by Chris Rostenberg
I become a space cadet because I did not have any neighbors until the sixth grade. I grew up on Old Mill Farm, an eight acre parcel of land in the middle of an affluent suburb of New York City, Westchester County. At some periods, there were no other people except my mother, my little sister Kendall and I on the estate. My father, who lived in Manhattan, and my mother, did not see this as a strange way to raise children. Because I was so young, I don’t remember it well enough to write a mature, coherent story, but I do cherish the memories.
I spent time with the animals, Princie the horse and Abby and Gwennie, who were donkeys. I fed Abby one time and he bit my finger. I cried, my baby-sitter laughed at me, so I wiped snot on her.
Before I learned to talk, I had a pet duck and I was the first person the duck ever saw, so it imprinted on me and he thought I was his mother and he followed me all over. That was when I lived in Arkansas (I was born in Little Rock). On Old Mill Farm, my mother bought my sister and me two little yellow ducks who were very cute. I brought one duck to class for show-and-tell and I noticed you could look into one of the duck’s nostrils and see out of the other like with bad coke addicts.
My sister’s duck damaged her leg, so we took her to the vet and when we went back for it, the woman gave my mom a funny look. The duck had been accidentally euthanized. We got a new yellow duck, but now my duck was older and white. My duck was called Big Bird and Kendall’s duck was named Gertrude after the animal in “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The ducks lived in the bathtub.
There had been an island on the farm that had turned into a peninsula when this little stream backed up, and on the peninsula was a little building called the duck-house. So I decided the ducks were sad living in the bathtub and should spend one night in the duck-house until they acclimated and overcame their fear of the outdoors. But the day after I put the ducks outside, the birds were gone. Where did they go? That spring, I saw out the window two big white ducks floating down the river followed by five little yellow ducklings. They were wild now and didn’t approach us, but I was very proud of them.
At the top of the waterfall, there was this little colorful fish and when I put my fingers in the water, he would come up and kiss them. I named the fish Happy. One day, I saw strangers fishing in the waterfall and I was scared they had caught Happy, but they hadn’t caught anything and they left. Under the rocks by the river, I found salamanders, of which there were two varieties: small red-and-green jobs, and big black-and-yellow jobs. They were cool, but I was always worried when I replaced the rock.
Nappi was the Italian man who cared for the animals; an employee of our landlord. Like a bear, he grabbed trout out of the river as they jumped up the waterfall. I was amazed by Nappi, and by my dad, who could catch frogs out of the stream. I learned how to do this too. First, you have to find the frog and as you are looking, you keep seeing things that look like frogs but are not. When you see a frog, you know it – that is the Frog Principle. You move in real close and you don’t grab them, because you can’t. You move into position, hold, then trigger. When you trigger, you move faster than you can think and snatch up the frog. Some of the frogs have golden irises and horizontal pupils and if you catch a toad, it might pee in your hand. Same with garter snakes and they stink.
The Farm gave me a lot of solitude in which to read. The world is divided into readers and nonreaders: the readers have trouble talking to people and the nonreaders have nothing to say. I’m a reader so I’m a cat person. Dogs are reincarnated sports fans and cats are reincarnated librarians. Our cat’s name was Joe, and I thought Joe was a boy until she gave birth to five kittens in clean clothing my mother had prepared to give to the Salvation Army. I was amazed to watch the cat give birth to the little kittens in sacks. One moment, there was one kitty; the next there were six, including Joe. I named the kittens Surprise Eyes, Go-Go Dancer, Undercat, Hulk, and Magic. The last kitten had two different colored eyes, which are now in a museum.
One summer, I heard little birds chirping in a hole in a tree. I stuck my hand in the hole and the birds became very excited; I believe they thought I was their mother coming to visit them. The next summer, I put in my hand and felt eggs. I took one out and it was small and blue. Another time I took the egg out and saw a little beak breaking through. I carefully replaced the egg.
My mother used to tell visitors and the occasional reporter that the Farm was on the Hutchinson River, because that was the name of the nearby parkway. It was actually the Mamaroneck River. If my mom was Christopher Columbus, she would have thought she was in India. “Mamaroneck” is an old Indian word meaning “where the fresh water meets the salt water,” because the river empties into Long Island Sound down near Harbor Island, which is not an island. I heard that Indians claimed a white deer would show up at the waterfall. The river would flood all the time due to a problem in a nearby bridge and all these golf-balls would wash up at the bottom of the falls. My dad had a canoe and he would go up the very long driveway with it in these floods. Only the tip of the gazebo would be visible when the water overtook the farm. I learned to climb on top of the gazebo by swinging my feet over backward. I was shocked one day when I saw Indians at the waterfall, but they were only actors filming some movie.
