Catherine Macaulay
Catherine Macaulay

General Essays

The kids at Pine Lake Park, with the Abe Shein Social hall in the background.

The PLP Way

by Catherine Macaulay

 

There isn’t a medicine chest in the entire colony of bungalows that isn’t stocked with Caladryl and Off! Insects and poison ivy come with the territory.

My husband and I have been summering at Pine Lake Park for more than 15 years, returning each spring with the changing season to take up a Solomon dance inside a bungalow the size of a cookie jar, where nothing is plumb and Rube Goldberg remains the unspoken contractor behind most everything electrical.

It’s the Pine Lake Park way.

Lacking insulation and baseboard heat, this humble amalgam of white-clapboard cottages and tightly held beliefs serve as a stark reminder of all that remains of the rustic, Jewish summer bungalow colonies that once thrived in and around Westchester and across the Adirondacks.

The park, or PLP, as it’s referred to, is as old as a Talmudic scholar and the place where the leftist, Jewish intelligencia began gathering in the 1920s to escape the heat of the city. Having found an idyll of woods near the Hudson River, a group of foresighted individuals eventually bought the 100-acre realm of twilight so that it might serve as a beacon of Jewish culture—an enduring vision that even today, whispers through the pines.

What started out as a summer colony for progressive thinkers has morphed largely into a collective of reformed, conservative and even a few Orthodox Jews who migrate each Friday from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens to escape the heat and engage themselves in largely, liberal-minded ideas and competitive sports, most everyone fancying themselves in the rarefied air of Big Moose country rather than in the crowded suburb of Peekskill, New York.

Though not among his chosen people, I’ve been married to one for quite some time, giving me free license to maneuver my way in and around the many, Jewish tribes here. Navigating Mecca hasn’t always been easy. In a world defined by tight spaces and divided by common walls and few degrees of ethnic separation, the rooms talk with voices I’d rather not hear. As I write, I am listening to the repeated efforts of a neighbor struggling to remove the phlegm from his throat. It is all I can do to keep from banging on the wall and telling him to choke on it already.

But that would not be the PLP way.

“You can’t pick your neighbors,” Betty loved to tell me. Trim, pert, and straight talking, Betty is an old-school Jew from Brooklyn who tells it like it was and hang any consequence. Her husband, Abe, served as the Park’s resident historian until he died, proudly hoisting the flag each year at our July 4th ceremonies, which still include a children’s parade and a Q&A on the Constitution, culminating with ice cream and fireworks down by the lake.

Everything about this small, headwater colony of New York, summering Jews defines itself as the collective antithesis of the Hamptons. Friendly, congenial, at least outwardly, most everyone is intent on keeping alive the spirit born of a common ancestry.

There are two unspoken rules here at Pine Lake: (1) If it matches, you’re overdressed. (2) If it bounces, floats or rolls, it’s worthy of sport.

For years, I tried to blend in, going so far as to even lob a tennis ball or two over the net. Not being particularly athletic, I quickly gave up the notion. I am a writer, the occupation of which excuses me from anything non-alcoholic. Besides, large groups alternately irk and/or disturb me, framing as they do the basic human condition, which, is necessarily egocentric.

Being in the company of others, rather than disguising that mandate, only intensifies it, making me feel like I’m sitting all alone in a room packed with a crowd full of friendly and affable strangers, everyone making certain to keep the contact at a level slightly beyond trivial. To venture further is for me to step past the limits of my own emotional capacity into the untrodden country of genuine caring, though I do not think myself alone in that limitation.

Caring may well be the bedrock of any society, but throughout civilization, those societies that weren’t self interested never survived long enough to pass on their DNA, and even those who did sacrifice themselves for the greater good, did so with some kind of value-added, self interest. Nor has human nature changed over time. To survive physically, economically, socially and emotionally in a world crowded with seven billion other people all malfunctioning on three wheels, the intelligent person knows to limit the number of things that touch one’s heart.

As I child, I habitually fled the epic invasion of cousins, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles, grandparents and guests that came knocking on our door each year under the banner of a growing the family tree. A few days in, and my absence from the scene would invariably set into motion half a dozen search parties that reached across the fifty rooms, somebody usually finding me in some remote wing of the house, asleep under a bed, my small hands clutched about my floppy, stuffed dog.

But there was nowhere to hide at the Pine Lake. Even my cottage is bodaciously perched atop an outcropping of stone, the view into my windows all but assured to every passing gaze.

“You need to get out more…socialize,” admonished one of the old guard Pine Lakers during my first summer there.

Rose was a short, crusty gal who had bravely taken me under her wing, going to far as to instruct me in the art of making kugel, considering it her duty to teach a bewildered shiksa the culinary vocabulary of Abraham’s descendents, if only for the sake of the poor girl’s husband whose relations she’d been vacationing with for years—some bungalows being passed down from generation to generation.        

