Perhaps you’ve heard people talk about northern New Jersey, which like any state, has nice areas and not-so-nice areas. My family and I lived in a section I refer to now as the “armpit” of the state, which is obviously not a nice thing to say. But from what I remember, it was at least partially true and many aspects of it happened to stink both literally and figuratively.
Although there were people who were like us and wanted to live in peace, there were others whose mental health I questioned. They seemed to prefer noise pollution and public displays of anger and controversy. For that reason, my brother and I were instructed to stay in the fenced-in yard, which belonged to our landlords, who lived next door to the two-family house they rented to us.
We lived in the upstairs portion of the house and for years I had nightmares about the white-haired couple from downstairs who fought like English-speaking stray cats. I often wondered if when they got tired of battling each other they might look for others to fight with and break our door down.
Considering how often we tolerated their violence, I always thought they had a lot of nerve when they banged on the ceiling when we were too loud. The difference in our noise was clearly in the emotion. Sometimes loud music excited us and we’d jump from the coffee table into the big beanbag chair on the floor. They must have expected us to keep the volume of our joy to a dull roar rather than controlling the volume of their seemingly uncontrollable fits of anger. And that’s when I learned the meaning of the word unreasonable.
I’m happy to be able to say we left for a much more appealing part of the state when I was about 10. But during our time there, I do remember the flowers our landlady planted in the backyard, which served as a sort of deodorant to the great outdoors that reeked of trouble and the mysterious smell of coffee grinds, which I imagined she might sprinkle in the garden as some horticultural trick. She also had dogwood trees, like the one Brookhaven Retreat recently planted on their property. They have a distinctive woodsy aroma I still think of when I recall her pride in her yard, which I now realize was a sanctuary that offset the turmoil that existed on the opposite side of her house.
She loved trees and talked about Arbor Day when it rolled around each April, which I only recently found out originated in Spain in 1805. The first American tree-loving holiday was celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, when they planted about a million trees. The Connecticut man who globalized the holiday in 1883 had exactly the right name for the job. Birdsey Northrop soon chaired the committee to campaign for the national celebration of the holiday, proving the theory that certain people are born to do certain things.
I love trees too, though my name fails to reflect the fact. Moving to a place where we owned the property meant that we could plant trees, which was almost as exciting in our young minds as the freedom to run, play and ride our bicycles without constantly fearing for our safety.
I remember the year we planted an evergreen about my height and had the privilege of watching it double and triple in size. I knew how quickly time was passing by how tall the tree was growing. We also had a flowering crab apple blossom in our front yard that produced small pink bouquets perfect for wedging between my hair and ear in springtime. I loved that tree too because it bore deliciously tart crab apples that the birds, squirrels and rabbits and I shared. That same tree also had roots that grew around certain pipes connected to our downstairs plumbing that on more than one occasion filled our entryway with water from the powder room commode. But I never blamed the tree. It was too beautiful to wish it any harm. Unfortunately, we had no choice but to cut some of the roots, but the tree survived the surgery is still there doing what that tree was born to do.