Monday, June 18, 2012

The day I returned to my old life

Last Wednesday, I returned to my old life, the one before I had kids. The lightning bolt of sadness that struck came from out of the blue.

What I did was spend a day in Hoboken, NJ, where I lived for 10 years after college. I've been back a couple of times since we moved, but usually with the kids and rarely at leisure. This time I was alone, with an afternoon babysitter and no plans whatsoever.  

First I had lunch with my friend Theresa, a rare two-and-a-half hour blabfest. Afterward, I wandered around aimlessly, amazed at how built up the downtown area had become: single homes razed for apartment buildings, a fancy W hotel, a bank transformed into the most majestic Wal-greens ever, an entire new transit line.

But some of my own landmarks remained: The bar where I used to go hear bands play, the sandwich shop where the guy behind the counter started making my turkey-mozarella-roasted-red-pepper sub as soon as I walked in, the salon where I got a manicure on the snowy day before our wedding, the intersection where Dave crashed my Toyota Corolla (he was fine; Toyota, totalled).

I used to get birthday cakes here, before Buddy Valastro was Cake Boss.

A new find: Choc-O-Pain French bakery

I always loved this little terrace; Hoboken is full of cool hideaways.

The cell phone ring interrupted my nostalgia, especially because it was the babysitter. When she picked up Sabrina from school, she'd run over some gravel and now the minivan had a flat.

Hel-lo, reality.

One block: Call AAA.

Two blocks: On hold.

One and a half blocks: Explain situation only to realize I have no clue whether our Toyota Sienna has a donut. Realize that I may be older but that doesn't necessarily mean I am wiser.

Half block: Call Dave at work. We have run-flat tires. No donut. He'll handle it.

And then, back to my past. I made my way uptown. The brownstones looked as stately as ever, the towering oaks welcoming with their shade. Things were so familiar—and yet, they weren't. I was looking at them through very different eyes. I'd lived a whole other lifetime in the decade since leaving Hoboken.

I found the strangeness of the familiar even more disconcerting than the newness I'd seen downtown.

I thought back my twenties, when so much was unknown. What would happen with my career? Who would I marry? Where would we live? What would our kids be like? We moved out of Hoboken when I was five months pregnant with Max, and I felt a pang of regret for that me who had no idea what lay ahead. I could never have imagined my baby would have a stroke. Who'd imagine that?

I try not to wallow in Max melancholy. I did it all the time when he was younger: I'd wonder why my child, why me. That first year of his life was one big pity party. Even as I'd sit on the sofa and cuddle Max, my tears would drip down onto his cheeks.

But now I know: My beautiful boy is no tragedy. Maybe I couldn't have imagined having a kid with cerebral palsy, but I couldn't have imagined having kids as amazing as Max and Sabrina, either. No parent ever knows what they're signing up for.

I shook off the sadness and walked on.

I walked past the building Dave and I lived in, and headed to the block of my first apartment. For eight years I shared it with a revolving door of roommates. A retired neighbor named Pepe was a permanent fixture on the stoop next door. Pepe was my parking saint. Hoboken has alternate side of the street parking, which means that on Mondays (or was it Tuesdays?) in the neighborhood you couldn't park on one side of the street so the town could clean it, and on Wednesdays (or was it Thursdays?) you couldn't park on the other side of the street. 

It was quite the scramble to find parking on alternate-side mornings. Sometimes I'd still be circling the block at 8:30 a.m., desperately trying to snag a spot and get to work on time. Then Pepe and I came up with a system. Starting at 7:45 he'd keep an eye out and if a "good" spot opened he'd stand in it and hold it for me; I'd buy him a lottery ticket as his fee. Finally, a parking garage opened and I was literally one of the first people to sign up. Every so often, though, I'd still get Pepe a lottery ticket.

As I got closer to Pepe's stoop, I was nervous. Pepe was pretty elderly back when then. What if he was gone? But as I neared I saw him sitting there, as if he'd never budged.

"PEPPPPPPEEE!!!" I said. I gave him a hug and we caught up some. I told him Dave and I had two kids, Max and Sabrina, and showed him photos.

Pepe admired their cuteness and asked what they were like.

I hesitated. Should I tell him about what happened to Max? The cerebral palsy?

No, I decided, that wasn't necessary. And so I told him how fun-loving and good natured Max is, like Dave, and of his love for Disney World and all things purple and chocolate ice-cream. I told him how feisty Sabrina is, how much she likes spelling and playing the violin and softball.

"They make me so happy," I told Pepe.

After we said goodbye, I walked down to the train station. And then I rode home to my lovely life.


  1. Another wonderful post, Ellen! While NJ isn't my favorite place in the world (that's where Matt's health adventure began while we were there from FL visiting family), you made me feel like I was right there with you on the streets of Hoboken. Wish I could have gotten a cannoli from Carlos's!

    I get the opportunity to do the nostalgia trip to my hometown at least once a year. Most of my landmarks are gone now, razed for beach front condos and Walgreens. It is nice to go to those familiar spots that are left and remember all of what shaped me into who I am now.

  2. Funny how trips like that, we look at our lives differently. My fam and I take trips to Cali to see my family. I see it with different eyes. We just moved here to FL from NJ. My husband lived in Jersey City as a child and he says he definatly sees it different. I wish I knew hw close you lived so our kids could meet. We lived in Highlands(near Sandy Hook, beginnging of the shore). It's nice to take those trips just to see how long we've come along and how much we appreciate our little families.

