How Old Are You Now, How Old Were You Then?

Time Magazine has published 100 photographs from America’s past.  People who see the book are likely to identify with the ones that are related in some way to their age. Many are dark, many moving, but each is likely to take you back to the moment when you first saw it.  These were the ones that struck me at 86.

1936 – The Migrant Mother – It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the year I was five and I never saw it until later in my life when the extraordinary picture of despair and strength reminded me that I had been alive then and my life was just fine while so much of the country was desperate for food and shelter.  Each time I look at her face I am struck by how it could have been that so many were desperate and so many untouched.

1937 – I remember my parents conversations about the possibility of transatlantic air travel by Skyliner and hearing on the radio that the 804 foot long Hindenburg, a symbol of the future, would be landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937.  They discussed wanting to drive the short way down, but didn’t.  Instead we heard the crash on the radio – The terror in the voice of  commentator Herbert Morrison as the airship burst into flames that killed 36 passengers instantly while some jumped to safety.  It happened just feet above the crowd that had gathered to welcome them.  To modern eyes, mine too, the sight of a balloon filled with gas over a tiny passenger cabin underneath is a warning of inevitable catastrophe.  But back then, it was the promise of future travel.  And then it unraveled in one horrific minute. 

1945 – The iconic sight of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square in 1945.  This is a still life of the chaos enveloping them in Times Square in celebration of the end of World War II.  We hear none of the welcome uproar but photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt caught a still that even today is the symbol that brings it all back for us.  Those of us who were young can remember the nationwide relief that unfolded as grownups bent their ears to the descriptions on the family radio. I was fourteen when I went alone to a Trans Lux Theater in New York and watched the spontaneous eruption.  The long war that took so many lives was over. 

pic9  pic3 1953 – At the invitation of Joseph P. Kennedy,  photographer Hy Peskin took a weekend’s worth of pictures of Jackie Bouvier and Jack Kennedy at play in Hyannisport for Life Magazine.  The unmentioned side of the story was that Jackie hated sailing, the family’s favorite pastime.  The Life spread fixed the newly engaged couple in the public eye as comers.  I was a Vassar freshman when I met Jackie who lived across the hall just six years before this picture was taken.  I never knew her well at all but now, seeing this picture, knowing it was the first resentment she held against the publicity required of public figures, knowing now what lay ahead for her.  Slightly over two years of the glamorous life of being the President’s wife and then the tragedies:  The assassination of her husband, the murder of her brother-in-law Bobby, the murder of their friend Martin Luther King.  She faced it all with great dignity.   And then of how carefully and seriously she managed to carve a final career in publishing in New York.  Finally she had privacy.  And then cancer killed her.  If there is anything good in her timeframe, it is that she wasn’t alive when her son John died in the crash of his plane.

And then this one that I love especially because it affirms the very long list lodged in my head of things I never, ever wanted to do.    


Mom’s Peppermill 1948 – 2010

Six decades or so ago, Mom’s Peppermill opened as a hot dog stand near Hightstown, NJ to serve workers who were building the New Jersey Turnpike, the state’s new miracle road.  The hot dog stand expanded over the years to a diner with 120 seats and stayed that way until it was abandoned in 2010.   Never opulent, it was a landmark, a welcome-to-New Jersey place, a diner where after a long trip, drivers could stop for a burger and a coke before moving on.

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Mom’s Peppermill always told us we were almost home whenever we returned from the places we lived in Washington D.C., Baltimore, Wilmington, and Chicago.  It was a tiny, proud dot in Eisenhower’s dream of connecting Americans by road.  Now the Peppermill stands untended in its decay.  I feel a little sad when I pass because it still triggers the travel history of our family and because it was an announcement that we had found our way home.  Whatever it is, it means something to me and I don’t quite know why.

The Apartments

We rented them from 1949 to 1959, in New Haven during my husband’s senior year, Washington while we both worked for CIA, Wilmington where he shoveled coal into hot furnaces on the night shift as a trainee for American Brake Shoe, Chicago for more hot furnaces and studying for a degree at Northwestern, Baltimore to work for Rowan Controller, and finally Red Bank, NJ to help start a division on the home turf of Rowan’s founder.  And what did I do?  I kept all the apartments clean in the manner of ‘50s wives and had one baby in Wilmington, one in Chicago and one in Neptune, NJ.  And always I remember piling our children and their equipment in the car to return to New Jersey for vacations and stopping at Mom’s Peppermill as we left the Turnpike.


Cooper Road

After deciding to build, we went with a developer who stamped out small ranch houses in a matter of days and weeks.  When he looked at the 17 acres of land we had acquired for next to nothing in the isolation of Cooper Road (1959), the builder told us he could never ask his men to work in our long mud driveway and the bramble covered field.  So we began to clear with two toddlers playing in the dirt, a new baby in a basket, and our new tools:  a brush axe, a hand saw, and clippers.  The house went up quickly.  We raised three children there in what we thought was paradise for them.

