All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Life was never lovelier than in the fall of 1969. I wish I could go back and relive that time. In retrospect, I realize these may have been the best days of our lives. Christmas was coming, and the Outer Space Men were selling. In fact, they sold so well that all the special racks and shelves, awaiting them in every East Coast five and dime, were empty. But there were refills on the way. And, even though, they were delayed, because of an enormous dock strike, we still believed they would arrive by Christmas time. Meanwhile, the ads for Outer Space Men were running daily on TV. And the demand for these first true action figures remained sky high! Buoyed up by this apparent success, I was just finishing the Second Set of OSM. And both Harry and I were wondering what subject matter we would tackle next. Harry wanted to reintroduce Buck Rogers. I favored classic Superheroes, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and the rest.
Meanwhile, our small apartment on 28th street had become a place of magic. The Great Wall of Comic Characters that was growing there, although, a far cry from what would one day be “Mouse Heaven” had, nonetheless reached a state of near perfection. And, like a garden, I tended it and weeded it, with much care and affection. A small, but growing community of comic character collectors gathered there, often, in admiration. As a visionary explorer in this newly discovered country that lay just beyond the borders of reality, I felt that I was on the brink of realizing my true life’s calling.
Eunice, as well, was loving her life in New York City. Baby Alexandra Toots was adorable, and Samantha was growing up to be a beautiful young lady. This was our season to be happy. And maybe, just maybe, we should have sat back and enjoyed it, and left well enough alone.
But life’s journey is a complex tapestry, woven by chance and circumstance, in which unknown events, including those that happened to someone other than ourselves, can, nonetheless, control our destiny. When Eunice and I married, our fates became forever intertwined, and formative events of her past life, of which I knew nothing at the time, became a force that would soon govern mine. Thus, little did I realize that when Eunice casually glanced through the real estate pages of the New York Times, one fateful Friday night in early December, of 1969, the ad she discovered there was destined to forever change our lives. The ad, itself, was stark and unembellished, much like the property it described. It simply read: “Schoolhouse, suitable for nursing home or private residence.”
When Eunice was growing up in Dover, she had two goals in life. The first was to marry an artist. This, at least, in her opinion, she achieved, when she wed me. And she was satisfied that, even though, I was not famous, nor ever likely to be, I would suffice. Her second goal was a surprise. After an automotive accident, in 1957, in which the damage to her leg had been severe, she remained in hospital for a year. Then, she returned home to Dover, where she endured another year in therapy. Throughout her long recovery, she recuperated in the congenial company of Dover’s Bohemian elite. This exclusive group of artists and intellectuals gathered in an old schoolhouse, owned by her friend, Ron Sheridan. Beginning there, Eunice acquired a second goal, which was to, someday, live in a schoolhouse of her own. Although, this secret aspiration had yet to be revealed, when Eunice discovered that ad in the NY Times, my fate was sealed.
The following Saturday morning found us on The Palisades Parkway, heading north of New York City. The entire drive was beautiful! Every other time we’d left or entered NYC, the route had always included traveling through a hideous stretch of industrial Purgatory, the worst part of New Jersey, an area so unappealing that it made the expression, “The Garden State” seem like a travesty. But this journey was different, a pleasant revelation.
We no sooner crossed the George Washington Bridge than we found ourselves on a glorious Parkway that even on this blustery morning in midwinter appeared compellinglyyattractive. The snowy scenery, and our mood as well, improved with every passing mile, and both reached a crescendo as the road circled Bear Mountain, where bears, I’m told, dance in the moonlight. And then, we descended a long dramatic incline, and arrived at the Bear Mountain Bridge. This was our first glimpse of the Hudson Valley. We crossed this scenic wonder, for a dime, marveling at the mountains on either side, and the Hudson River, flowing beneath it, and gently winding out of sight. Could this be the Rainbow Bridge that would lead us to our own mythical Valhalla, where we would dwell, among the gods, for the remainder of our lives? As we continued north on a small two lane highway, one fabulous vision after another met our eyes. These spectacular sights included a fairytale castle, perched high upon a mountaintop, reminiscent of the picturesque palaces, along the River Rhine.
