I can still smell the freshly fallen leaves from the maple trees that lined Dogwood Lane. Every house on our little block had one of these beautiful trees whose leaves magically turned vibrant yellow and red and eventually covered our yards with a fall palette. It was an annual tradition and responsibility to rake and pile up the leaves and cautiously burn them at the curb’s edge. Some would meticulously clear every leaf from their front lawn weekly while others waited until last minute to remove the colorful reminders that fall was moving into winter.
Everyone had their own routine but there was no doubt that all the Dogwood Lane residents were proud and respectful of property and home. There weren’t many houses on the street but each was unique in structure and color, as if making a statement about the diversity of their occupants.
The Selevaags across the street were of Swedish descent and their daughter Linda was a buddy of mine. Her older brother, Paul, who had the same name as my brother, were also friends.
Down the street from them was an Italian family, the Musones, whose son Patrick, was often in an out of some mischief. His antics intrigued my older brother who was tempted but never ventured into the ‘bad boy’ territory.
The Galans, another Italian family, were lively, loud, and always eager to cook for their neighbors. They would host block parties, hanging colorful globes in the back yard, covering aluminum tables with oilcloth to display their delicious culinary treats. I vividly remember overhearing their marital quarrels that often disrupted the peaceful lane’s suburban stillness, and were in stark contrast to my household where anger was always held in check.
Nancy Murphy was my best friend. Born five days apart, our mothers were in the hospital together giving birth and later discovered they were neighbors. Nancy’s mom, Marion and dad, Tom, a fireman, would sometimes invite my parents over for Tom Collins. Nancy and I would have frequent sleep overs Saturday at her house. I’d occasionally go to Sunday mass with them the next morning, and learned to love ketchup with my scrambled eggs. We’d watch wrestling on TV before bedtime and giggle our way to sleep, sharing secret crushes and dreams. It was always more fun to sleep at Nancy’s than my house. I loved the warmth and affection of her mom, her hearty laugh that jiggled her ample bosom, her honesty and no apology demeanor to be herself, no pretense. She loved life.
Nancy was a tomboy. She was athletic and strong. I, a dedicated petite young ballerina, took lessons each week and dreamt of Swan Lake and sugar plum fairies. But we loved each other and found commonality. We learned to respect our differences, both in religion, social stature, and physicality. Sometimes, Nancy would entice me to climb the tree in her front yard and I would follow her lead only to find myself too frightened to jump down.
Our next door neighbors, the Clausens, were an older couple whose granddaughter often visited. Nancy and I would tease and torture her with childhood pranks, for no other reason than we were older and liked to feel our oats every so often. But her grandparents were sweet to me and let me practice piano in their house when I took lessons at summer day camp and we didn’t yet have a piano. I think they enjoyed having me in their home and hearing me play despite the jaw clenching sound of missed notes and lack of consistent tempo. They never complained as I tried to manage my way through Fleur De Lis.
And that’s what Dogwood Lane taught me. We were all different in many ways. My family of four, the only Jewish family, my father an upcoming periodontist, my mom a stay at home mom like most of the women on the block, enjoyed the comfort and security of living and growing up in the 1950’s on that street, where the sharing of family values, traditions, and culture was respected and acknowledged.
I loved help decorate the Murphy and Selevaag’s Christmas trees, and Linda and Nancy learned how to light the Menorah. There was no hate, no anti-semitism, no apologies or fear of being who we were. We took for granted the safety we enjoyed. Walking to elementary school was part of our daily routine. Lunch boxes in hand, an extra sweater or jacket just in case, we didn’t know another way to start the day. On the way home, we’d often stop at Gould Manor Park. Regardless of the season, there was always something going on there. Little League baseball, skating on the frozen lake, tennis, or just walking through the woods.
An idyllic life? Yes. But my parents had their sights on a more affluent lifestyle as my father’s practice and income grew. They bought land across town and built a large ranch style house in an upscale neighborhood. The houses, set far apart, back from the street, did not invite the closeness and community of Dogwood Lane.
I now took a bus with strangers to a new school. My brother went off to prep school on the train each day. There was no one to play with after school. No cozy sleepovers or eggs with ketchup. And there were no happy hours with the Murphy’s serving up Tom Collins and cheese and crackers. My parents joined a Jewish country club that became the focus of their social life and golf outings. I, along with my brother, went to overnight camp for the summer.
We only knew one neighbor across the street. As fall approached, hired landscapers cleared the leaves, weighing them down with blankets to prevent their escape, and drove them away in open trucks.
A distant memory, Dogwood Lane was sacrificed to affluence, and a safe haven and sweet childhood was lost with a move across town.