I had remembered the walk from the corner to the house as much longer. And then, yup, there it was, the house. But someone had painted it rusty-red. Changes had occurred.
“Here’s where I lived when I was your age,” I pointed out excitedly to my French son, who was deeply involved in an invented narrative with Leonardo, Shredder, and other pizza-scarfing, transcultural heros. We parked in front of the shingled split-level and walked the post-war grounds. This was the neighborhood of my youth, the formative years as Wonder Bread told us. Familiarity fluttered back as if memory were one colossal Rolodex designed by Dr. Seuss. The azalea bushes were missing but the dogwood was in bloom. The freshly paved driveway of 1965 was cracked and pocked now. There in her yard was Lee Spielvogel doubled over in her nineties, known by the kids in our day for her licorice offerings. She hardly remembered us. Her Henry had long been gone.
Something felt different, strange. Was it that I was now a Parisian visiting a suburban Jersey neighborhood with European eyes? My little fils took my hand and dragged me toward the back yard where baseball and kickball and Red-Light and TV Tag and Combat were ferociously played. The yard had changed; the open space was cluttered with overhanging branchs and dark afternoon shade. It was the trees. The skinny saplings that Dad had planted in the late sixties were now towering and climbable! And that was it – the trees had grown up too. For kids, trees grow as imperceptibly slow as eternity, abstract as infinity. In 30 years the young trees had surpassed the fully grown crab apple and mimosa, and I felt with a jolt that indeed adulthood was then heavy on me. The new neighborhood had grown into an old one. At 35 one can begin to say one has been around for a while.
The two of us hiked through the eternally broken spot in the back hedges and cut across Larry Perelman’s lawn, crossed the street and ran onto the school playground. Here we had flipped baseball cards, chalked down box-ball courts on the asphalt, wolfed down Ring Dings…
“Ici,” I held up to the classroom window my French-inculcated son, whose education began at three months in a Parisian crèche and continues chez les grands at the Maternelle, “was Papa’s classe. We stared in at the tiny knee-knocking desks, the cannister of Babo cleanser by the sink, the American flag drooping by the blackboard….
“Là?” he asked and ran off to hang from a jungle gym that wasn’t there before. I looked up and was seized by the clarity of a precise memory. Walking out those double doors in second grade – I’d heard the news. Five past two, November 22, 1963, President Kennedy had been shot and killed. I could feel the ancient autumn sun again on my back and confusion take over as I watched my Keds carry me home. I didn’t know what I felt. I was seven.
“On y va,” I screamed across the playground. It was getting late and we had one more stop on our Proustian itinerary, a grandfather’s grave to visit in the ugly cemetery in Iselin along the Garden State Parkway.
By evening we’d reached Newark Airport and boarded the Air France flight back to the present.