Soon we arrived in the quaint Village of Cold Spring. Its modest Main Street was amazing, in 1969. There were few, if any, of the antique shops that crowd the street in recent times. This was just an ordinary small town Main Street, unchanged, perhaps, for half a century. But on this cold December morning, it seemed to positively glow, as if it were born anew, and perfectly pristine, beneath a blanket of new fallen snow. We watched a man exit the hardware store, and waited as he crossed the street. His arms were overflowing with newly purchased presents. And, to my astonishment, each package was covered with brightly colored Christmas wrapping paper, exactly like the kind that I remembered from my childhood in the 1940’s. And all the packages were decorated with gummed paper labels, much like the ones that once adorned the gifts that Santa left beneath my Christmas tree. I felt a shiver of excitement run up and down my spine, as a most bizarre possibility crossed my mind. Could the spell of the Majestic Hudson Valley, this fabled land of Rip Van Winkle, have so embraced and enchanted us that we had traveled back in time?
We were too early for our appointment, so, we stopped in a small luncheonette on Main Street. The menu, written on a slate over the counter, featured an item that only Eunice was brave enough to try. It was simply called, “leave it to us!” After lunch, we were still early, so we followed Main Street as it circled a picturesque gazeebo and brought us to the banks of the Hudson River. There Eunice snapped this picture of yours truly, standing at the threshold of destiny, on this, the day that we discovered the Hudson Valley.
Then we continued to the address that the man who ran the ad in the New York Times had given me on the phone. It was a charming house, next to a park, where kids were playing in the snow. He invited us to come inside. His house was traditional, picture perfect, and perfectly ordinary. It had a glassed-in sun porch that revealed an awesome view of the Hudson and the majestic Storm King Mountain, towering above it. Meanwhile, his young daughter was practicing her music lessons on the piano. This was the world that I remembered growing up in, a precious remnant of yesterday, the sort of home where I hoped that my kids might experience the kind of childhood I had known.
Alas, this nostalgic glimpse of what I wished would be, was not what was being sold. The homeowner explained that the schoolhouse we were about to see belonged to a Greek Orthodox nun, who was actually the legal owner and the sole resident. Her name was Sister Magdalena. She had originally come over from Greece, and lived for several years at Saint Basils Academy, a school for orphaned Greek children that we had passed, along the road in Garrison. It was there, that in the middle of one night, years later, I would encounter the “Monkey Thing.”
Over time, according to our guide, Saint Basils was so eager to get rid of Sister Magdalena that they bought the vacant schoolhouse along the highway, and put the title in her name. The building had then been ordained as both a church and a nunnery, (called a monastery) in which Sister Magdalena was the only nun. And, as the surrounding community was Greek Orthodox, this place became their house of worship. Other than owning the schoolhouse, Sister Magdalena was essentially a pauper. She survived by making candles, and begging, door to door, from neighbors. The money she collected was regarded as donations to the church that many of the nearby residents attended regularly. Now, Sister Magdalena's eyesight was failing, and she would soon be too old to live alone. She aspired to retire, and return to Greece, her native home.
The man, who would show us the schoolhouse happened to be the brother of a woman who had been buying the property, and backed out of the agreement at the last minute. Thus, out of the goodness of his heart, he felt charitably obligated to help Sister Magdalena find a new buyer. Beyond that, he was not involved. Sister Magdalena had a lawyer, named Anthony Pagones, who eventually became a judge. Years later, his son turned out to be the Assistant DA, Steven Pagones who Tawana Brawley falsely accused of rape.
Now, we all piled into my tiny VW station wagon, with the volunteer real-estate agent in the front seat, beside me. Up to this moment, we had believed that the schoolhouse we were about to see was in the charming town of Cold Spring. But, alas, our passenger, explained that this was not the case. He directed me to drive north along the river.
Up ahead, we could see an ominous outcropping, a dark gray wall of solid rock that extended from high up in the mountains, down to the railroad tracks at the river’s edge. This, he told us was called "Breakneck Ridge." Its unappealing name was derived from a legend that told how, long ago, a bull had fallen from atop this ridge. And the name reveals what happened next. A narrow two lane tunnel had been hewn out of the solid rock, thirty-eight years previously. Long menacing ice sickles hung from the cracks in its curved ceiling. As we passed through this uninviting opening, we were not only entering another county, we were entering another world. Here, the fashionable present ended, and an old-fashioned past began. Beyond this point, in 1969, most commerce became local. Many of the people that we were to meet there had, in fact, never seen, nor been, to NYC. We were no longer in commuter country. This was just a bit too far to travel to the city. There were some commuters on the trains each day, but not many. The Hudson line ended in Poughkeepsie.
