Last week we took our granddaughter to Parksville. She is 25; this was her first visit to a place so close to our hearts and so important to our family.
It’s not even far. The distance, of course, remains the same as it always was, but the time, our precious time, is far far less than it was all those years ago. New-ish highways, tedious and boring as they are, eliminate speed zones, school crossings, railroad tracks, and lights, and make the trip a mere two hours.
Although she is a young woman and already a sophisticated world traveler, somehow this local journey fell through the cracks. We had assumed she had been there. We were wrong. Now we will have to survey the others to make sure we haven’t denied them the experience. After all, if not for Parksville, none of them would have ever been born.
And that goes for me as well!
My parents met because of Parksville. And then, a generation later, my husband and I met in Parksville. This tiny hamlet, where only our memories now remain, a ghost town, brought us all together. The rest, as they say, is family history.
So Maayan, already a fourth-year dental student, another link in a family of dentists, took advantage of a mini-break from her studies. We ignored the rain and made our way up New York Route 17 to the site of the Bauman House, a place my maternal grandparents bought in the 1920s, a place reclaimed by nature and now the location of a United States Post Office. Nothing of us can be found there. Excavations, bulldozing, and construction took whatever artifacts might have been buried. No clothespins or hair curlers or pacifiers remain for future archaeologists to uncover. At least, I don’t think so. Even my grandmother Peshka’s tree succumbed. And try as I did, I could hear no echoes from the many decades our family called this sacred space our own. Every visit that my sister makes from Israel, where she has lived since 1967, demands a trip to Parksville, another attempt to bring our memories rushing again to this place we love.
We arrived via the old Route 17 from Liberty. We wanted to show Maayan the series of Jewish hotels, all long closed, that had lined the road to Parksville. We passed the very fancy Youngs Gap, the popular Klein’s Hillside, the Grand, the New Brighton, the Klass, and hidden away up a side road, the Breezy Hill. Some had transitioned to becoming sleepaway camps for ultra-Orthodox children. Some had returned to nature, their former lives undetectable, their land primeval, weeds growing freely, their casinos no longer hosting college bands playing cha-chas, their dining rooms not serving up enormous kosher meals to insatiable guests, three times each day, plus more for the exceedingly ravenous, their tearooms just empty; and very sadly, their incubators of love stories simply non-existent. Where else did those would-be romances ever find fulfillment? Does anyone doubt that the precipitous rise in intermarriage these days was, at least partially, a result of the demise of the Borscht Belt?
Our stretch of Route 17 between Liberty and Parksville was a mere paradigm for the entire spectrum of the Jewish Catskills. What was is no longer.
We arrived at the village, the hamlet, the ghost town. Every single store is closed. The giant Fried Brothers Hardware still stands, empty and deserted. Mr. Fried is no longer there. He is now at rest in the Parksville Jewish Cemetery. The store’s fragrance, of oil and varnish and lumber and sawdust, is gone from this place. The sign remains. The iconic corner drugstore, first owned by the gentlemanly Mr. Kaminetsky, and then by the Litwins, Harry the pharmacist who never smiled, still seems ready to open and sell you some Coppertone. Screening the sun’s rays was not the goal in those days of seeking a beautiful tan.
The outside bench where the Short Line bus to New York deposited the newest crop of busboys and dishwashers, gone forever. The three bars owned by Jews and patronized by non-Jews unrecognizable, as are the two kosher butchers, the two groceries, the three luncheonettes, and the one old fashioned post office, with its PO boxes where we could pick up mail three times each day, now moved to its new and much grander location, on the grounds of the old Bauman House.
Some of the lots are now barren, as if Kaplan’s butcher and Tarr’s grocery never even existed. Even the holiest holdout, the shul, is now closed and beginning a rapid decline in its structural integrity. Some stores are standing but locked, as if awaiting tomorrow’s reopening, as if the customers still crowd the streets of the booming little town, and Mom, my mother, is admonishing me to be careful crossing the village street. No need any more, Mom. I could set up a comfortable chair and gaze at my memories forever before I would see a vehicle speeding down Main Street. Sam the cop, had he been still alive, would have had no traffic to direct, no whistle to blow, and no lost dogs to rescue. Peace reigns in the deserted town.
And then we drove for a block and arrived at the Bauman House itself. The post office is waving its flag but it does not welcome us at all. We are completely unknown. Our roots in this place may remain but they are not visible.
We are dejected. Surely there are signs of the piano rock or lookout below. Surely some parts of our lives can be found here, where our family’s endless and magnificent summers stretched for over 60 years. But there is nothing at all. It is like awakening from a dream. There is no substance to memory. It is formless and futile. We leave and head up the road to the falls.
The falls have fallen. This is fact! Our beautiful Parksville secret, not written up in any tourist guide but hidden in plain sight, is alarmingly different. We cannot get close enough now to determine what has actually happened but we think an enormous portion of the top, as we always referred to that bathing hole where the water finally rushed to its destination, and unable to continue straight ahead, fell to its lower level — where the falls became a falls! — a good part of the top appears to have fallen to the bottom, reducing considerably the volume of the water. Hopefully no human was there at the time. It would have been a catastrophe.
We go on to the Jewish cemetery. At last a sign of life! Ironic indeed. The cemetery, final home to so many we knew, is surprisingly immaculately groomed, its fence not rusted, its grass clipped and emitting the delicious fragrance of fresh mowing, its graves clearly marked and standing erect. Here, in this neighborhood of the Jewish dead of Parksville, peace and tranquility reign.
We cannot find my father’s huckleberry patch. It is enough that we remember the sheer joy he always found in bringing home pails and pails of delicious fresh berries that Mom would douse in sour cream until the bounty ended. It doesn’t matter. In June, when we search for the place in vain, the berries will be green and hard, inedible. We need to return in August, but we shall not because we will not find the place in August either.
We could easily find the remains of the hotel closest to us, the Paramount. It is a huge conglomeration of skeletal remains of hotel buildings and an indoor swimming pool. You could easily conjure up the bedrooms, the lobby, and the office. No hope exists for reconstituting them. They will eventually return to the earth. It will take a long time. Fire has destroyed their integrity, but the steel girders remain.
Further up the road is the Tanzville Hotel, where Maayan’s grandparents met and fell in love. They are us! The sparkling lake is a forever part of our history, but the buildings where a 19-year-old waiter, a college student, met his wife-to-be, a 17-year-old day camp counselor, soon to embark on her own college years, are no longer extant.
Truly we can’t go home again. Only the stone parapet remains to welcome us, with nothing at all behind it. It is an empty shell, leading nowhere at all.
The day was powerful for all of us. Certainly, Maayan will never forget it. Neither shall we. There is something transcendent in sharing a place you love with someone precious to you. That is what we did.
And then, the surprise happy ending: Two days later, Ari asked Maayan to marry him. She said yes!
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Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!