These Lives of Mine

I don’t remember the place in the picture above. It is in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and I lived there for five months. While five months is a long time, in this case it was my very first five months. Still, it is in my blood. The roads of Brooklyn walked by my parents, my grandparents, my ancestry, is in me as if they picked up gravel along the gutters of Ovington Avenue and bled it with our DNA. My parents lived in the apartment building above from not long before my sister was born until shortly after my own birth roughly seven years later. She remembers it, I suppose. Some of it. I’m sorry that I never knew the place as the apartment building was filled with my Dad’s brothers and their families–and I have a lot of cousins. In fact, my cousin Stephen was born not long before me, and my mother wanted that to be my name but didn’t want two Stephen Kunzinger’s living at the same address because it would confuse the teachers. So Stephen was relegated to my middle name, and my cousin and his family moved to Elmira, hundreds of miles away, and we moved to the Island, several light years away. Upside to visiting: The Bay Ridge Bakery is on the corner. Amazing.

Massapequa Park on Long Island was your typical suburban village. The elementary school was just across that street on the left, and that house was ours, except, well, no. We moved in there sixty years ago and they either tore down the old house or renovated it so completely that only the bay window and the garage door seem familiar. Gone is the side patio with the green awning under which I loved to sit on rainy days. We built snow forts at the corner, and I once fell and slammed my head on that sidewalk. Charlie lived a few doors down. I remember this place; I really do. I remember mostly baseball and the pool in the yard. Across the street were neighbors who became life-long friends for my parents–Joe and Rose Fontana. Rose, who taught my mom to cook Italian food decades before she knew she was Italian as well, and Joe, “Baby Face” Fontana, the boxer, who wasn’t that tall but I once watched him dive from a stand still on the ground into a four foot pool. But I don’t consider this the place I grew up, even though the greatest comediennes in the business lived in Massapequa. Go ahead, look it up.

This is where I grew up. This is where I am “from” in my Facebook bio. Of course, the trees weren’t there, or at least not as big, since we planted them. It’s hard to see the house in this picture but I still know every inch of the place. I still know every street name in the beautiful village, and I’m happy to say it is one of the places in my past which is still as nice as when we lived there almost fifty years ago. This is where I’d walk every day to the deli or the post office or Timber Point Country Club or the Arboretum. But mostly it is where for six years I lived to hike the trails and beaches of Heckscher State Park with my friend Eddie. When Eddie died tragically not long ago, I had both the urge to head to Great River and the drive to never go back again.

It’s crazy, going back where we came from, where we became ourselves. Sometimes I wish I could get in the car and drive up there and somewhere along the Southern State enter a time warp to the early seventies. And Steve and I would play baseball, and my brother, sister and I would walk to the deli for heroes. And Eddie and I would talk about music. I sometimes wonder if some other young boy is in the room with the two windows in the second floor, and if he sometimes climbs out on the roof of the porch and leans against the house and thinks about the astronauts as I did. Back then it was Apollo 11; back then the internet was our imagination, and we had no device to talk to anyone except the one phone we all shared downstairs. Back then I couldn’t conceive of right now; it was never going to happen.

The irony of this house on Wolf’s Neck Trail in Virginia Beach is it really was my parents’ home for about three decades, yet mine for only three years, as I went to high school then. Still, this is where we all gathered and holds significance for being the house that my siblings and I all lived in, even if briefly, while we were all single, and returned to later enough in our lives that we all had our children, and my parents’ five grandkids all well remember playing in this house, and heading out into the yard which stretched hundreds of feet down to the Lynnhaven River. It really never looked much different than this picture, though some trees have come and gone, but that crack in the driveway has been there since 1974. Go figure.

I lived here for four years.

St. Bonaventure University in the Enchanted Mountains of western New York. I’ve lived in five states and been around the world many many times, but this is “home,” this is where I came of age and discovered that the pursuit of self is as important as the pursuit of knowledge. The people I met here are still some of my closest friends and confidants, and shall remain so for the rest of my life. I have written stories about some particular experiences at this college and about how I learned just how small the world is, about just how brief life can be, all wrapped in a place that offered us all some foundation of eternity, some sense that no matter what happens, we can come back anytime we wish to regroup and have another go at it.

Someone stole my bike, though, freshman year right in front of that building there–Deveroux Hall. Still pisses me off.

This is Tucson, Arizona. I worked in a record store and that’s it, because my memories of Tucson are of hiking the Catalina Mountains, hiking up to Bear Canyon and the Seven Falls, hiking to Mt Lemon and skiing during the day then swimming at the apartment pool that afternoon. My memories are of driving up to Kitt Peak Observatory where it was dead silent and cold in the day, or the Sonoran Desert Museum, which was actually a kind of wildlife preserve. But mostly my memory comes after my roommate Tom headed back east and my friend Renee headed back east and I headed south, to Mexico, where I finetuned my Spanish and made decent money buying blankets for practically nothing and reselling them at University of Arizona football games. And Kahlua. That too.