On the left, we passed a stately building, and for a moment we hoped that that might be the schoolhouse. A sign outside soon told us it was "Dutchess Manor." Further along, down by the river, we observed the ruins of a castle on an island in the Hudson. This, our guide explained was "Bannerman’s Island." Even in its advanced state of decay and desolation, there was a certain picturesque charm and grandeur about it. In spite of these few interesting landmarks, we soon realized that the neighborhood we were now in was nowhere as nice as Garrison and Cold Spring. Throughout the day, we had been traveling in a sort of Wonderland, complete with castles on mountaintops, great estates, along the river, and crumbling romantic ruins. Intoxicated by these treasures, we were quickly spoiled, and our expectations had been unrealistically raised. After all, what could one expect of a schoolhouse that was priced at thirty thousand dollars, anyway?
Now, we followed a sweeping curve around a corner, and, suddenly, there it was, the ugliest building we had seen all day! This austere structure, to my dismay, was the place. It stood like a white elephant, stranded on a level shelf of land, halfway up the mountain, overlooking the road. Brutally stark and plain, I disliked it, instantly. Apart from its one defining feature, a bell tower, topped off by a crudely fashioned wooden cross, it reminded me of Oliver Twist’s workhouse. As we turned into the unpaved driveway, and pulled up towards the building, we could see the tiny face of a small nun, peering out of one of the tall windows. An ominous realization swept over me: This was, just like a film by Fellini! Eunice was going to adore it! And she did!
Here is the schoolhouse on the day that we first saw it, Eunice and Toots, who was nearly two years old, are standing in the driveway.
Now, in the stark winter, the trees were bare, and the place looked about the same as it did in the historic photo, below, taken half a century before. The four giant cottonwoods that now stood before the building had been planted, at that time, to memorialize the lives of four small boys who had drowned in the river.
Sister Magdalena came out to meet us on the porch. She was a tiny woman who spoke very little English, but her demeanor was all that was required to clearly convey the message that she was absolutely charming. And one would also have to say that she was brave to live alone in this enormous building, with fading vision, and just her faith to keep her safe!
Although, the outside of the schoolhouse might be considered unattractive, the interior was hideous. It resembled the kind of institution one might see in a nightmare or a horror movie. The walls were made of rough concrete, imbedded with large granules of coarse cement that gave them the appearance of gigantic sheets of sand paper. And if, God forbid, one ever lost their balance, and fell against a wall, they might be torn to ribbons. Everything was painted in revolting combinations of the world’s ugliest colors. The floors were nearly black with grime, and, like the truth of this description, utterly unvarnished.
The school consisted of three enormous classrooms. Each measured approximately thirty feet long by twenty-five feet wide, with extraordinarily tall ceilings, well over twelve feet high. Large old-fashioned milk glass light fixtures, suspended on long black chains, hung in profusion in every room. The three chambers were arranged in the shape of a large letter T, with a hallway in between. In addition, there were two enormous bathrooms that once contained six toilets each. Two of the toilets had been removed from one to make space for a makeshift bathtub. Off the hall, was a tiny room that had been used for corporal punishment. “Sister” employed this as a kitchen, with ancient appliances that, by comparison, made those in our Old Loft look elegant. The instant that one opened the front doors, and ascended the stairs of the bleak hall, they were overwhelmed by a noxious smell. The whole place reeked to high Heaven, with the penetrating, eye watering stench of ecclesiastical incense.
Sister Magdalena was inhabiting and heating only one of the three rooms. We assumed that this was to save fuel. Although, she could speak some English, when we asked her about the cost of fuel oil, her language skills completely failed her. Scattered around the house were a number of beds. Our guide explained that, at one time, Sister anticipated that more nuns would join the convent. Apparently that never happened. Studying these photos now, certain details catch my eye. They tell a most depressing story; case in point: Sister’s makeshift reading light, a bare bulb suspended on an extension cord, beside her humble bed.
The second classroom was unused in winter, although, there was a table, some odds and ends of furniture, and several additional beds.