  3. This post gave me the chills. Love it.

  4. That's lovely. I can barely imagine my life before kids anymore. So much better with them, regardless of how nice my life was before.

  5. As one of those revolving-door roommates, I especially appreciate this post! You brought back soooooo many memories! Remember the couch that wouldn't fit? Remember that tiny kitchen? I had often wondered about Pepe... It's good to know he's still keeping an eye on the neighborhood vehicles!

  6. I really enjoyed this post. The part of the story that hit home with me was your decision to not share with Pepe that your son has special needs. I often find myself in similar situations where I just met someone or it is someone I haven't seen in years and I always find myself sharing my daughter's special needs story. Afterwards I never feel good about it and often question why I feel the need to share such personal information with someone that I hardly know or someone I will never see again. I loved how you chose to share the fun loving things about Max. I am going to really work on sharing more of the wonderful things about my daughter instead of focusing so much on her special needs.

  7. Thanks Ellen for sharing this post and adventure. It is a really strange feeling to go back somewhere so physcially familiar but realise that mentally you are a hundred years older! That little cake looks devine too! Yum

  8. Thanks, all. I had to laugh—some days I DO mentally feel a hundred years older! It's a good thing I look only 18! He, he.

    Anon, that used to be me but at some point I decided I did not have to tell old friends or new about Max's disabilities. Especially in a case like this, when someone asked what he was "like." His personality and interests are what they are, CP or no CP.

    ERICA!!!! My wonderful ex roomie! Reading this blog! Who knew? Of course I remember the couch that would not fit. And that crazy-small kitchen. And so much else about that cozy little place, a favorite time in my life. I hope you are well, and happy with your little guy.

  9. That's a poignant journey. I hope you are enjoying your lovely life today as well.

  10. Great post. I love going home, but it is sad to find some of your favorite places have been demolished in the name of "progress." It also makes me feel old.

  11. Really enjoyed this Ellen, and glad you took some time for yourself.

    I know it's not the same, but I find myself stuck when it comes to my dad sometimes. Do I get into the whole gay thing, the domestic partner thing, the civil ceremony in Vermont deal? (when people ask me if my dad is seeing anyone or whatever)....if it's just surface stuff, I can avoid it easily when I want to. I don't' know. It's a line I sometimes cross and sometimes avoid.


    p.s.. we have the same Toyota Sienna with the tired that can supposedly run flat, although we haven't had occasion (yet) to verify this)....


  12. What a nice (literal) stroll down memory lane!

  13. Sounds like you had a fantastic day and got to relive some beautiful memories.

  14. Lovely post. I found myself reminiscing to my time in Madison, WI, where I went to college and law school and where I met and fell in love with my husband. So many great memories of that time in my life.

  15. When I go back to my old town (Dallas) I feel all that nostalgia too. I am glad you got some time with old friends and with the old parts of yourself. (I am not suggesting you are old, but just no longer in Hoboken.) Love the terrace too.

  16. I love afternoons like that. Or mornings. It's true that it's easy to slip into "what could have been." Vacations do something similar with "what could be" at times. It's almost never what you think it was/will be.

    Great stroll!

  17. Beautiful post! I love trips down memory lane even when the road has been a little bumpy.

  18. I would like to back to Brooklyn, the place of my birth. It's been 45 years since I was last there. I wonder if any of it would look the same.

  19. I really like the last paragraph - where you talk to someone about your son without mentioning Cerebral Palsy. It must have felt good to talk about him as just a child. In my opinion - a child with a beautiful smile and merry eyes.

  20. Wonderful! You captured so well both the luxury and the sad pull of a child-free walk through the past, and the flat tire interlude gave the whole piece a perfect balance.

  21. A lovely afternoon -- and your hubby took care of the tire. Hug him. I feel the same way about Central Florida where I grew up. It's completely different but the same.

  22. Such a beautiful, heartfelt, honest, real post. I absolutely loved it. Thank you.

  23. Ellen,
    This post had me so wistful - you perfectly describe that nostalgic looking back to a time *before*, and what we imagined, and what really happened. And it's all good - no matter the journey, no matter the path.

  24. This makes me want to go back to some of my early haunts- what a great story.

  25. loved going for this vivid walk with you!

  26. I love the pictures you included on this post--they made me feel like I was there. I'm glad Pepe was still there. Since I spent most of my young life on Naval bases, I don't get to go back. I sure would like to though.

  27. Those kinds of nostalgic days are wonderful. For a day. Sounds like you had just the right dosage.

  28. Great post. I was getting a little worried about Pepe there for a minute! I used to go through Hoboken all the time to go to the city or to go to Maxwell's, but I haven't been there in quite some time. I imagine it's nothing like I remember.

  29. Hoboken has gotten all fancified, hasn't it! Funny to think about it...You're right, though, what our kids do is make us happy (mostly). And that's the thing to hang onto, always. A turkey-and-mozzarella sub might help in the happiness department, too.

  30. It's only been 10 months since I left there, but I imagine so much has changed already. (Like a Tilted Kilt??? c'mon. And having your pharmacy right next to Carlos's, for the record, is a nightmare!)

    But what a lovely post, describing a place and time of your life that will always remain in your mind. Enjoyed very much.

  31. OMG HOBOKEN!!!!!!! The good old days!!!!!!! xxoo


Thanks for sharing!

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