Matty and i had some errands to run on Sunday, including a visit with my Gram. but with his new napping schedule—which is working beautifully and with which i do not want to mess—i couldn't exactly go where i needed to go when i needed to go. he fell asleep just as i was about to pull into Bed, Bath and Beyond. it was only 10 more minutes 'til our next stop—50 shy of the hour i ideally wanted Matty to sleep—so i had to improvise. i was on Route 46 at that point and contemplated trying to find the house my parents lived in when i was born—my unreliable brain could not recall the number of the house, unfortunately, just the street. i realized i'd last seen it when we were house-hunting, which wasn't that long ago, and even if i knew the number, it wouldn't take me long to get there, leaving me more time to kill anyway.
the memory-lane idea stayed with me, though, which is how i wound up exiting Route 46 via the ramp toward Route 23 North.
my Gram moved into a condo in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, in the summer of 1988. i was eleven years old. her divorce from my grandfather was final, her house on Hershey Road in Wayne—where i spent so many magical days as a child—had sold and she was ready for a new start. i was there when she wrote out and handed over her down payment check, sitting with my parents in the sales office trailer of the new condo development. the first week she lived there, i was with her. i helped her shop for furniture. i think i helped her decide where to hang her paintings (or she pretended to let me help decide).
i loved the house on Hershey Road, but my Gram's condo was a adventure. i loved that it was brand new and had that 'new house' smell. the complex had its own pool and clubhouse and playground just a short walk from her unit. she had her own deck, on which she had planter after planter of herbs and flowers. and she lived a lot closer to my cousins, which meant they came over to play (or she took me there to play) when i was visiting.
on Friday nights during my freshman year of college, i often took the bus from Port Authority to Willowbrook, where she picked me up after she got out of work. we'd drive up Route 23 to Oak Ridge and i'd spend the weekend with her. she probably thought i was nuts—most other freshmen spent weekends at parties, drinking, hooking up, curing hangovers with bagels and coffee. but i was feeling lost and lonely and it was easier to get to my Gram's than my parents'. (and Gram would never say to me, when i asked to visit, "honey, why don't you see what so-and-so on your floor is doing this weekend? why don't you go to the football game? see what's going on in the student center," etc.) we would stop at the A&P on our way home and get Stouffer's French bread pizzas or something from the hot food bar. on Saturdays we'd go shopping or see a movie or visit with my Aunt Pat. on Sunday, after Entenmann's donuts and a thorough reading of the Star-Ledger's arts and entertainment section, she'd take me to the bus stop up by her and i'd head back to campus—having spent another weekend successfully avoiding the fact that i had no friends at school, but also having strengthened the bond with my Gram.
eventually i did find some friends, and i spent far fewer weekends at her condo through the rest of my college years, but i really enjoyed being there when i did go. and then, between when i started my first job and found my first apartment—about a month's time—i lived with her up there. it wasn't my favorite time, i admit. again, i was adjusting (this time to real life, as opposed to campus life) and i've never been a graceful adjuster. but as weird as it was for me, it really couldn't have been easy on her. she'd lived alone at that point for more than ten years. now all of a sudden she had to worry about what to give me for dinner, about getting me to the Willowbrook bus stop in the mornings (through brutal rush hour traffic) and picking me up at night after her long days at work.
but she was my Gram, and she loved having me there. i probably could have stayed a year, in her mind. a few years. forever.
all of this was fluttering through my mind as i drove up Route 23 on Sunday. i hadn't been up that way in almost five years, and that time had been to help my aunts clean out the condo, a few months after Gram had taken a spill and wound up in the hospital. it was then the doctors realized her emphysema was too advanced to send her back home to live alone. she never saw her condo again.
the emotions got to me once i had gotten off Route 23 at the Oak Ridge Road exit. almost nothing had changed along that winding, two-lane road, which i'd been on countless times. i remembered how excited i'd be when we hit that part of the trip twenty years ago. almost to Gram's! almost to Gram's! i remembered how the storefront by the train tracks used to be all decked out at Christmastime, with lots of lights and moving parts. i remembered spending as much time as my cousin Brad and i could get away with spending in Ridge Pharmacy—which had everything from Tylenol and baseball cards to an excellent assortment of teeny bopper magazines and coloring books to stuffed animals and wiffle balls. i remembered going to the Blockbuster and trying to find movies my cousins, Gram and i would all like.
and i don't normally feel this way, but i had a moment in the car on Sunday, driving along Oak Ridge Road, when it hit me: all of that is over. we'll never again gather at Gram's for a birthday or a holiday. we'll never eat her melt-in-your-mouth (aka overcooked) broccoli or laugh (and groan) when she realizes after dinner that once again she forgot the mushrooms, which were supposed to be served with the roast beef. i'll never open her pantry door and find a brand new tin of Nestlé Quik and an unopened box of Bazooka. my cousins and i won't take the trail through woods behind her place down to the ice cream shop on a summer afternoon, or pretend to play tennis on the courts near the clubhouse. Gram and i will never catch another matinee at the movie theater in Kinnelon and stop at McDonald's for dinner on the way home.
the tears welled up and my throat started to burn but i reminded myself how lucky i am to have those memories at all. i glanced in the rearview mirror at my sleeping son and thought, this is why people have kids. someday i'll be able to tell him about all the fun i had with his Great Gram Claire—the shopping trips and the Easter Egg hunts and the the sleepovers with the cousins. it will be as clear in my mind then as it is now, as it was when it was happening.
and eventually he'll be fully grown, maybe a father himself, thinking of all the wonderful times he spent at his grandparents'. already i've loved watching the bond form between my parents and him. and i know it's going to grow into something equally as special as the connection i had—and still have—with my Gram.
that realization made actually driving by my Gram's old condo less bittersweet. the neighborhood was quiet, i didn't see a single soul anywhere, and it was impossible to tell who might be living in her unit now. and once i saw it, there wasn't much else to do, or think about. i pulled out my camera, snapped a quick picture—just because—and drove away.
it was a great place while it belonged to my Gram and i'm so happy she had the years there that she had. my memories of the place will always be with me. but it's not where she lives anymore.
so, with Matty still asleep in his car seat behind me, i eased the car onto Route 23 South and drove back toward Wayne, to go pay the great lady a visit.