The third large chamber once served as the school’s gymnasium. The painted lines of a basketball court were still visible on the floor. Now, this room had become a chapel. And in dramatic contrast to the humble furnishings of the house, some of the objects here were, perhaps, quite valuable. The walls in this room were adorned with tall portraits of Saints and angels, and, I’d assume, the Holy Family. They were nicely painted and lavishly decorated with backgrounds of gold leaf. Standing around the chamber, were several tall brass candelabra, some designed to hold as many as three dozen candles each.
One wall of windows had been boarded over to form a kind of secret chamber, raised above the floor by a few unfinished steps. I have no idea what this cubicle was for. Confessions, maybe? I must confess, this room made me uncomfortable, a disturbing combination of objects both sacred and profane.
By sacred, I mean religious icons, celebrating the Russian Orthodox faith. Other decorative accents in the chapel that seemed inappropriate to me were quite down to earth and commonplace, like abundant sheets of vinyl plastic, intended to keep the holy relics clean, rolls of paper toweling, and boxes of pastel colored Kleenex. There was a somewhat makeshift altar, before which a tray of votive candles burned eternally. Keeping these candles lit was one of Sister’s duties. Their glow did little to dispel the deep shadows that enveloped a large crucifix, suspended in the gloomy darkness of the alter. On the table, before the alter, even in the dead of winter, there were vases of fresh flowers. I believe that Sister Magdalena held services in this chapel, on weekends and High Holy Days.
When all was said and done, in spite of the ugliness of this enormous schoolhouse, there was much that I liked about the place. I could sum these positive qualities up in just a single word: “SPACE!” The rooms were huge, the ceilings were sky-high, and everything in sight was larger than life. One touch that struck me as slightly surreal was the fact that every one of the heavy wooden doors, throughout the house, was eight feet tall. These reminded me of a Laurel and Hardy movie I had seen as a child, in which all the sets and furnishings were cleverly made oversize, in order to create the illusion that the two stars, Stan and Ollie were miniscule in size.
Yes, by God, this generous abundance of space was Heavenly! I could easily become giddy, drunk with excitement at the concept of possessing so much raw, unadulterated, albeit hideously ugly, intensely incense stinking SPACE! And it would be mine, all mine! This enormous white elephant was seducing me, as I embraced its Gargantuan interior, and caressed its vastness with my eyes.
But I was far from sold, as yet! And I dare say, I could visualize the possibility that my children might be traumatized by this sudden excursion into the somber depressing weirdness of what, to them, must have seemed like another world, a journey into the creepiness of a humongous schoolhouse that, one day, my patron, Harry Kislevitz would describe as “pregnant with possibilities!” I saw Samantha and her little sister, sitting alone in the darkness. Clearly, this was an experience for them, one that they appeared to embrace, in the spirit of adventure. But, could I bring them to this dark and gloomy schoolhouse, and tell them it would, henceforth, be their home?
And then, something life changing took place: In the far corner of the hallway, down by the front door, I noticed a narrow wooden ladder, permanently attached to the wall. It extended from the ceiling to the floor, and terminated, high up in the ceiling, at the edge of a foreboding looking trap door. The ceiling, here, was, at least, 16 feet tall, in the deep well of the front hall.
In that ceiling, not far from this trap door, there was a fairly large hole, through which there hung a massive rope. Fat, roughhewn, and worn smooth from the touch of countless hands, over the span of half a century. It terminated, a few feet above the floor, in a gigantic knot. I asked Sister Magdalena: “What’s that?” In reply, she spoke not a word, but with a smile, she silently grabbed hold of the rope, and pulled on it with all her might. Once, twice, and then, on the third try, her tiny body rose above the floor as if she was going to take flight. And up above us, the mighty peal of the school bell rang out. It filled the sky with music, resounding through the winter air, on this cold December morning. Then Sister Magdalena turned to me, grinning from ear to ear, and pointing to the hatch high up in the corner, said: “The bell tower is up there!”
I don’t know what got into me. This I had to see! And the next thing I knew, with my heart in my mouth, and a borrowed flashlight in my hand, I was climbing up that fragile ladder. No one could be more surprised than I at my sudden and uncharacteristic outburst of bravery. Twenty tenuous steps later, I reached the pinnacle, and pushed upward on the wooden door. To my surprise, the entire panel lifted out. I boldly shoved it aside, and let it rest upon the unseen inner floor. Then, holding the flashlight ahead of me, I continued upward into a small dark chamber that appeared to be about 12 feet square, by only 4 feet high.
