Family tree

Family tree

I heard about my grandmother Peshka often through the years. She was a force of nature, a determined woman, fiercely devoted to her three children and to fulfilling her dream of making the middle child, Charles, a dentist.

I don’t know what it was about being a dentist that had so driven her, but at her urging, he did it, as did his son, a generation later, and so did our granddaughter Maayan, who is graduating from dental school in a few short weeks. It was due to Peshka’s tireless labors at the Bauman House in Parksville, New York, that Charlie had the resources, the tuition money, to attend NYU Dental School. Peshka made him a dentist and perhaps inspired the future family dentists as well, long after her death.

The Bauman House was the source of much frustration and years and years of tireless work. It never became a Catskills empire but provided the immigrant couple, my grandparents, with enough to buy a brownstone in Brooklyn, and to proudly see the dentist’s shingle and office of Dr. Charles Bauman occupying the second floor. And like their more famous neighbors in the Jewish resorts during those halcyon days, the Grossingers and the Browns and the Kutshers, and all the hundreds of other hoteliers, ultimately oblivion awaited the fruits of their labors. Dentistry, it seems, was a better investment. Hotels come and go, but teeth need a lifetime of tending.

When I was a kid, spending those endless summers in Parksville, sitting with my friends under the giant pine tree that my grandmother had planted, I thought of the woman I hardly knew. And how did she know how to germinate a pine seed, a rare and complicated skill usually performed by Mother Nature herself? Yet my mother remembered her mother planting the seed that became the enormous tree, treasured for its vast shady umbrella, coveted by us kids for protection against rain and sun. How many days of my life did I spend beneath its protective wings, feeling safe and sheltered? Unknowable. Many!

My grandmother was a visionary. Where some saw a patch of empty land, she saw the embrace of an enormous tree that would stand tall and guard her progeny.

When I think about the lost members of my family, and there are many, I often focus on something solid, something I can wrap my head around, and usually my arms as well. Something like a huge tree, an evergreen, that knew all the stories of my childhood, and my mother’s and my grandmother’s and all of us who grew up protected by its girth and power. It, like many who enjoyed it, is gone now, not from disease or age but because man often likes to chop down trees, and a parking lot for a new United States Post Office was being built on that site. Why did no one think it would be lovely to give directions by saying, you’ll recognize the place because it has an enormous pine tree smack in the middle of the parking lot? Maybe today Waze would even report “large tree ahead.” And then my grandmother’s tree would be like Jack’s beanstalk, growing forever, a permanent tribute to the singular woman who had planted it, while no doubt thinking that would be a perfect place for a nice tree.

I wish I had known her as she wheeled around in the wheelchair that she despised, but I was born at the sour end of her life, a life marked by great energy, which had deteriorated from a powerful personality, like a roiling tornado, to a feeble victim, unable to navigate the incessant physical demands of her subdued existence. I didn’t really know her before. I was 5 when she died. But Mom made sure I knew of her.

But my grandfather was something else. He lived with us for many years. I knew him well. Some of his solutions for life’s easy problems still exist in my home. If he had been a rich man, for example, we never would have had the pot covers. Today, we would have thrown away the pots and just bought new ones. But he was born poor and he had a practical bent. So when the pot handles no longer were functioning, when they literally were too hot to handle, he took spools that had no more thread on them, wooden spools that he saved since you never knew when they might come in handy, and transformed them into heat-resistant long-lasting efficient pot handles. He liked to fix things, not to throw them out. If something were broken, he would analyze the problem and try to conjure up a solution. It’s not quite like planting a tree; instead it’s planting an idea that made sense.

When he, Pop, as he was known to us, his grandchildren, wandered around the Bauman House, there was always something in the collection of old buildings that needed fixing — torn screens on the windows, dripping faucets, a sinking cesspool. It was non-stop and he, Mr. Bauman, after all was the owner and chief handyman. He never wanted to pay a professional to do the work if he could do it himself. Except for the landscaper. He could not physically plant enough trees to encircle the entire property. He hired a landscaper.

A man pulled up one day to tell Pop what his proposal would be to make the perimeter of the property safer for the children. The road was somewhat busy and, yes, there was also always a dog or two amongst the occupants, so protection was the plan. The gardener suggested to Pop that he would plant rows of hemlocks. Pop didn’t know anything about hemlocks, including what they were. Looking back, I’m positive that no one else in the family had a clue either. Not my Uncle Dave. Not Charlie the dentist. Not my mother or father. And certainly not me or my sister. We were little kids, so we just didn’t pay attention to most of those grownup conversations, except when Pop suddenly exclaimed that those were the hemlocks. He had found them at last — until the next time.

The landscaper said the best time to plant the hemlocks was early spring. Pop gave him a deposit and signed a contract, all without knowing if he was buying oaks or lilacs or philodendron or spruce. This was how business was run at the Bauman House, often called within the family, the Bauman Mistake!

We left Parksville on the day after Labor Day as always, and Pop was suddenly a man haunted by the hemlocks. He was a sensible guy and he saw the futility of ordering plants and not knowing what he would be getting. Every tree or shrub or flowering plant that we passed suddenly was called a hemlock. Not just in English, either. He would pass a row of something planted by someone and declare, “Das is der hemlocks.” These are the hemlocks. None of us, in those pre-Google days, would challenge him. We didn’t recognize a hemlock any more than he did.

And when winter began its seasonal decline and the fleeting gentle sweet hints of spring were in the air and the hemlocks were awaiting their rebirth and planting at the Bauman House, and everyone knew that early spring was the optimal time to plant hemlocks, Pop suddenly declared he would merely unroll a good wire fence and protect all the vulnerable ones, kids and dogs, with it, without waiting for some unknown lengthy period for hemlocks to sprout — if they were things that sprouted anyway. He canceled the order and the hemlocks never emerged in our fertile Parksville earth.

Thus, all the foliage that now exists on the property that was the Bauman House was arranged by Mother Nature herself. Peshka’s pine tree is a distant beloved memory of safety and security. I saw a Honda SUV on the exact spot last time I visited. Pop’s hemlocks were never planted and therefore never grew roots. And Pop and Peshka, and all the other grownups, as well as numerous generations of children who grew up and grew old, lie buried. In the end it didn’t matter at all. Thus when we take the annual trip to Parksville to explore our family’s roots, we see that they have disappeared and now lie, safely, only in our memories. Remembering is the only fruit of our youth, the only memento of our family tree.

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of five. 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! She welcomes email at

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