A Duck Pond Runs Through It

Published by Merrick Life Magazine

Sometimes when we reflect on the past, it’s people that we remember, having played some significant role in our lives, sometimes it’s simply a place. A place so etched into memory, that we are forced to return there over and over again, as if some secret part of ourselves, some lost image will be rediscovered.

I had just gotten over the trauma of my baby brother’s birth (I already had one brother) when my parents packed up our cramped one bedroom Brooklyn apartment and moved the family to a little town called Merrick. The year— 1951. 

“You’ll love it, it’s near the beach,” my father sing-songed a little too often making me skeptical. What I loved was the merry-go-round at Coney Island, playing hopscotch and chalking up the sidewalk of city streets. The multitude of toads and frogs inhabiting the back yard of our new split-level home was poor compensation for leaving behind cherished grandparents, aunts and uncles and a slew of cousins.

Then after only a few months at my new school, Smith Street, my second grade teacher tried telling me, gently, that I would soon be transferred to a newly constructed school just walking distance from my house in south Merrick. Surrounded by a beautiful duck pond, the school had been named Lakeside. Unlike Smith Street School’s pre-war, interior and soupy green walls, Lakeside was bright, sprawling and truly modern. It was located off a tree-lined winding road that led to the southern most point of town offering an expansive view of the bay. 

But the disruption and moving had taken a toll on this seven-year-old. Most of the time, I felt lonely and much too timid to make friends or to enjoy the privilege of attending a brand new school. Easily distracted, I spent hours gazing out the large windows of the classroom. Today, I realize that was the beginning of my life long appreciation for nature. I had never seen such trees— weeping willows surrounded by tall grasses and cattails fringing what we called Lakeside Pond. Its beauty was transformed with every season. In winter, the treetops were snow capped like ice cream cones.

The pond would freeze over and on weekends parents and children would venture out on the ice. I would always rather watch, but once my brother Marv, afraid of nothing, chose my parent’s trip to Florida as an opportunity to test out his new skates. We were being cared for by a God-fearing, worrisome housekeeper named Savannah. She hovered over my brother following him to the pond that day calling after him that he was troublesome and “hard-headed.” Then she dragged him off the ice just as it began to sweat small puddles—a sure sign that it was about to cave. 

In spring the pond became a haven for my father, who traveled constantly, to spend leisure time with his children. There beneath the shade of a sprawling willow, he taught me how to dice up a slippery worm for bait. He’d praise me while my shaky fingers shimmied the bloody remains unto a razor sharp hook. But it was rare that my brothers and I ever caught anything except for my father’s undivided attention.

Years later, after I had married and moved to the north shore, I would visit the pond with my two little daughters and their grandfather. Although, they were too young for fishing lessons, I watched as they followed my father, fearlessly, dropping pieces of bread crust surrounded by the fluttering and loud cawing of the hungry ducks. The pond, the school, everything looked exactly the same. While my father and I had aged decades, here the glory of nature, not only flourished but prevailed. 

And now again, so many years later… The child strapped tightly in the car seat points to the ducks squealing with delight while I fumble with the buckle. The sign on the fence reads Camman’s Pond but to me it will always be Lakeside. The pond and its park- like surrounding have gone through some renovation…dredging and new landscaping. Several iron benches have been placed along the winding path facing the pond and elementary school. Another bold sign warns: please do not fed the ducks…keeping with the environmental and health laws. But my father can no longer read the signs. All he sees is the wide expanse of water ahead, and the brilliant sun bouncing off its ripples. And perhaps, just one last chance to repeat history. He is already yards ahead of me laughing, holding the hand of his great grandson who looks surprised when a bouncy brown mallard snatches a piece of bread crust from his open palm. 

Postscript: June 28th, 2002

Thomas Wolfe was right when he said “you can’t go home again.” Nevertheless I’ve tried. This week, however, when passing by that small cape cod on my old street, Byron Road, I noticed that my childhood home had been completely gutted. It was gone. In its place was a much larger pre-fab home still under construction. My husband and I stopped and got out of the car, spoke to the builder, who seeing my saddened face offered kind, consoling words. While my eyes strained, searching for what was once my bedroom— the chalet for my teenage Rapunzel years, we chatted about Calhoun High, our alma mater. But my heart and head was elsewhere. My brain was conjuring up years of birthday parties, graduation pictures taken on that front lawn, and breaking up with my boyfriend in that driveway. But who I saw most clearly, and who I will always see, even without the original frame of that modest pink and white split-level house built in 1951… is my father. He is mowing the bumpy lawn, meticulously giving it its summer crew-cut. And he is smiling.