A Transient Home

by Christine Adams Beckett

A moving truck took up residence outside my neighbor’s door last week, and white trash bags filled with clothing and linen donations lined their front porch. The couple that lives there was making the rounds, saying goodbye to their fellow suburbanites, giving a preview of their new adventures in Berkeley, California and speculating about the family of five from Tennessee who expect to move in on the first of April. Naturally, we all were feeling a touch nostalgic, and although my family is a relative new comer to Montclair, I was able to mark a couple of the bittersweet milestones of that house which is now changing hands.

Their two girls were in high school when we arrived in 2006, and enjoyed flipping about on a trampoline in the yard with their friends. They would walk to the high school around the corner via Midland Avenue, as I would occasionally see them in the afternoons while running errands downtown. When they graduated from Montclair High School, their parents adorned their trees with blue and white ribbons in commemoration of “Project Graduation,” a charming town tradition. When the second went off to college, the trampoline was dismantled and new porch furniture was added. The house seemed impeccably kept and rather quiet after that.

This week there is a regular bee hive of activity: trucks of workmen outside, probably making the space more suitable for our Tennessee friends that we haven’t yet met. Four vans from The Air Group are presumably installing central air conditioning (good move). Perhaps they are putting fresh coats of paint on the walls, changing the toilet seats, replacing the wall-to-wall carpet. Today, moving trucks as big as the Titanic have spit out yards full of cardboard.

The house that is changing hands has left me thinking about the transient nature of our lives. I am not sure who owned that 1924 Dutch Colonial on the corner of Berkeley Road before our Berkeley Bound moved in, but 88 years can certainly play host to many families. My assumption is that the list is a substantial.

Our own house’s history is a mystery to us, as well. Since the moment we moved in, I have imagined the families it cradled before us. How long have the flowering dogwoods that line the Avenue existed, and did those that lived here enjoy their soft pink April blooms as much as us? Did the fox who visits us from time to time frequent those that came before us? I had contact with the lovely woman from whom we bought the place who kindly let me in to measure certain walls to make sure my furniture would fit before hauling it overseas. The family before that was called Hughes, as I still get junk mail addressed to them. According to other neighbors, they were also an amiable bunch and even spent time living in Paris, as we had.

The dentist who practices two doors down to us gave us a photo of our house dated 1982, the same year he was looking for a suitable property for his practice. There were many more trees around it, and it was taken pre-family room addition, which now sits pasted to the South side of our house like a trailer. The driveway has since been paved and the garden completely revamped, all improvements, I suppose, but the charm of the more simple garden and the shade of the 1982 trees has made me decide to plant more this April. There was an elderly woman who lived in the house alone at that time, and was a patient of our dentist, but he knew disappointingly little about her.

Small clues about the ghosts of our abode have presented themselves to us. While replacing a broken sconce on our third floor, we discovered that the builders installed both gas lighting and electric wiring, not knowing if the new technology of illuminating our homes in artificial light would ever truly take off. I have found a postcard that fell from the attic when we replaced my son’s bedroom ceiling during water damage remediation, illegibly scribbled names on the boiler maintenance records found in the basement utility room and an old suitcase tucked under the eaves of the attic with an unfortunate lack of luggage tag.

I sometimes wish there were territorial little girls that lived here once, scribbling their names on the walls inside closets and cabinets like my sister Jackie and I did in our girlhood home on Rambler Street. We would even squeeze ourselves into the corner cabinet in the kitchen armed with magic markers, where no sensible mother of five children would ever store anything of daily use. “This house belongs to Chrissy and Jackie Adams,” we wrote, an attempt to take permanent possession before other lifetimes of intruders.

Public records exist immortalizing all the transactions of our house, I am sure, but I suppose I prefer the mystery and speculation. It’s rather like my adopted mutt: sure its clear she is part dachshund, but perhaps her unbridled talent of singing along to passing roaring fire trucks suggest a smidgen of beagle. A touch of Jack Russel terrier, perhaps, with that narrow nose of hers? She sure likes to swim, so maybe a few drops of labrador retriever are pulsing through those veins, but I will never invest the $75 in a DNA test, nor will I spend a minute of my time pouring over public records files at the Montclair Public Library.