This was kind of scary. I quickly took an inventory, looking around for spiders. To my surprise there was not a single web, or any other evidence of bugs, or for that matter, bats, or mice in sight. Then, crawling cautiously toward the inner wall, I found that I could look beyond a massive wooden girder to survey the entire expanse of a complex system of rafters that soared into the darkness, above the intermingling of schoolroom ceilings. Oh My God! This was Fantastic! My flashlight traveled up and down a wonderland of beams, a tangled maze of spectacular complexity! I could visualize how exciting this would be from below, if there were no ceiling.
And then, I looked above me to barely make out the contours of another trap door. I pushed up on this second hatch, and it suddenly opened wide, and slid aside. A ray of sunlight poured through the opening. And, I scrambled out into the daylight, to find myself on an open platform, framed by an arch, on all four sides, with a huge iron school bell, resting on a complex cradle, in the very middle. From this lofty perch, I could behold a glorious panorama of the Hudson Valley. I felt like Quasimodo, high up in the parapets of Notre Dame, with the mighty bell beside me, king of all that I surveyed. I remained there for a long time, drinking in the fresh air and the scenery. Just like in the song, it was a clear day, and I could see forever. I could see the future, a future, in which I would still be gazing at this breathtaking view, half a century later.
And so, I can! I have only to get up off this chair and walk over to the bell tower, which is no longer in the open air, but is part of the interior. Then, I need simply climb four stairs, which is not as easy as it used to be, and there, before me, is my own private panorama of the Hudson Valley, surrounded by the mountains, and the forests, and a vast expanse of sky that shelters me each night, as, from my cozy bed in the bell tower, I watch the moon in all its phases, traveling, from left to right, across a starry firmament, or sometimes, through a cloudy sea, to set, blood red, beyond the hills across the river, in the light of early morning.
After what seemed like an eternity, I reluctantly climbed down into the darkened lower chamber, and shut the heavy outer hatch behind me. I surveyed the jumble of rafters one more time, by flashlight. Then, I lowered my body through the narrow doorway, and pulled the cover closed. I had seen a vision of a future, bright with countless possibilities. And this unattractive schoolhouse that I hated at first sight would never look the same to me again.
Next, we toured the basement, a vast empty space as big as the house itself. Even here, the ceilings were 10 feet high. This was where Sister Magdalena made candles and incense. The simple framework, laced with wicks that she used for dipping candles hung from the rafters. Alas, I failed to notice that there were no heating ducts or vents.
After that, we went outside again, and stood before the mountain. My God! The sheer expanse of it was awesome. Our mood was jubilant, as a sudden impulse overtook me. While Eunice stayed below with Alexandra, Samantha and I made up our minds to climb up the mountainside. This unlikely burst of exercise, on my part, was almost hilarious. Samantha was no athlete either. So, I had to extend my hand and help her, as, perhaps, aided by a touch of divine inspiration, we made it halfway up the mountain.
Then we stood together, high above the schoolhouse, higher even than the bell tower, surveying the Hudson River, on this winter morning in December. Although, we didn’t realize it, at the time, we were gazing out into our future. Standing on the brink of destiny, hand in hand. I took a picture of the view, and then, we struggled down the mountainside again. Years later, I made up my mind that, one day, Samantha and I will ascend that mountain together, one final time, and remain there. She is waiting, until I am ready to escort her, waiting until I can, once again, extend a helping hand.
Here is another photo, taken on the driveway, on that first day. At the time, I did not realize that Eunice harbored a secret desire to live in a schoolhouse. But this photograph would indicate that the possibility of living in this monstrousity, which would be few wive's dream of domesticity, was making her deliriously happy. One only had to study these photographs to see that Eunice was sold, already. But, in the end, it was a photograph that she took of me that day that helped us, finally, make up our minds.
We took a lot of photographs, many more that I’ve include here. Like, for instance, this one of Eunice, Sam and Alex, playing in the snow, improvising a toboggan from a piece of cardboard that Samantha found, half buried in the snow beside the mountain.
Here’s a photo of young Alexandra.
When we got back to NYC, I sent the film to be developed. Meanwhile, we mulled over our situation. The outer Space men had been selling well, about a million dollar's worth, up till that moment. This was enough to generate $50,000 in royalties. I owed Colorforms $35.000 of that to reimburse them for what they had advanced me, over the previous five years. That left us with $15.000.