I include the small picture on top because for three years that was my playground–the Wachusett Reservoir in central Massachusetts, and that house on the right was my home–well, the bottom floor off to the left side. Of all the places I lived until my home now, this is the one I never should have left–not the house itself, but the village, the people, the location, the life. I love it there. I worked for Richard Simmons at the time and spent all that money traveling around New England, but mostly I walked the shores of this reservoir, out to the Old Stone Church or around to Bob’s Hotdog Truck. Across the street was the Deacon’s Bench Antiques, and up the road in Sterling was a very cool farm stand with apples and apple pies and an apple cider mill. Further still, up the road was Mt. Wachusett, where I’d hike to the summit in summer and watch kettles of hawks or look east at the Boston skyline.

I’m glad I left but I never should have left.

After a brief run on East Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, I lived here. This old house in this old village with horse farms and country roads was fine for someone in their seventies, which absolutely every single one of my neighbors was, but it is still deep in my heart for other reasons. I had the entire second floor of that house and also the attic, and it is here I lived when I attended Penn State, and it is here I lived on one of my trips to Africa, and it is here I came to understand why we decide to stay somewhere instead of moving to say, Austria, to tend bar in a castle, and where I came to understand why some people need to leave, to find out not just who they are, but who they aren’t; the need to define themselves without any lifelong influences. I stayed here too long.

But I loved that attic.

Forget the move to the beach, the winter on a beach in Sandbridge part of Virginia Beach, the apartments, the hurricanes, the car breaking down in a college parking lot where I decided to use the phone in an office and walked out with a career. No, I need to jump to Aerie:

This picture above is all Google Earth will provide. So, here’s what is under those treetops:

Aerie: Hawk or eagle nest.

I built this house, quite literally. I didn’t do the foundation or the mechanicals, but I helped stack the logs, and then after it was framed out, I built all the interior walls, the stairwell, all the doors, the floors, and the kitchen, including the cabinets, though on that point you can kind of tell I did them. That was twenty-four years ago. In fact, while I have lived more places than the pictures above represent, Michael has lived in this house since he just turned four. The house is fine, but I’m more attached to the property with its trails, and the hill which runs down past my neighbor’s farm to the river.

I’ve long wondered about two perspectives in life: That of the one who has made a home for himself in many places, but never long enough to become completely a part of any of them, and the one where one lives in one spot for his life, so that the village is in your blood, and the people you know you’ve always known and always will know. I’ve taken a little of each place with me and sometimes they don’t so much pull at my shirt, tugging me backwards, as much as they push on my back, urging me on.

This is the family homestead for me, now, and my blood is literally in the walls here, as three year old Michael can attest to as he sat on the floor in front of the fireplace eating an orange and learning a new vocabulary as I tried to fit countertops just slightly too long into a small kitchen.

But this place is also a springboard, for Ireland, for Spain, for places I haven’t even thought about yet. I like hanging out on the porch, drinking tea or wine, and watching the osprey head out toward the bay. I like spending weeks traveling no further than the village for coffee and bread. But I wouldn’t like it nearly as much without waiting in line at airports, without taking a train across some foreign land, without trying foods from third-world countries in second-world restaurants. When I’m home too long, I need to leave; when I’m gone too long, I need to get home. I miss Oakdale and the yellow house on the reservoir; and I miss the hills of Allegany, New York. I wish I could tell my younger self about where I’ve been–which places to avoid and which to stay just, well, a little bit longer anyway. I’d tell some friends in Pennsylvania how to find me later, just in case, and I’d tell Eddie not to leave work early in December of 2020.

The thing about moving is you make a lot of friends, but you leave a lot of friends, and I’m not so sure the first part is worth the second part. We live in a world now where we can remain in touch with virtually every single person we’ve ever known or have met, and therein lies the greatest problem of all–we need to miss people; I believe it is important to miss people. It teaches us the value of time, the persistence of love, and the need of us all to stand still long enough to recognize who were are.

I’d tell Dad the truth, that I didn’t want to leave Great River, when he asked what I thought about moving to Virginia Beach. It wouldn’t have made a difference, but it would have started me down a path of being honest with myself about what it is that makes a home.

These are literally just random thoughts, written just now, no rewrite at all, while I was screwing around on Google Earth, zooming in on old homesteads and moving the littler person icon to the street. Very cool, huh?

I’m not so sure. I’m really not.

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