I visited my father’s childhood home for the last time in the seventh grade. It is located in Fair Haven, a small Jewish town in northern New Jersey. Tyson Drive is a decently short road, leading to a dead end. The house sits at the end of the road in a circular crevice, surrounded by massive oak trees that shade it during the majority of the day. As a result, the house is a cool relief in the summer as the scorching sun cannot reach it through the trees. Shippees Pond lies behind more oak trees bordering the house’s backyard. My father never ventured out to the pond much with the exception of when he once decided to walk his childhood dog on the lake one winter; that story ended with the town firefighters rescuing the miserable dog from a crack in the ice that he had slipped in. He never ventured back to the pond after that.
Fair Haven is a fairly stereotypical suburb: it is a small town with non-existent crime rates and annual firemen’s fairs that attract the entire population of six thousand residents. The mothers there tend not to work and most fathers are lawyers or doctors – this includes my grandparents. Everyone there is decently friendly without going out of their way to make others feel welcomed; baked goods are always gifted to new homeowners, but beyond that and annual block parties, new families are on their own to adjust to Fair Haven. It is not too different from my hometown that I feel like an absolute outsider when I visit, but I always remember feeling the sensation of eyes scanning me for too long as I walked in the town square; Fair Haven rarely receives visitors and takes note of them when it does.
When I visited four years ago for the last time I remember seeing the familiar collection of old bicycles sitting in the corner of my grandparents’ garage. They were the same ones that my father and aunts used when they were younger; the leather on the seats peeled off at some point and the wicker that held the front baskets together became undone years ago. I learned how to ride a bike for the first time at my grandparents house; my father’s hands held up my bony back as I pedaled into various poles and fire hydrants. When I visited for the last time I remember riding the rusted green bicycle that once belonged to my father. He used to ride it to school, and I pictured his feet resting on the same pedals that mine did. We are both left handed – I wonder if he also struggled with turning the bicycle to the right when he first learned to ride it.
My father and I are quite similar – it has always been like this. We are both middle children, strong haters of Math, lefties, and incredibly superstitious. The last of these has always made me feel the most attached to him – I cannot explain why.
We have both always been extremely superstitious since we were young children. I did not realize we shared this trait until maybe six years ago when we were brushing our teeth in a hotel and I noticed that he wiggled his toothbrush five times before bringing it to his mouth – coincidentally, one of my superstitions forces me to shake mine four times. Since then, I have always tried to notice which other habits he has: he always walks around his car before leaving the garage, always ends stairs on his left foot, and has to rub his headphones before listening to music. We always mock each other for our strange superstitions; he laughs whenever he sees me walk twice around the kitchen table each night and I try to leave the garage last when we get out of the car, fully aware that he always needs to exit last.
The last time we visited the New Jersey house when I was in seventh grade we had a conversation at dinner one night regarding my father’s superstition. My grandfather was arguing that my father was clearly not an atheist, for if he was indeed superstitious then he obviously believed that some god-like force had control over his life. The discussion dragged on as we stood in the kitchen washing plates after dinner. My father always assigns me to drying duty, and I remember him chuckling at my grandfather as he passed me a wet salad bowl. I did not quite understand the argument back then, but I have thought about it various times since that night. I asked him how it was possible to be an atheist and superstitious a month ago; he gave me the same half-grin as he had to his father those years ago and chuckled to himself just as he had four years ago as we were drying plates. He then walked away, never giving me an answer.
I never see my father much – he travels for business during the week and frequently misses family dinners for various work functions. When I used to visit his childhood house, however, he never disappeared during the day to answer phone calls. He ate with us at dinner and drove us around the suburb, pointing to various landmarks that marked significant events in his childhood. One bridge over a quiet river marks the spot where he took pictures with his senior prom date and a parking lot next to his high school served as the first place he took steps into the art of driving, something that worried my grandmother sick for years. It was always strange, driving around Fair Haven; this town was able to experience a side of my father that I have never seen – it watched him grow and make countless mistakes and leave for college while I have only ever seen him as a parent.
On our first day visiting four years ago, my grandmother brought me and my siblings to a McDonalds to buy ice cream – the painful August heat had already taken its toll on us and we found ourselves sweating through our shirts as we trudged through the town center. As we sat in a corner booth in the vacant store, my grandmother began telling us how my father used to sneak off from Hebrew school and come here with friends when he was younger. I remember reading brief messages carved into the booth’s table. Most of them were the initials of young lovers, probably something along the lines of “AF + NL 4EVER.” As I ran my fingertips over the carved indents on the table, I wondered if my father carved a message into one of the booths when he was in high school. I asked him the other day if he remembered vandalizing the McDonald’s booth; he said he probably did.