We were of a mind to put the full amount down, as a 50% deposit on a house. What could one get for thirty thousand dollars, in 1969? On one hand, we could acquire the world’s biggest fixer-upper, an enormous white elephant, pregnant with possibilities, perched on a mountainside, overlooking the Hudson River. Or, on the other hand, we could seek a modest slice of conformity, safe and conventional, somewhere in Suburbia, USA. Anyone who has read this rambling history would know in a heartbeat what choice I would make. What I didn’t realize, at the time, was the fact that Eunice wanted that schoolhouse even more than I. While we were trying to decide, the photographs arrived. It was this enigmatic image, the final one we shot that day, that helped us make up our mind. One might say that it enabled us to see the light.
The photo depicts yours truly, standing on the porch of what might be our future home. It was absolutely not retouched! Eunice was behind the camera; she saw nothing unusual at the time. We asked ourselves if this was just an accident, or might it be a sign?
If God was smiling on us at that moment, a few months later, he changed his mind! Meanwhile, a very pleasant deal was struck. The price of the schoolhouse was thirty thousand dollars. That seemed more than fair to us. Perhaps, influenced by the fact that we were dealing with a nun, we saw no reason to chew it down. We would pay half the final price as a down payment, and, at my request, $200 a month, until the total was paid up. This sum included the going rate of interest on a mortgage, and at that rate, in approximately seven years, the mortgage would be all paid up.
It was also agreed that, as Sister Magdalena had no place to go, until her affairs were settled, she could continue to live there, until the summer, when she planned to move to a convent in Boston, as a temporary stopping off place on her way to Greece. Over the next six months, we would visit frequently on weekends, and carry up carloads of our stuff. Occasionally, we stayed overnight. There were certainly spare beds enough, most of which Sister intended to leave there for us.
Sister Magdalena was quite adorable; we became good friends. Sometimes, on weekends, we would take side trips to explore the local attractions, and take Sister with us. She could be extremely charming. And she always managed to get her message across, in spite of a the language barrier. I’ll never forget, the second time that we were there. Sister excitedly, invited me to follower her into the boys lavatory, where there were six open stalls in a row. She knew, full well, that she was being slightly naughty, and mildly shocking me. Then she said, “Mel, look at this!” and dressed in her full habit, sat down on the first toilet. I was both mystified and taken aback, not knowing how I should react! Then, smiling like a Cheshire cat, she jumped up and dramatically gesticulated towards the toilet seat. To my amazement, and relief, the bowl flushed automatically. One of these antiques still remains in my studio, today, hidden conveniently, but used frequently by me. And 100 years after this self flushing technical marvel was invented, it still operates perfectly.
Sister had one “rule” that she asked us to adhere to when we stayed overnight, “No Love!” while she was living there, and it was still a monistary. Believe me, sleeping all together in one room, on four assorted metal beds, is not conducive to romance, which made that an easy rule to adhere to. And her charming way of presenting this request was irresistible.
And so, on most weekends we filled the car, as well as the rack on top, to overflowing with odds and ends of our belongings. And with just enough room in the tiny VW station wagon’s back seat to squeeze in the kids, we headed for the country. Sometimes Samantha's young friend “Pavo” came with us. And thus, over the next six months, the large room that we stayed in became both a home and storage area.
Meanwhile, we were enjoying our last days in Manhattan. Our good friends Lowell and Nancy McFarland who occupied the bigger loft, below us on Lexington Avenue, were succeeding in business, so spectacularly that they were, not only, going to expand into our loft, above them, when we left, but they were also taking over our rent controlled apartment, next door on 28th street. This was a Godsend and a blessing, for they generously reimbursed us for all of the improvements we had made, from the carpets and the raised platforms to the air conditioning. And when it was time for the final move to happen, Lowell and his employee, aided me, to the point that they practically moved us. I couldn’t drive a standard shift truck, so Lowell helped me hire a giant U-Haul, and even drove it to the country. Whatta guy! I am still grateful, and proud to say that forty-five years later, Lowell and Nancy still remain our very dear friends. How dear are they? When I was recently in hospital, getting a bionic knee, they sent me my very own remote controlled drone to keep me (and my grandson Sammy) entertained.
As our final days in New Your City sped by, one pleasant event stands out that characterized this time. A TV show called New York Illustrated did a special presentation to celebrate Saint Valentine’s day. The episode was titled appropriately, “The Object of My Affection Is My Collection,” and It featured, among some rather eccentric collectors, yours truly. My photograph appeared in the ad. Because of that, a professional photographer took several shots that captured the final moments of our apartment in New York City.
