I often stop and laugh when describing my childhood home. It sounds a little idyllic or surreal, even to me: a patchwork of houses scattered across acres of hilly land among stands of trees, a large common meadow, an adjacent pond, a grand log cabin at the edge of the pond, and trails after trails through the forests that frame it all.
Imagine a boy between ages three and seven having free reign to run and play through the trails, the meadow, the pond (around it, not in it), the trees, and to occasionally knock on the doors of our ‘neighbors’ who shared what we all called life “on the farm”. This was during the late 1960’s and early ‘70s when rules about wandering away from home were simple: stay on the farm and run home when you hear the bell. Mom rang this brass bell about the size of a hornets nest than hung next to our front door. It was so loud you could hear it more than a half-mile away – at the other end of the farm.
So, with my older brothers and sisters, we simply explored and made up games as we went. All seasons. Sometimes in PJs on Saturday mornings. That’s where I grew up until age 7.
Our family moved to the suburbs of Chicago in Spring of ’73 – magical in an entirely different way – and it’s been cities and suburbs ever since and into adulthood where to moved from Denver, to Minneapolis, to North Carolina. So when my own family began traveling routinely up and down the northeastern U.S. the past two years, I got the idea of returning to the farm.
Surprise #1 – Mom was right!
Mom and dad always told us stories growing up: some historical, some fiction. And it’s not until you’re older that you piece together which was which. So when mom told us the history of the farm before we lived there, we heard a tale of a great man who lived in the big log cabin and rented the cottages across the acres to artists and designers akin to his special style of furniture. The man would host the renters for meals in the grand cabin and it was a self-sufficient community with gardens and animals to feed its members.
Imagine my surprise when I hopped online this year, research Craftsman Farms, and found that mom’s story is true. Better still, it’s all preserved in a museum within the log cabin to celebrate the historical meaning of this farm. Immediately, I turned to my ten-year-old daughter, Annie, and asked if she wouldn’t mind visiting ‘where dad grew up’ while we were scheduled to drive through New Jersey on our next road trip. Her open spirit, love of the outdoors and creative nature fit right in. She said ‘yes’.
Surprise #2 – Did she say what I think she said?
After eight hours on the road, we pulled up to Craftsman Farms at about 4p.m. on a sunny fall day. Driving down the gravel road just off Route 10, I saw that it was all preserved just about as well is it could be forty years on. One of the homes was empty and vines were taking over, but the rest were still hosting families and the log cabin was pristine! And there, up the hill, our house stood as busy as I remember it: cars in the driveway, plants hanging off the front porch, and I could see faces through the front window under the light above the kitchen sink.
I parked at the base of our uphill driveway, got out of the car, and stood there looking up. “Dad!” Annie said with excitement as if she was taking in the same magic I was. “Look!” I turned to look her way where a deer was standing just 25 feet from the car – at the edge of meadow. Annie’s eyes were wide and her face was bright. Probably a lot like my face 40+ years ago.
We left the deer and turned to the house. I started taking pictures while walking slowly up the driveway. “Dad!” she said more sternly, “There are people in there. They’ll think we’re weird.” I didn’t care. Click. Walk, stop, click. Walk, stop, click. And then in my frame was a woman out on the front porch. I waved big above my head and loudly said, “Hello!” She waved back, friendly. I stepped a little closer and explained, “I used to live in this house in the ‘60s and ‘70s.” Her response was simple, but it threw me back. Way back.
“Is your name Cross?” she asked.
Wha? … I looked at Annie. She looked at me. I was struck. “Yeah, I’m Scott, the youngest of the Cross kids.”
The woman’s face lit up and she threw her arms wide open as she said, “I’m a Facciabene!!”
(Flashback: Lisa Facciabene (say FAH-cha-BEH-nee) was my best friend in kindergarten. And outside of school our moms would get together for coffee and let the two of us play for hours. They were a big family with lots of brothers and sisters and lived about a 10-minute bike ride from our house in the new subdivision just being built on the other side of the woods behind our house. They had one of those cool station wagons that had a sunroof at an angle between the front and back seats. A Pontiac, I think. The things we remember…)
I literally had that entire flashback, station wagon included, in the seconds after she said, “I’m a Facciabene” – and I instinctively began walking forward knowing we were not only welcome here, but family friends are living in the house we rented 45 years ago! It’s Laura, Lisa’s older sister. And Annie’s skepticism subsided as Laura began telling the tale of how she and her husband ended up in this home that was once ours.
Laura invited us to tour every room alongside her husband. So little had changed. It just shrunk and I grew. And a five-minute stop to take pictures turned into a 45-minute trip back in time. We re-told how our families would get together on Sunday afternoons with all the kids playing around the farm. And when we heard mom ring the bell, we’d run back up the hill to the house for bar-b-que ribs. Dad grilled amazing ribs and mom made delicious potato salad and cole slaw.
Laura showed us that she had purchased a bell at an antique show nearby and was preparing to put it up on the house, just like mom’s. I remember standing on the porch with her as we were saying goodbye and truly understanding that we were both here long ago as kids and that some crazy forces were in play to bring us back together on this day.
Surprise #3 (still with me?)
So we toured the rest of the Farm: the meadow, the pond, the log cabin, and we glanced down some of the trails now long grown over with woods. I took pictures and Annie threw stones into the pond. Then we got in the car and drove up into the subdivision where the Facciabenes used to live. I promised we wouldn’t go far since this would be meaningless to my only passenger. We went a few blocks in and a few blocks out, and soon we were turning to exit the subdivision on the road that ran behind our house. I was passing slowly by pointing out that you can actually see our house through the woods when I saw an arm waving through the thinning fall trees and Laura’s husband shouting, “Hey, wait!”
OK. Why not? At this point, I couldn’t imagine what to expect. But what he brought out of the woods blew my mind. He was holding a piece of wood, a ladder actually. But this ladder was so small he easily fit it under one arm.
“This is the ladder to the bunk-bed you shared with your brother,” he said a little breathless from the run. “I guess your family left it here when you moved. Please, take it with you – we’re just keeping it in the closet for I-don’t-know-what.”
I’m not sure if my mouth dropped open. I don’t remember my reaction. I just remember walking to the back of the car thinking, ‘Of course it is. That’s the ladder. That’s clearly the ladder my brother and I used to climb into bed more than 40 years ago.’ This piece was so mince I couldn’t imagine my own children at age four or five stepping up on it to reach a top bunk. Yet it was so familiar to me – like a beat-up childhood toy.
I looked him in the eye and tried to sincerely thank him with as much gratefulness I could muster while in shock. This visit was more than I bargained for.