Sleepy-eyed, I roll out of my family minivan and stretch as I always do when we travel from Long Island to visit my grandparents in Manville, New Jersey. I haven’t seen them since maybe Easter, and those few months felt like a year.
The air is warm and light. The fresh clear air brings back the comfort of my grandparents’ house, of New Jersey, of home. There’s my grandma sitting on the porch—the place she has awaited each arrival for the last twenty years.
The clump of my steps on the hollow wooden deck announce my arrival. The sliding screen door roars as I push it aside to enter the screen-in porch. Clump, roar—sounds I’ve heard since childhood. The porch windows are open and the fan above is circulating the summer air.
“Hi Grandma!” I say sweetly as I bend over and give her a hug and a kiss on her forehead.
“Hi Meg,” my grandma says. Her voice almost sings. She gently pulls my head closer to her to give me a kiss on my cheek. We rub noses.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, Meg.”
I place my things down on the porch and head into the house. There’s my grandfather sitting in his chair just past the kitchen. I walk through the kitchen to him.
“Hi Pop!” I speak a little louder than I did with grandma. My grandfather looks up. The light gleams off his glasses, and the sparkle in his smile matches the sparkle in his eyes.
“Ah, there she is! Hi Meg!” My grandfather exclaims. I smile. I walk over to him and give him hug and kiss.
“How are you?”
“I’m alright. What’s new?”
I spend time with my grandparents, talking to them and catching them up. Then I quietly sit on the couch on the porch, eat lunch, wake up a bit from the long trip, and half-listen to the conversation between my parents and grandparents. I laugh along with the funny stories and ask questions to learn more about their childhood and their history.
At my grandparents’ house, my sense of home and the essence of my memories carry with me throughout the house: playing pretend and, begrudgingly, dress-up (because my best friend wanted to); baking chocolate chip cookies with my grandma; playing computer games on my grandfather’s computer (which was probably the only reason he owned a computer); spending hours in the now-demolished above-ground pool; playing outside in the backyard pulling out the big yellow ball that shrunk over the years, the black and white striped tunnel, hula hoops, bats and wiffle balls; drawing with chalk and riding up and down on the driveway on our scooters.
I remember the perky excitement I felt when someone—family and my grandparents’ neighbors—came to visit. “Who’s here?!” It’s Aunt Colleen. It’s Aunt Cathy. Sometimes my cousins. I remember how I knew everyone in my grandparents’ neighborhood and would yell “Hello!” from across the street to Bucky and Skippy, Joanie and Frank, Helen, Ellie, and Dolly and Andy. I was known as the social butterfly. They watched me grow up and, like family, cared about how I was and what I had been up to.
My grandparents’ house is where everyone gathers—Christmas, Easter, birthdays, summer family picnics. All the hugs and kisses. My grandparents’ house is where I learned how to be a friend. I have so many summer memories with the girl next door, Angela, who quickly became my best friend. All the laughter and joy we shared. Memories of us laughing so hard we cried. Memories of sitting on the porch or on the bench swing in the backyard with our grandmothers.
Summertime made for the most vivid memories. The sensation of the soft green grass underneath my bare feet as it enticed me to take off and run around the whole yard. I was free like a mustang running in a wide open space. In the front yard, there was (and, in fact, still is) a tiny little ditch, which was the perfect size for me to sit in. It became known as “Megan’s hole.” I would sit and think quietly watching the occasional car go by or say hello to Bucky or Skippy from across the street.
I would come in at night after catching lightning bugs and see that my feet have turned brown. I would take a shower and scrub them until they were pink again.
I recall the feeling of awe seeing the luxurious foothills from the car window. I called them mountains. My parents always told me that was where the bears live. The mountains hugged the horizon; I felt cradled by the landscape, intensifying the feeling of “home.” Only in New Jersey do I get that feeling of grandeur. I recall the sense of freedom and peace driving through the country seeing the fast and far lands and then the hills in the distance. Only in New Jersey. The serenity the country had to offer. The serenity that my New Jersey had to offer.
While I am out with running some errands in a neighboring town with my mom, I felt that ache and yearning in my heart.
“Why is that every time I come back here it feels like home?” I asked my mom. I have lived in New York longer that I have had in New Jersey, even though my family’s original plan had been to move back to New Jersey after a few years.
“Because this is where you spent you’re first five years of your life,” my mom said. The first five years of my life, I repeated to myself. My childhood memories flooded my mind and kindled my heart. Home, New Jersey is home. It’s where I first opened my eyes and took in all the sights, sounds, and scents in this environment of abiding love, surrounded by family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—who cherish me so deeply. New Jersey is what I began to know.
Long Island is where I live and have for twenty years. My life is here in Long Island, but my heart is in New Jersey because of my family—my grandparents. I know, and I deeply appreciate, that I am loved. I am greatly blessed for all that was given to me. I would not be who I am today if home did not shape me.
Now that I have come to understand the importance of the first five years of a child’s life, I am devoted to carrying it forward. If I am meant to have a family, I want my children to appreciate and be filled with the same love that I have experienced in my life, even if it takes them the same 26 years it took me to realize the importance of that love. If I am not meant to have children, I still want to provide the same love to others in my life, no matter where I might find them.
“Hey Meg,” My grandfather said to me after I hug and kiss him goodbye before walking out of the house to head back to Long Island.
“You are as beautiful as your grandmother was when she was your age.”
I smiled and looked at my grandmother’s expression on her face. She almost looked like she was blushing.
“You think so?” I asked
“For sure. I know so.” He replied.
He turned to look over to my grandmother. They shared a smile, and that moment stayed with me as I watched the New Jersey hillside trail past on the car ride home.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.