Written by Bradley A. Huebner
Grandparents play protector with their dust-free houses, piping-hot pies and uplifting life lessons. They provide a safe haven for grandchildren. For a grandkid reared in a dysfunctional home, that escape can mean everything.
Mamaga lived over the bridge and through the woods on acres of wilderness nestled just far enough from the freeway. Her living room had miles of soft silver carpet. Deer braved their way into her back yard, where leaf piles and secret forts proliferated. My nephew always knew he could get away to Mamaga’s house in the woods. If his parents fought, he had a hug waiting. My nephew went often enough to trust it and depend on it. Mamaga eventually relocated to a twin house with a modest backyard. But once inside the front door, my nephew knew the furniture, the smells, and the woman waiting with a hug.
My safe haven was my grandfather’s farm in Kuhnsville. Originally, the farm was my paternal grandfather’s summer house for his wife and six kids. The Farm, they called it, began with a winding, tree-marked driveway that emptied to a large two-story white house set upon a hill. Bucolic and beautiful. In its prime it featured a three-hole golf course, a baseball diamond where professional scouts worked out prospects, and 40 acres of green getaway.
Dad would prop my sister and me next to him as he rode the John Deere tractors, trimming the grass and regaling us with stories from his childhood. My grandfather often watched from inside the house, a retired millionaire who studied vocabulary compendiums and the Bible waving through the windowpanes. That estate meant money, prestige, success. My grandfather had run his own insurance business. But the real money came from the Mossers and, by marriage, General Harry Clay Trexler, whose foresight and wealth funded Allentown’s parks system, the jewel of Allentown. As the third-largest city in Pennsylvania crumbles under violence, the parks remain weekend destinations.
I invited friends to visit The Farm, to show it off. We’d play touch football then drive to a local burger and shake joint called Herman’s for lunch, which we’d bring back, say grace, then listen to him play the Battle Hymn of the Republic on his flute.
The Farm, too, meant I didn’t have to fall prey to alcoholism, as had so many in our family line, if I made smart choices. I didn’t have to squander my talent. I could be a civic leader and a respected man about town if I didn’t diverge down a yellow wood. Then Pa died in 1991. The Farm’s trappings were tagged for destruction. The family sold the oasis. Its new owner, rumor insisted, would transform it into a restaurant, or a housing development.
And yet, it sat decaying for two decades. Squatters passed through. Weeds and vines strangled the stone retaining walls and outdoor barbecue pit. Windows and doors were cracked slightly, then opened, then torn off the hinges by wind and the uninvited. Every few years I’d drive there just to remember what had been, to refresh that image of possibility. I equated it to my own, waterless, On Golden Pond.
Now, the garage roof was gone. The painted-white farm tools taken or damaged. The tractors in the garage that abutted the basement of the house were gone, though the faint smell of gasoline and grass clippings lingered.
This past year, 2017, builders finally demolished the home and started constructing foundations for a development. The lawn where I first drove a car? Gone. The winding entranceway–that poor man’s Hearst Castle approach–flattened. The climbing trees, felled and removed. My faith in my family line, shaken. My safe haven? Violated then vanquished.
Still, I had it better than my nephew. Mamaga passed in 2014. Her heart. My sister and I each considered relocating into her twin home, but the thought of overdosing on nostalgia wouldn’t allow it. As we sold the property and the memories, the safe haven my nephew knew was gone, too. We’ve commiserated over Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings at my sister’s row house in Bethlehem. With time, her kitchen and living rooms have become the setting for new family memories.
And I’ve learned an important lesson: a safe haven is the people more than place.