Margaret, Greg’s daughter would greet us at the door with a broad smile followed by enthusiastic hugs and kisses. “Oh, Mother… welcome home!” “And Helen, how nice to have you come visit us! Come in!”
Margaret was a slender and elegant woman in her forties, with long brown hair pulled tightly back and pinned into an intricate bun. She had been a fashion model in her youth, and her high cheekbones and beautiful arching eyebrows remained apparent as a mark of her former profession. She was a woman of infinite grace and her personal warmth put me at ease from the start.
Van, her husband, was a stocky man with a neat mustache. He was gruff compared to Margaret, but I knew I was welcome with him too. Still, most of the socializing in the house began and ended with Margaret and her unflagging sunny disposition. Van suffered from a substantial hearing loss. Although he wore hearing aids, it was clear that he heard with difficulty and was less socially inclined as a result. Van was a brilliant art restorer, repairing cracks and holes in antique paintings and then repainting the damaged areas with incredible skill. At mealtimes, he would seem to magically appear out of nowhere, only to disappear shortly thereafter, back down to his studio.
Once, he showed me a painting he had worked on, a smallish 19th century farm scene with cows and chickens in which he’d had to fill in whole animals in the exact style and colors to match the original. The painting was delicately rendered and pristine from edge to edge. When he showed me the back of the painting, I was able to see the broad patches of canvas that had been added during the restoration process. It had been impossible to guess where he’d painted and where the original parts were!
Margaret and Van had three children, Eric, Chrissy and Edie, and they became my kind host and hostesses when I came to visit too. They were older than me by some years, but they were always kind and welcoming to me, including me when they could in their conversations and activities.
Edith was more of a mystery to me. She had moved in with with Van and Margaret some time after her own husband died. She never spoke of her old life but for the mention of her son Robert now and then. She was always cordial, but left Margaret to take the lead. They both were very close and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Together, they ran a small antiques shop off of Austin Street in Queens. Every morning, they would walk arm in arm to a local eatery, where they would have breakfast before opening the shop for the day. When I was older, they took me with them once. They would sit in the same booth each morning and the waitress knew well enough what the order would be. It was their little extravagance and they enjoyed it thoroughly. After breakfast, it was a short walk from there to the shop.
The shop itself was small, but tightly filled with beautiful antiques of all descriptions. There was the finest china and silver mixed with curios and countless exquisite objets d’art. The shop had many visitors throughout the day, and often they knew to Margaret and Edith. It seemed that the shop was not only a place to find something unique and special, but also a spot where friends stopped by to say hello and catch up on the news.
Back on Forest Boulevard, the their home was a modest but charming row house in Tudor style, with three floors filled with the loveliest of antiques. There were many autographs too, made by historic figures, along with original artwork and an undeniably homey feel.
The narrow first floor consisted of the living room at the front, with the stairs to the second floor just beyond. On the other side of the staircase was the dining room, leading to the galley kitchen. From the kitchen one could either go downstairs to the basement, or out back to the garden. There, a small fenced-in garden sat, just large enough for its roses that lined the fence and encircled a large rectangular table and chairs. The garden gate opened into an enormous open area where the kids from the neighborhood could play safely, as it was enclosed by the entire block of row houses, with all their back doors facing in. It was here that I learned how to jump rope with Margaret’s daughter Edie. There seemed to be an endless supply of kids playing out there at all times of the day.
Upstairs on the second floor, I remember Margaret and Van’s room and another bedroom where Greg stayed. I do not remember seeing Edith’s room. She was much more private than the others.
On the third floor were the kid’s bedrooms. I always stayed upstairs on the third floor when I visited. There were angled ceilings in those rooms and I remember distinctly waking on the first morning to see the new sunlight filtering through the green ivy which covered the house. I found the room with its greenery romantic and cozy, and having the company of the girls up there was wonderful.
I remember thinking to myself that I wished these people were my real family. I wished they would adopt me so that every day could be like the days I spent there. Everyone seemed so close and so happy- they seemed to like me too, and they were so kind. It felt so safe, and every day there was like a blessing. It was, in truth, a virtual heaven on earth to me. For many years I looked forward to those visits. I watched their family grow older and grow up, as they in turn, watched me. Every reunion was a dear memory in the making.
After Greg finally retired and went there to live for good, I continued to visit whenever I could and I was always welcomed with open arms. I still marvel that they made me feel as welcome as they did, particularly when over the years, they’d had such precious little time with Greg themselves. Rightly or wrongly, I felt entirely responsible for their loss. Such generosity of spirit was truly a great gift to me.