I renovated the house after our divorce in a modern way that was loved only by me and I lived there alone and happy with occasional visits from family for another 25 years until, at 85 I began to feel too isolated, too alone, and slightly overwhelmed by the load of outdoor work.  I still have the ledger of the money I earned plowing snow, the memory of mowing the fields and clearing evermore into the brush.  It had been perfect for us, then perfect for me and it was time to go.


Red Bank

I moved in 2015 to the West Side Lofts in Red Bank in what is now referred to earnestly as “the Arts District” in the New York Times.  The credit for that goes to Bob and Joan Rechnitz who built the beautiful Two River Theater that has become an outstanding part of New Jersey’s regional theater network and the off Broadway theater world.  Life here is good with deadlines for my movie reviews, the Danish Café across the street where I eat all too often, the Two River Theater, and the independent movie theater within walking distance.  It feels like a professional community and I love it.


Cooper Road  

And then this year, the people who bought our house tore it down along with everything we had built – the rock walls, the banks, the decks, the shed I had built that blew down sideways one night in a windstorm because I hadn’t braced it diagonally, the rope tow we built, the coasting hill we cleared, kids who came to coast and skate on the pond according to the weather.  They all remember it, they tell me now, and so do I.

Something else I remember that they don’t – because they had grown and gone – the years when my close friend built a house on five acres of the seventeen for herself and her daughter.  From age four to her teenage years, that little girl played, as my children had, outdoors on that land, but there was a difference.  Because I was older then, without all the pressures of being young, I watched this little person playing on that land, gently catching a butterfly, holding and looking at it and setting it free into the air.  It was my chance to watch a child grow up peacefully and I loved the friendship with her and with her mother until they moved away to Vermont.  Their house still stands.

Looking from the road up the long driveway I see only the flat red clay where our house stood, the broken remains of the beautiful enormous rocks we skittered around with our jeep to hold the banks, the smaller ones we used to build walls.  And so I reminded myself often that, like Mom’s Peppermill, our place had been a home to two families and a playground for their friends for several decades.  Things endure only when next generations choose to live near their roots.  All of them are scattered and working now in other places and it is up to the family who bought the land to make it their own.  I had my time there, now it’s someone else’s turn.

Our Atlantic Highlands Plant

Just one more scar.  I have written before about starting our company in our kitchen and our garage, about moving from one small building to another in Atlantic Highlands as it grew.  When my husband bought 120 First Avenue and asked a fine local architect to renovate it, we thought our grandest dream had come true.  It was painted pale yellow and within a few years, he had bought other buildings for the growing company.  And then he and my son moved the whole thing to Eatontown, NJ and our roots in Atlantic Highlands were gone.

Now, some years later I don’t know one person who remembers our company or anyone who worked for it even though more than 100 employees lived in the town and worked in that building.  That’s how fast time flies.  One day last month as I drove down the street I sensed an enormous void, pulled over, and saw the scar in the earth.  Bulldozers had destroyed the entire, magical building that had made us part of the town.  All that’s left of that particular dream is a big dirt scar.


And so in just one year, I have been chilled during my drives by the sight of Mom’s Peppermill, of my home of 57 years on Cooper Road, of the building that made us proud of the company my husband and son had built – all gone in one year.  But scars also heal over good memories.  Losing what you’ve built happens to everyone lucky enough to grow old.

At 86, I remind myself that this has been going on since the beginning of time.  People build, move on, grow old, and die and another wave comes along to build new lives.  2016 was a tough year of watching the physical erasure of our early dreams, but I have the reward of knowing that my children, my grandchildren and my two friends had good beginnings here.

One other thing I never expected.  How can anyone know, before growing old, that the great gifts of old age are insight and perspective?  We – man or woman – can look back at our various decades with new understanding.  The end of something?  Of course.  But isn’t it harder for men?  They spent years working in defined ways and are suddenly adrift in retirement.  Women of our generation, on the other hand, learned how to do all the work of life except earning the money.  Chances are good that there’s something they’ve always wished they could do “if only I had time.”  Now we have time.

Would I go back to my 20s with the uncertainties of marriage, babies, housing, and income?  How I loved raising my family, but you need to be young.  Or to my 40s facing college tuitions and an empty nest?  Or my 50s when so many marriages came unglued?  You certainly could talk me back into the 60s when we could begin to follow our own dreams and feel the first edges of freedom.  The 70s can be pure gold.  80s too, though shadowed by mortality.  There is a rhythm to life that makes each phase of it right for its time.

That is what allows me now to make sense of both past and present.   Scarred earth where we once lived and worked is one thing.  The freedom of life in old age is another and it can be very good if we think of it as a reward.