Shortly after these images were recorded, we began packing up the objects they displayed. And so, these final photos are all that remains of our life, up to that date. With this, our formative years were over, and from that moment forward, all that had seemed important in the city, ceased to be. I suddenly find myself remembering something my friend Kenny Kneitel once said to me. In his opinion: "The minute a person moves from Manhattan to the country, they become boring." Perhaps that is the case. When all of these collected memories were placed carefully in boxes and transported to the country, the cartons remained sealed, and packed away, for three long years. Now, the object of my affection, to the degree that it had been my collection, took a back seat. Alas, soon after we left New York City, we were sorry that we moved away.
And so here is the final image, a single view of many of the objects that told the story of our lifetime. As for yours truly, nothing much had changed. As the photos indicate, I had gained more weight, lost more hair, and was continuing to wear the sweater that Eunice knitted for me in Ann Arbor, ten years before.
This has been such a pleasant page, it seems almost a shame to end it with the promised telling of an incident that in the opinion of some involved, was a catastrophe. While to others, it might have looked more like high comedy!
Around the time that we were considering moving from NYC, I had been seeking an affordable means of doing sculpture. That is how this stuffed bas-relief came about. It seemed to be a way of creating large forms that I could afford. Most certainly, working in clay and then hiring a foundry, even for small bronze pieces was out of the question for me. So I began this sculpture, with anatomy sewn out of linen fabric. My intention, when complete, was that the lower legs would be rendered in three dimensions, and counter weighted on pendulums, so that they would animate. The pose was intended to be discreet. In retrospect, I realize I was incredibly naive.
As the vast quantities of things we carted up to the country, nearly every weekend, increased, I began moving larger canvasses, which we tied to the top of the car. The unused room in the schoolhouse that was considered ours, was filling up with carton after carton of materials and supplies from Boutique Fantastique. Finally, one week, when spring was nearly over, I securely wrapped this half-finished sculpture in numerous large bed sheets, those that once hung from the loft windows, and managed to fit its four foot diameter into our small station wagon. Once in the country, I leaned it, face down against a wall, and made sure it was well hidden, by placing it behind numerous large canvasses that covered it completely. Then, for an added measure of protection, I piled tall stacks of heavy boxes in front of these.
When we arrived at the schoolhouse, the following Saturday, we found Sister Magdalena, out in the front yard, hopping around, hysterically. She was beside herself with excitement and grief, as she babbled to me: “Mel! Oh Mel! It is Evil! Evil! You must destroy it! Evil! Evil! Bad! Bad! You must burn it! The Bishop says, you are a Bad and Evil Man!" Eventually, she calmed down enough to convey the information that, no less, than the Holy Bishop, himself, had come there for the sole purpose of inspecting our belongings. In fact, he did a total inventory. And when he unwrapped the meticulously covered sculpture, he nearly had a coronary. And now, there it stood, fully exposed, in all its accusatory glory, propped up against a table in the middle of a schoolroom! Frankly, I was furious! Bishop or not, what right, in Heaven or in Hell, did he have to inspect our stuff, in what was now, "our house?" If anyone had committed a sin, in my opinion, it was him! Further examination revealed the fact that most of our boxes had been roughly riffled thorough, and recklessly repacked, as well.
Sister continued to hyperventilate, while she managed to explain that the bishop had ordained that she could never sleep beneath the schoolhouse roof again. The building had been forever cursed by the vile effigy I had created, which, at first glance, with her poor eyesight, Sister told us she had "mistaken for the Man in the Moon!” Apparently, she had been snooping too.
While all of this was happening, a vehicle came roaring up the driveway, and three young Greek men, attired in elaborate ecclesiastical robes, began pounding on the schoolhouse doors. They banged so violently I feared they were about to break them down. When I cautiously opened one door, they shoved me aside, and, without uttering a word, aggressively marched past me, and stomped into the chapel, slamming the door behind them. Their lavish vestments reminded me of the Holy Magi, and their arms were laden down with offerings that looked a lot like cleaning supplies. Minutes later, they reappeared in workman's clothes, and set about the serious task of deconsecrating our new home. They had come fully armed with everything they needed to exorcise all and any Holy Spirits. Their Holy Ghost-busting equipment included a ladder, which they used to climb up to the roof. Then, they dragged it up behind them, and leaning it against the bell tower, two clerics held it in place, while the third climbed up, carrying a saw, to heavy handedly hack off the wooden cross, leaving just a ragged stub of it in the cupola. Then, clambering down again, they began to methodically remove every object and holy icon from the chapel. Paintings, benches and candelabra, they crammed them all into the van.
