Posted by: Peadar Ban | July 8, 2012

July 8, 2012: Sunday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

I do not know what time it is.  Perhaps it is already well into the afternoon.  I have been sitting here in the room we call the Oratory for at least an hour alternatively thinking and dozing.  Well, it has been more dozing than thinking, really.

Just now I saw a dragon fly go buzzing past the window and land on the telephone cable that leads into the house.  (Ahh, and the clock in the dining room has just struck the hour – twelve.  That means it is 1:00PM since we have not bothered to change the thing for Daylight Savings Time.)

From where I sit in my favorite chair I can see a clump of day lilies getting ready to bloom, one blossom already having burst into a gay bright orange.  I remember when I was so much younger, a boy of eleven or twelve, coming on a similar sight in Riverdale, a neighborhood in New York City, while exploring with some friends.  We ranged far and wide.

That day we had gone along the New York Central tracks to the Hudson River and turned north, walking and looking and adventuring as young boys might have been doing for tens of thousands of years.  (Do they still?)  Suddenly, we came upon a hill ablaze with color, a hill afire with day lilies, all orange blossoms shot with black along the edges of the petals.  We had been walking along the tracks by the river’s edge.  Now we crossed the tracks and approached the hill of flowers, crossed the drainage ditch beside the tracks by leaping over it and climbed the hill into the mass of flowers.

They spread along the railroad tracks for at least 300 feet and up the hill for another 200 feet it seemed.  We began to climb, and being boys began to lop off the blossoms from their stalks as we went.  We climbed toward a wall ahead of us which seemed about 8 or 10 feet high.  Reaching it we saw an iron gate in the middle of its length.  The gate was closed.  We walked alongside the wall toward the gate on a grassy path.  Large native trees, oaks, maples, perhaps a chestnut or two shaded portions of the hill, while the flowers grew all over it.

From where we were there was a lovely view of the river and the Palisades rising on the western shore.  Looking south we could see the mouth of the Harlem River where it joined the Hudson and the railroad trestle there, the George Washington Bridge beyond and the Palisades Amusement Park with its giant Ferris wheel just south of the bridge.  Tucked away beneath the north side of the bridge’s 700 foot high western towers was the little state park and its beach.  I knew one or two people who had swum across the Hudson to that beach.  My father was one of them.

We boys paid scant attention to that, though, as we tried to figure out how to get through the gate and into the gardens beyond which surrounded a large and immaculately kept mansion another 100 or more feet from the wall.

I’ll not tell you if we managed at last to get inside the gate or scale the wall into paradise.  But, there were other homes we had “invaded” and would “invade” in that neighborhood during those adventurous years of “exploration” between 10 and, oh, 14.  There were a number of abandoned old houses, “Elegant Dumps” my mother called them, which were scattered around that neighborhood.  My friends and I were in them all; places which had once housed and hosted men and women of some importance and wealth, no doubt, and now gave shelter to small animals and adventure to rough boys; whose once beautiful well kept gardens and grounds  were gnarled and tangled jungles and we, little urban savages, the only, the last, to walk through the once rich rooms and look out broken windows on a riot.

At last, on the day I remember now, we turned and walked back down the hill, along the water’s edge.  We walked some miles and more past the railroad yards and the rattling subway tracks along Broadway, back to our own homes to play and sleep and dream.

I still dream of those old houses and that field of flowers I walked through more than 50 years ago.  And in my dreams I am alone and young again.  My companions are in another room, or I am beyond the gate I entered through alone.

I went back there to that hillside some years after.  I had married in the interim.  I went with my wife and my little girl, not yet a year old.  It was her first summer.  We sat outside the wall on the hill above the bright orange lilies spread out before us.  We sat and looked across the river and watched the water .  Then we went home, too.

I have learned that the house beyond the gate on the hill where the day lilies grow belonged to Arturo Toscanini.  I like to think he would have been pleased to open the gate for us had he been there when we arrived.

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