So it is even odder still that my curiosity extends before the construction of this house; I’d like to know what the landscape looked like before it was ever architecturally dreamed. One of my favorite pastimes is browsing the stacks in used bookshops, which often house old post card collections. One now defunct shop in New Preston, Connecticut had boxes of them filed by state, a treasure trove including unidentifiable locales in Montclair. I would pour over the image from right to left, inspecting the sepia smudges for some clue as to its location, trying to recognize any existing landmark. Most were impossible to decipher.

My husband and I attended a cocktail party at Christmastime at the home of another neighbor in the center of adjacent Erwin Park, a late 19th Century development that now is an enclave of stately homes, beautiful gardens and little travelled, windy roads. For their guests, the hosts had an old Erwin Park real estate brochure printed for distribution as party favors, and within it was advertised “a tract of land of about seventy acres, situated in the center of town of Montclair, New Jersey, and on the easterly slope of the Orange Mountain. The entire property is in the hands of a few owners, who are all united in desiring that it shall be so developed as to make a community of homes.” At the time of printing, 10 of those 70 acres had already been developed and put in “perfect condition for building purposes.” It’s hard to conceive today of 70 vacant acres in Montclair.

This little real estate brochure underscored what my daughter was learning in her 3rd grade social studies curriculum: the history of Montclair. Between 1880 and 1930, the time of the development of our own Erwin Park, the population of our town grew an impressive amount, from 5,147 to 42,017. Those 50 years must have been industrious beyond presedence, to accommodate 37,000 new villagers. Another boom followed World War II, when the New York metropolitan area saw even more expansion.

George Inness, Jr. (1853-1926), George Inness Sketching Outside his Montclair Studio, ca. 1889, oil on canvas board. Montclair Art Museum

But what about the previous hamlet that was situated here, the 1870s artist colony of George Innes? His farm and studio, The Pines existed somewhere in the neighborhood of Mountainside Hospital, but I can’t seem to find the rumored plaque that is posted there, although there are a Pine and George Streets tucked away in the tangle of two family houses. Montclair was formerly known as West Bloomfield, and Cranetown after its founding settlers. The Crane House, which now is a museum of the history of our Montclair and houses the town’s historical society, was moved from its original location, at 159 Glenridge Avenue, not far from Chez Inness. But I find no tangible evidence of George ever having slung a single dollop of paint there. The absence of tangible evidence of his physical existence, other than his beautiful paintings, echoes his philosophy of art: “Art is a suitable essence. It is not a thing of surfaces, but a moving spirit.” His paintings reflect the same belief, particularly in Autumn in Montclair, where he painstakingly reproduced a landscape with all the precision of a scientist, but covered the canvas in gorgeous, exuberant, autumnal shades of orange: the essence of a moving spirit that would eventually move along to welcome winter.

Perhaps the real concept of Home can be described in a similar way, as there is nothing really tangible in its true concept. Home is where your loved ones are and where you are loved in return, and not a collection of surfaces to be carpeted or painted. We by nature are transient beings who don’t need a physical place to be Home. We are free to wander and enjoy the world and its offerings, knowing full well that the only things of value in life are the ones we cannot touch.

The Dutch were the first to take part in the centuries long chain of so-called real estate transactions, “acquiring” what the Algonquin Lenni Lenape knew was not acquirable. The original dwellers of our real Montclair used this land to hunt and trap their sustenance. They passed over the mountains on their way to the shore to gather shellfish. Our nomadic ancestors were always seeking land that would support them, but never hold them. Land was a place, not able to be owned but to be used. They have left evidence of their existence in our proper names: Watchung (place on the hill) and Yantacaw (place of dancing). No names of peace-loving Lenni Lenape tribesmen have been assigned to those places. A description or activity has, instead. That’s tangible enough, even for me.

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A washer and drier has just been delivered to our new neighbors and there are bicycles in the driveway. I am looking forward to welcoming them with some delectable offering from the bakery on Walnut Street, the one with the giant dough mixer turned planter at the entrance, a favorite of ours on Sunday mornings. I hope their children are a similar age to mine so that the can join the local tribes of play. Perhaps we can remark about the weather and over the fence and chat about what grows best in our vegetable garden beds. I am hoping to enjoy their neighboring presence while it lasts.

(Incidentally, Autumn in Montclair [George Innes, 1825 – 1894] comes from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Martucci and is currently for sale at Christie’s. If you’ve got $94,000 burning a hole in your pocket, it can be yours.)