My classmates enjoyed visiting the Farm. There was this girl in the first grade, and her name was Jenny Worth. In the hall at school, when we were lining up to go to music class, I told her that when Indians were in love, they held hands, and she held my hand. I had a birthday party at the farm and invited my class, but Jenny couldn’t come and she cried. She had a birthday party too, but my mother couldn’t find the house, and I cried. Then she moved away. Jenny made a point of telling me where she was moving, but I couldn’t remember the address and we didn’t know to exchange contact information or tell our parents. I dreamt about Jenny Worth for a long time. At the 1976 Bicentennial, there was a procession of tall ships that came to New York Harbor from around the world, and I thought I spotted Jenny in the crowd, but I knew that was impossible.
Jenny gave me a birthday gift of clay, and when I was eight, I played with it and would get the clay under my fingers. I was a contemplative child and I wondered if I got enough, whether I could build the Statue of Liberty. I couldn’t imagine time beginning or ending. I figured time went on to the future, then started over again. I thought I would be born again, and sit there and play with the clay again. I wondered if I could contact myself in these other worlds.
On the Farm, there was a time when people lived in the Main House (which had seven toilets and two separate basements) who were the disciples of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritualist, who was said by his followers to have written over a thousand pamphlets. When I was a child, I went to the waterfall and asked one of the disciples her name and she said she didn’t have a name and that she used to be a rabbit. Another one of the disciples was very nice to me and let me watch him meditate if I was quiet, but you know, that was pretty boring. The disciples went on a bike-riding marathon across the country to raise money. Some of the disciples clearly liked children while others were distant. I decided I would grow up and be friendly to kids.
Every summer, there would be “Joy Days” where people would gather in the field and play games. Some little children at the Joy Day made a human pyramid and I took a picture of them and years later, looking at the photo, I realized the kids were blind; I don’t know why I hadn’t understood this at the time. We played by the river and one of the blind children got stuck in the mud and I don’t remember how she got out. Sitting on the pump house one day, I got stung by a hornet and remember it well.
Old Mill Farm had belonged to my grandfather, a colonel in the Korean War, who had been awarded the Legion of Merit for figuring out a way to determine the placement of enemy artillery, based on the craters left by the shells. He was later tapped to become a general in Japan, but he had to decline and come home to care for my father, who was young and sick. My dad and his brothers inherited the farm. My granddad wasn’t just a colonel, but a biophysicist who worked in biological warfare, which in now banned by treaty. In addition, he was in commercial real estate and had a reputation as being savvy.
Grand-dad lived in a house in Port Chester called Tall Pines, which was not an impressive house, but apparently had the most beautiful landscaping ever. He made sure the Farm was well landscaped too. Dominic was the old, Italian gardener who planted tulips that blew my mind, and crocuses that always foreshadowed Kendall’s birthday in April, then mine in May. There was big magnolia, too. My father had created a rock garden with cactuses. The mill at Old Mill Farm was built around 1680 and people would come to paint pictures of it and there’s a nice painting of the mill in the Harrison Court House. There was a barn that smelled like hay and oats for the animals, and one room had rats; I used to jump out of the second story hay-loft.
My father is pretty taciturn, but last year, he and I were sitting in his truck in the Kohl’s shopping center in Port Chester, and he started reminiscing about the Farm. My dad mentioned that his first job was as a landscaper at a big gated estate near Tall Pines. These days, my dad will be driving down the road, see a tree, get out of the car and clean all the brush away so people can see the tree more clearly from the road. He became an environmentalist. His own property is beautiful, but not as beautiful as Larchmont Manor Park.
Me: “Whatever happened to Tall Pines, Dad?”
Dad: “My father sold it. He got a good deal. They were about to put in I-95 and 287. My brothers and I were heartbroken. Korvettes the department store was built, went bankrupt, and they sold the land to Kohl’s.”
Me: “Here?! Dad, that’s why you became an environmentalist!”
A week ago, my dad retired from his medical practice due to the coronavirus plague and said he would focus on his landscaping. He said to me, “I’m serious about botany because they razed Tall Pines.”
Me: “I’m the one who told you that!”
When I was in the third grade, a man who reminded me of Billy Joel bought Old Mill Farm, which is now a subdivision, and he taught me chess up in the stone cottage in the back. He couldn’t keep up on the payments, and an Italian man named Sclaffani bought the Farm and kicked us out because he wanted his mother to live in the small garage apartment we lived in. Sclaffani allegedly was a criminal and he kept a heck of a lot of horses on the property. I heard that a deer had been shot, and the men who shot it arrived on the farm requesting the right to hunt through. Sclaffani was sent for, and when he emerged, the “hunters” arrested him. They were the FBI. Sclaffani used to show up in Harrison Court House in a dirty T-shirt, right by the painting of the mill.