Meanwhile, Sister continued to sob and carry on. When the marauders were done in the back room, it was stripped bare, ravaged in the name of God. And every cross that had been taped to nearly every windowpane in the entire house was gone! They even walked around with paint, obliterating every holy symbol, inscribed above doors or on the outer walls. In the end, all that remained of the chapel, its alter, stairs, and the confessional were shards of splintered wood and piles of rubble. This residue, they gathered up and set on fire, along with the cross from the bell tower, in a big steel burning barrel that they set up in the driveway. Fortunately, even the mess they made was considered sacred, so they had to immolate every scrap of garbage. Finally, when they had rid the house of every evidence of holiness, except, alas, the stench of incense, they donned their ceremonial robes again, and chanting melodically, in what all sounded like Greek to me, they marched around the house dramatically sprinkling holy water everywhere, deconsecrating everything in sight, while they cursed the ground beneath our feet.
Poor Sister Magdalena! She didn’t know what to make of this. In spite of what the Bishop had decreed, she had grown quite fond of us, even after realizing that I was evil incarnate, part of her was still genuinely sad to leave. She managed to convey the fact that, for a while, she would be staying with a neighbor lady in the trailer park across the street. Meanwhile, this selfsame next-door neighbor, a harridan of the highest order, appeared, during these chaotic proceedings, offering maniacal moral support to Sister, by screaming incoherently in Greek. Sister somehow made it clear that she bore us no personal animosity, and would, in fact, pray for the salvation of our souls, which, sadly, including that of Tom the cat, were all condemned to burn in Hell.
Weeks passed, and, eventually, we became aware that Sister Magdalena was no longer there. As per the terms of our agreement, we sent the monthly mortgage payments, which, by the way, were never late, to a convent in Boston where Sister remained for several years. One day, a letter, from the convent, informed us that she had, finally, returned to Greece. Throughout the years, Sister sent us letters, every now and then, dictations that were always kind and friendly. Looking back now, I realize that the day of the Bishop's Last Judgement was our official welcome to the community. In the days that followed, a brick came crashing through our window, one night while we were eating dinner. Another neighbor set our porch on fire. After all, what could we expect? We were living in what used to be their place of worship. Nonetheless, beginning on that traumatic afternoon the schoolhouse officially belonged to us. Whether or not, our souls belonged to Satan, I’ll leave up to you, dear reader, and the good Lord to decide. As for the evil sculpture, I never finished it. Somehow, I couldn’t find either the inspiration, or the time.
Now divested of the blessings of Christianity, although, the stench of holy incense hung in the air for years, the schoolhouse was fully deconsecrated, and free to host its own more secular religion, free to become "Mouse Heaven!"
In an attempt to end this chapter on a note that is a bit more pleasant, I offer you this transformation. Here is a photograph of Eunice in the bleakest corner of the second chamber, on that memorable first day that we saw the schoolhouse.
And here is that same corner, just one year later. Henceforth, it became the traditional place where we displayed our annual Christmas tree. A ceiling even higher than the one in New York City enabled us to choose a taller tree. Samantha and Alexandra were growing taller, too, and becoming beautiful young ladies. The gloom that once hovered over this stark and somber monastery had dissipated, and the Dutchess Junction Schoolhouse, deconsecrated and freed from the heavy cloak of holiness, became just a country schoolhouse, once again, a place where children of this small community had received the blessings of an education, beginning, at the turn of the last Century. And now, awash in boundless quantities of TLC, this house began to radiate a palatable glow of warmth and happiness.
Young Alexandra Toots has never let me forget this particular Christmas tree. We drove for miles to find it, way up at a Christmas Wonderland, beyond Poughkeepsie. There was a quonset hut there full of kitschy holiday wonders on display. And we all got caught up in the fantasy. Nonetheless, the blame for a small "accident" that took place there fell on me. Poor little Tootsie had to pee. Admittedly, it did take me way too long to choose the perfect tree.