My father’s childhood house has a closet that sits at the top of the second floor stairs. If you push the many brooms inside it aside, you soon see a small laundry shoot that travels to the laundry room outside of the kitchen. When I first discovered the chute, my father told me how his older sister once told him to look inside it to see a surprise from the other end and then proceeded to push him down the shoot. I laughed hysterically when I first heard this, perplexed by how gullible he once was; however, I soon became the victim of the shoot, and my brother shoved me down it for many years. I wonder if my father felt the same sense of pure fear as he descended down the dark shoot. I wonder if he inhaled the same detergent I did when he finally landed into the laundry basket filled with sheets at the end of the passage. Did the smell of soap remain in his hair during that night’s dinner as it did with me? I always like to think that it did – that he had the exact same experience I did. Somehow, it makes me feel closer to him, knowing that we were victimized by our siblings in the same manner.
I can not remember my father angry in the New Jersey house. He always seemed calm, at peace, when visiting his childhood home; his tranquility soothed me and I always found myself less tense when visiting my grandparents.
My father has always appeared less flappable than my mother, maybe because he is home less often and rarely has to put up with the teen angst coming from my siblings and me. Either way, I have always relied on him to cool my mother down when she loses her temper; he always brings her to the living room and sits down with her and lets her cry, cradling her head in his calloused hands. I always peek in through the kitchen when he does this; he loves my mother so much and I can’t help but feel incredibly proud to have parents who support each other so well – it gives me hope for my future self. He does get angry, however, although very rarely. It usually happens with my brother – as much as they love each other, their personalities clash pretty often. I hate it more than anything when he becomes angry; his face reddens and he clenches his jaw and as he transforms into his furious self I always sprint to my bedroom, too afraid to see the person I look up to so much lose his calmness that I find so assuring. I try not to think about this side of him.
My father and I have both always waken up fairly early. I have briefly discussed the matter with him in the past, and we both agree that it is because we hate feeling as if our day is wasted when we wake up past 9:30. Whenever we visited New Jersey we would both wake up early and drive the the supermarket to buy donuts and coffee for everyone. The car ride to breakfast was always nice; I never see my father in the morning – he is either on a plane to California for work or sleeping before he leaves for his office – and it soothed me to watch him read the New York Times as he sipped his coffee in the kitchen. It was different and certainly strange, but nice.
Sometimes I wonder if my mother feels the effect of his absence as much as I do. He is her husband – I am sure she misses him when he leaves, but I think it is slightly different for a girl to grow up feeling that her father is a secondary figure in her life. He always made an effort to come support me for the big things: eighth grade graduation, ballet performances and so on; sometimes I needed him to be there for the small things though. He rarely made it for parent teacher conferences – I so badly wanted him to hear my History teacher say that I was doing well in the class, for he once taught the subject himself and I always felt the need to prove myself to him. At times, I found myself growing envious of his phone, for he seemed to spend more time on it than interacting with me. I remember that for my tenth birthday present, my parents let me go on a three day trip with one of them. I so badly wanted to spend three days with my father, eating and walking and laughing with him; however, I knew that our vacation would often be interrupted by his work calls, so I chose my mother instead.
When we visited that summer my grandparents had already started packing various objects in the house as they prepared to move to a community that was more fitting to their elderly needs; stairs would eventually become a problem and they prefered to be in a neighborhood surrounded by people of similar ages. As we ravaged the cardboard boxes in our aunts’ and father’s bedrooms, our grandparents let my siblings and me pick some souvenirs to take home with us. My sister lingered in my aunt’s room, staring at her old jewelry in awe as she tried to decide between a necklace and a pair of ruby earrings – most likely gifts from her various high school boyfriends. I immediately scurried into my father’s room, enchanted by his childhood hideaway.
