When they were looking for a house some 40 years ago, they explored the nicer neighborhoods, the older suburbs, for he had worked since he was 14, raced through high school, college and medical school in record time, planned carefully, saved his money -- and had the cash to buy outright. But their real estate agent, in his zeal, employed as his major selling point the fact that these areas kept, you know, "them" out. Since he, despite his black hair and very white skin -- black Irish coloring -- and she, despite her Vogue cheekbones, were "them" -- Jews -- it seemed a good idea to go elsewhere. And so her father, a Russian immigrant builder, built a house for them in a sparse country area. Her father had been plying his trade for some years -- in fact, a theater in the unlikely place of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., bearing his name and the year 1915 etched in marble, had become something of a landmark. So the house he fashioned for them was beautiful, an unprepossessing colonial, well built, comfortable. And there they raised two children.
The first 10 years or so, an entire stretch across from their house was woodlands. There the neighborhood children played "Sgt. Preston," stashed acorns, odd rocks and petrified twigs, built caves and climbed everything in sight. Eventually the steam shovels came, tore down the trees and the secret hideaways, and modern houses were built. But the aura remained. You could still rollerskate in the streets with a key on a string around your neck, sled down the hills on Flexible Flyers in two tiers, play punch-ball and softball, and "territory" with a pocket knife where the grass grew in patches.
When the first robbery occurred it was an enormous shock. The upstairs of the house was a wreck, drawers and closets torn apart, familiar belongings heaped in alien piles, a creepy sense of the unknown permeating the rooms. They kept it from the kids.
Some years passed before it happened again. This time the fur coat was taken, the engagement and wedding rings, the silver, all the obvious. But they also lost little things, delicate antique jewelry that could never be replaced, heirlooms that could have value only to their owners. There was a rash of thefts in the neighborhood along about then -- someone had actually pulled into a driveway up the block with a moving van and stripped the house bare. So they took to making noises when they approached their door -- to let the invaders know they were coming, to give them time to get away. For they had turned philosophical -- possessions didn't matter, safety did.
Several more robberies followed -- spaced, it seemed, according to the amount of time it took to replace what was lost. And last month, most poignant of Christmases, they were hit again -- twice. Everything that was left was gone. The police said there was nothing they could do; it was a sign of the times. And they knew now it was time to go. Time to uproot themselves to the Florida that had never been appealing, or the safety-patroled retirement village that had always been anathema. Time.
He came from Republican stock, she from Democratic, but at base they were alike -- law-abiding citizens, loving parents, bright sensitive people. They were children of the Depression. She had had to quit school to support a family of eight. He didn't have a store-bought shirt till he was 21. They were cautious, prudent, hard-working. And they had done it -- they'd brought their children up in a fine home, given them every advantage, put them through college and watched them succeed. And through all the pitfalls, they were there. Always. Now they had to go away, against their will, not because they were discarded by their loved ones, but because out of pride, love and habit they had to play the rest of it out together, on their own.
And they wonder now what will become of their children and their grandchildren in a society that is out of control. But older people always say that. They always bemoan the fact that nothing is as it used to be. That once there was respect -- for life, for property, for self. That once people believed in the work ethic, that drugs were nonexistent, that this country was the paragon of freedom and responsibility. Older people are always out of step, out of sync, out of tune. My parents are no different.
We told them, of course, that the move would be exciting. A new life, with new friends, a new world to conquer. We told them to think of it as an adventure, a journey filled with promise. We told them, in fact, everything we had told them when we were leaving home. Everything that sounded so good -- at 18.