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New York Observed

Taking Root in Memories

Published: September 4, 2005

(Page 2 of 2)

THE long walk from the library had been a hallmark of childhood summers. My sister and I used a picnic basket to carry back our haul, including one book picked at random to give magic a chance. At home, the green canvas hammock waited under the copper beech tree.

Suddenly, there it was: the beech tree, still leafless but even taller than in memory. Through a tangle of branches was the outline of a house I would have known anywhere.

Mr. Zaverdas had warned me to expect disarray. "When I purchased the home, it was decomposing," one of his e-mail messages explained, alluding to the divorce of previous owners that led to 20 years of neglect. "I still have not done anything major, but for the first three months, I scraped practically all the white peeling trim on the windows and painted so it looked alive again."

At the front door I paused, remembering my last time inside.

The movers had come and gone. It was autumn and turning chilly. But my sister and I prevailed in our plea to stay one more night, just the two of us. We made a last trip to the library, and heated cocoa on a basement burner. When it was too dark to read, we crept upstairs through shadowy, denuded rooms, to the lone remaining bed. The next morning our departure felt like an abandonment.

Now, stepping over the threshold, I was overwhelmed by sheer profusion. Like some ancient attic, the house brimmed with objects awaiting rediscovery or repair - a dismantled headboard in a hallway, invoices spread in neat heaps over an antique couch, fake spider webs left from Halloween. Even the walls were layered, some on the upper floors gutted to the struts, others a palimpsest of flaked and faded paint whispering of lives gone by.

Dizzy with the past, I was almost glad when the tour led out the back door, though I had been dreading most what I would find there. In memory, the garden still offered magic potions and secret passages to four children playing through a long blue twilight. In reality, of course, other houses had long since buried our backyard paradise.

Yet an aura of enchantment still hung over the remaining lot. Small evergreens stood in concentric circles. A wooden swing stirred in the wind. A mirror glittered unexpectedly from the trunk of a copper beech tree so huge that experts estimated its age at 125 years; Mr. Zaverdas, as his personal 9/11 memorial, gave away its sturdy saplings.

My tree, I realized, had been growing here before the railroad's reach, before bridge and boulevard, before forest was felled to build the house. In Queens, against all odds, it was growing still.

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Photo: Boy shows muscle, 1950
Photo: Boy shows muscle, 1950