I remember feeling strange as I walked into his bedroom. It was as if I was walking into a snapshot of a young Jon Auerbach, one who played little league baseball and was obsessed with the University of Pennsylvania. He had maybe four photos that hung above his desk. They showed him in Vermont with his ski team and him racing at Mount Snow, depicting him midair during a jump on the course. A year before we visited I raced at the same mountain, and a picture almost identical to his was taken of me before I fell when trying to land from the jump. His room was nothing out of the ordinary, complete with a scratchy rug, navy bed sheets, and an oak desk. On the corner of his desk sat a small brass liberty bell, a present that his parents gave him after he was accepted to college in Philadelphia. I chose to take the small liberty bell home, instantly becoming more attached to it than I had been with my aunts’ glimmering necklaces. The small figurine now sits above the fireplace in my bedroom. It doesn’t ring anymore – the actual bell fell off a few years ago after suffering from a tragic fall from the mantelpiece – but it still sits, dignified, as its brass slowly rusts and darkens.
My father has never mentioned the fact that I now have his bell. It is quite possible that he simply forgot that he ever owned it in the first place. Even if he does remember the bell, he rarely comes into my room – I think he feels uneasy about invading my privacy; I doubt that he has ever noticed the small figure in the four years that I have had it. I don’t mind, though. Sometimes I look at it and picture it sitting in his room when he was a senior, stressed and completely lost. He was just a boy, clueless as to what he was going to do with his life and obsessed with The Smiths. That bell sat on his desk when he had no idea who he was and was just as confused as me. It comforts me to know that I am not alone as I begin diving into the uncertainty of adulthood.
My father’s old bedroom used to be covered with dog hair. My grandparents’ dog, Harry, had always been the most affectionate towards my father, and slept in his bedroom once my grandparents bought him, despite the fact that my father was long out of college and only slept there when he visited home during long weekends. The New Jersey house feels incomplete without Harry. The majority of the pictures depicting the house display the peppy golden labrador smiling in a corner of the frame; his tongue hangs out of his mouth and his tail appears blurred in the photos due to his excessive wagging. He just passed away two years ago. I do not think that my father was devastated, but I remember that he seemed indescribably off for a couple of days after hearing the news. He has always had a soft spot for dogs, although he tries desperately to hide it from his family for a reason that I will never understand – perhaps it has something to do with masculinity and his need to mask any emotions that may make him appear as “weak.”
Those many years ago as we prepared to leave 72 Tyson Drive for the last time, I remember feeling painfully sad as our trip neared its end. I knew my grandparents would move soon – definitely before we visited New Jersey once more. As my parents finished packing their things inside, my siblings and I sat on our suitcases, our skin melting in the sticky August sun. I have never enjoyed wearing sunglasses so I was most likely squinting, my mouth half open, as I watched my father drag his bags to the car. This was it; this was the last time I would sit in that driveway, the last time my feet would burn on that black asphalt, the last time I would watch those massive oak trees shade the small beige house that I loved so dearly.
My grandparents moved out of the house three years ago into a community in the same town – fifteen minutes away from the old one without traffic. I visited their new house my freshman year during Winter break. It smelled bland and clean; everything was color coordinated – a huge contrast from the dozens of mismatched rugs draped across their old house, now sitting in a storage unit. I found myself angry at them, furious that they sold the old house that I loved so much. I realized as I sat in their new, shiny kitchen that I would never be able to sneak into my father’s old bedroom and browse through his bookshelf, that I would no longer be able to ride his rusty bicycle back and forth down Tyson Drive. I was stuck sleeping in a lightly furnished room, belonging to no one before me, its walls bare and sad. Someone new was now sleeping in my father’s bedroom and the pictures that hung on his walls were now in storage or thrown away. I was furious with my grandparents for the remainder of my trip and made a point to mention frequently that I missed their old house – now that I look back on it what I did was incredibly rude, but it felt justified at the time. That house meant so much to me.
My father is my role model. I understand that this sentence is often overused in elementary school questionnaires and usually thought of as an “easy” answer, but he is most definitely my role model. I look up to him and aspire to be the person he is; I have for many years now. He is honest and incredibly passionate about history and loves his wife in a way that truly makes me believe in love. I am forever grateful for that small, beige house sitting on a dead end street in a Jewish town in New Jersey, for it unveiled our similarities and served as a bridge for my thirteen year-old self, lost and longing for her father. I still rarely see him, usually only two or three days a week – I have come to terms with that. But I will forever cling to my memories of us together in that house, of him sitting cross-legged at my grandparents’ breakfast table, sipping coffee while reading the New York Times, and I remember once more that I truly am my father’s daughter.
Written by Isabella Auerbach