If you had the opportunity to attend an open house, once owned by your child’s great grandmother, would you go?
The realtor passed the information along to my 92-year-old grandmother, who in turn shared it with my mother who then told me about it back in 2005. “The buyer plans to make zero changes. She just fell in love with the property.”
Thank God for my grandmother’s sharp memory.
The information related to a townhouse on Dartmouth Street: Forest Hills, New York. She had owned it since 1946. I was now in possession of the fact her home, which was the anchor of our family, would not be gutted, altered, or radically changed in the years that followed. It was heartwarming news given how sentimental I was and the love I shared with Charlotte, my maternal grandmother, who was our family’s matriarch.
And on Sunday, April 10th my son was in the car with me when we departed to visit the open house scheduled from 1:00 to 4:00 PM. For the first time, he would be able to tour the home that defined ‘family’ for me for thirty-plus years.
This is all thanks to Zillow.com, the property website that enables a person to track and save favorite properties. I learned about this feature years prior and saved all the important homes and addresses that meant something to me. The first I saved was my Grandma’s home address on Dartmouth Street, especially since I knew the house would remain unchanged.
Connor, my eight-year-old son, was as excited as I was to visit the home of his maternal great-grandmother. Sadly, she passed in 2007 having sold her home a few years prior. He never got the chance to meet her.
I shared half a dozen stories with him during the drive and he was a good sport about it. My wife could not attend as she was under the weather, but experience has taught me that having quality-time alone with your child opens up new memories. A father can speak at length about a relative that one’s spouse may not recall, either at all or fondly, which can cloud the subject. And you can’t hold a grudge if they do! It’s the unspoken rule in the world of inter-family dynamics. Fortunately, this did not apply in this scenario between my passed grandmother and wife.
Besides sharing the fact my grandmother was sweet and wonderful, I wanted to share with my son how important this property was in our family history. This goes all the way back to the Great Depression and touches on two key values I want to pass down to him: fiscal responsibility and equality.
First, had it not been for the candy store my great grandparents managed in Greenpoint Brooklyn, and the apartment they owned in the Bronx in the early 1930s, my maternal family would have lost everything. They would have ended up in a homeless camp in Central Park along with hundreds of thousands of strangers. The income from both kept them afloat during the worst economic calamity that had ever beset the country—to the tune of a 25% unemployment rate.
I shared how my grandmother’s parents were immigrants, and as it was true then as it is today, they represent the hardest working people in the country. The lesson for my son—respect immigrants.
Second, real estate ownership during good and bad times is a priority. It empowers families to preserve and grow their wealth over time and it represents an alternative investment to stocks, bonds, and cash. Lastly, to preserve one’s marriage, you have to respect your spouse’s opinions and desires in order to promote equality. She owes you the same. That lesson was anchored in one particular story that relates to this townhouse in Forest Hills, New York.
She made the effort, without her husband, to secure the property.
Having lived in New York City and Brooklyn her entire life during the 1920s and 1930s, she wanted something better at the end of World War Two: space, a garden, and a great neighborhood. Forest Hills checked all three boxes and having returned from an open house sometime in 1946, Charlotte informed my grandfather, Marty, they were going to move.
Her husband was ambivalent—a war vet who wanted a simple life and less housework, mocked her when she started the process. “You want to buy a house, go ahead!” My grandma would joke about it, but he was likely there to sign the paperwork (begrudgingly of course).
My son and I parked on the street where my grandmother lived for nearly sixty years. The front exterior was a mirror image from the day she sold it in 2005.
We had two hours to kill so I showed him around the ‘gardens’ area, a beautiful little hamlet in the center of Queens with quaint and well-maintained homes. We also walked by my paternal grandparents’ home at 69 Greenway Terrace. The entrance, paint colors, and façade remain the same as well which filled my heart with joy.
He recalled it looked like the servant quarters we had seen at Ashford Castle in Ireland, which we visited when he was five years old. This speaks to the fact we spoiled him with an overnight stay at a five-star luxury castle. Shame on me! I’ve ruined everything for him moving forward if he keeps comparing properties to a castle the Guinness family once owned.
Our tour of the Forest Hills town center started with a panoramic view of the Forest Hills Inn where my parents held their wedding reception. The area is a throwback, it seems, to an old European village. Our tour of the shopping vicinity on Austin Street was a let-down in all respects. Franchise businesses – T-Mobile, Lens Crafters, Banana Republic. and the likes of Shake Shack have ruined the place. You can cut and paste 90% of the storefronts, drop them in any mall across the country, and you’d find the exact same garbage there that today you’d find on Austin Street.
The journey back to my grandmother’s house was a quick one as the entire town is walkable. This represents a point in favor of Forest Hills compared to our suburban town which requires a car to do anything.
The walkway welcomed my son to his great grandmother’s home and he was more excited than I was to go inside. A friendly realtor welcomed us and she started to give her pitch—I politely stopped her having shared the fact we were not prospective buyers. She was kind enough to let us walk around to see the home for ourselves which was wonderful.
Sans the furniture, carpeting, and some very minor changes, the house was a near carbon copy when it was sold seventeen years prior. Even the grand piano where my mother took lessons was still there! And as was the case when I was growing up, it remained an untuned instrument that yielded creepy and strange noises:
Perhaps it was never tuned, which may explain why my mother never played for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. What child would ever want to take lessons on this particular piano?
The counters, cabinets, and the sink itself were unchanged in the kitchen. I could visualize my grandmother cooking her incredible meals – every single one for the high holidays from the time I could walk until her last in 2004. Oh the smells! The house would radiate with aromas from the bottom floor to the third, thanks in part to a stove that provided zero ventilation. My grandmother’s solution: crank the heat in the winter and open the kitchen windows. When we entered her home, we would be engulfed with the scent of roasting turkeys, ham, and pork loin.
She was a fantastic cook, which turned me on to cooking and today I’m teaching my son the craft. We cook together all the time.
The bathroom upstairs was another carbon copy—same tiles, layout, sink, and shower. Even her bedroom, which featured this crazy wallpaper of a scenic forest, was still there! My grandmother would glow about this wallpaper – which went up in the 1970s! Time has faded the visual a bit but this went up when I was a toddler.
And yet it remained there. My son posed for a picture and had my mother lived to witness the event she would have laughed… and then cried.
The pride my grandmother took in keeping up her home, family meals, the board games we used to play in the early evenings, the Atari game console my uncle would bring down (which blew my mind!), the visits from other relatives and friends—for me this defined what family life represented.
And this was despite my parents’ divorce, my father withholding child support payments, the scare my mother had when she nearly lost her home to foreclosure, and the bitterness that brewed in me growing up as the only child of a divorced and struggling mother. This contrasted with the stable, warm, and welcoming presence of my grandmother who helped get us through the tough times. She was present, wise, stable-minded, and loving.
And my son got to experience her home, an unvarnished look into the past. More importantly, I had the chance to explain some of the values that were passed down over a hundred years from one generation to the next.
Perhaps one day he’ll do the same with his kids and he’ll tour the home we own today and share warm and fond memories from his childhood. But unlike my experience, he’ll know his parents remained loving and faithful to one another.
Which itself may pass down another important value—appreciating the institution of marriage. My grandmother and grandfather got through the Great Depression, World War Two, Vietnam and the sixties, the violence and economic downturn in the 1970s, and so much more. They stuck together and it benefited the entire family.
If we aim as parents to pass along these kinds of values to the next generation, they will likely be better off compared to where we net out in life. That’s a great goal to aim for.