That permanence is what gives Pine Lake its pathos and humor, elevating it from a haven of summer homes into a heartland of a community all but lost to time—where a quaint, small town conviviality belies the hidden agendas, the ancient feuds, the herculean egos and family rivalries and power grabs all underpinning a benign appearance of civility. Make sport of your neighbor by all means, but beware any excessive, quarrelsome behavior or risk banishment from the friendly kingdom of the lakewood.

Having wandered among the pines of PLP during his formative years, my husband has never ceased his romance with a woodland that alone fills the secret spaces of his heart, binding him in a way that our ‘til death do us part’ vows never could.

No mortal competes with the magic of nature, particularly when experienced though the eyes of a child, for such is the time when stars are for wishing and miracles most likely.

Captured in the stillness of Barry’s memory is the indelible image of he and his father walking side by side down to the lake whereupon they would climb into a waiting rowboat, take up the oars and go drifting into a moonrise adventure—two shadowy figures casting their way across the rushes, a concert of throaty, baritone bullfrogs enlivening a liquid night when a galaxy of stars seemed to ripple beneath the oars and the air was fresh and scented in pine; when, for one enchanted moment, to a child in the company of spring, anything seemed possible, in a croaking sort of way.

            On Rose’s suggestion, I ventured down to the lake where Barry’s mother used to play mahjongg under the umbrella of his youth—before the Taconic Parkway had turned into a raceway, before a wooded outpost became a crowded suburb and the little, sandy beach at the lake was still dotted with full-time mothers in beehive hairdos who chatted amiably while their kids splashed in the water, everyone waiting for dad to arrive on Friday, courtesy of the 6:30 Metro North.

It was the PLP way.

Rose had herself a daunting task. I wasn’t merely Catholic, but a certifiable loner. I grew up baptized into believing that strong fences made good neighbors and these people were neighborly in an almost Biblical sense, clinging to each other’s company at the beach, on their morning walks, barbecuing on each other’s decks in a whirl of frenzied activity. Their very openness made me squirm.

Despite the efforts of some generous and welcoming individuals, I felt outnumbered and outflanked by the sheer volume of homeowners populating the community. It was one thing to live with a Jew, quite another to live with 75 of them, all a spitting distance away.

With no other recourse, I dug in, literally, and set about landscaping a site that was just this side of a wreck.

“You like to dig,” commented Vinco, the park’s maintenance manager of 40 years. A barrel-chested, wide-grinning Christian who’d fled Nazi occupation in Yugoslavia, Vinco had found in Pine Lake the communal equivalent of his youth.

He helped me clear away the choked understory of saplings and debris surrounding my bungalow. He showed me how to dig a planting bed, my backbreaking attempts at landscaping having somehow endeared me to him. There was one thing the big man loved more than a well-ordered workshop and that was nature’s beauty tidied up—that, and having a captive audience to listen to his stories, which were considerable, having spent a lifetime quelling a restless mind through his voracious capacity for learning. There was never a shortfall of listeners. In a co-op charmed by moon glow and serenaded by wind in the pines, where things routinely broke, splintered or chipped, Vinco, the jack-of-all-trades, was king.

Years passed. I kept digging and Vinco kept right on talking. I learned about the Teutonic Knights, the habits of quarks, the outer rings of Saturn and the inner workings of a hundred topics all discharged in no particular order, some choice observation and life lesson occasionally tossed in for effect.

“It’s all bullshit,” was his favorite sermon, delivered in a thick, East European accent of tight vowels and rolling consonants.

I listened to his stories and keep on shoveling, inwardly cringing whenever any neighbor would pass by and wave. It all seemed so friendly. But, I kept digging and Vinco kept on talking and one by one, the years passed until my bungalow grew rather quaint looking nestled under the study of green, the Friday night lectures, the Saturday nights in the social hall being entertained by the over-50 Rockettes, the Brooklyn Opera troupe, the flamenco dancers, Balkan musicians, the ho downs, beach barbecues, fireworks, the Sunday movies under the stars all merging into a surreal flow of well wishes and condolences.

Today, I am the park’s resident gardener, though mostly by accident, having dug, hauled, planted, weeded and mulched my way only slightly past the boundary of my gardening skills and emotional capacities. As I dig, Martin comes walking by, though not so jauntily as in the past, his recent knee surgery cobbling his efforts.

“You look like a movie star,” he exclaims, kissing my cheek.

Dirty, my face stained in sweat, I smile and pull off my gloves, reveling in the gift of charm that he so freely dispenses to all the women in the community. Now in his 90s, he has distanced himself from the tattoo bearing its ugly mark on his forearm, having survived the Nazis campaign of hate with a resilience of spirit that bears it no testament.

Martin and I walk the short distance down to the Abe Shein Social Hall. Yet, in some ways, he is walking alone. I can never be one of them.

Though the homogeny of cultural roles in America has been replaced by a greater tolerance of same-sex marriages, inter-faith marriages, starter marriages, no fault divorce, gestational carriers and babies born out of wedlock, the Hebrews have a founding text of bitter history not my own.

What do I know of the persecution, the demonization and the expulsions that have dogged them across the centuries—of the provenance of Bar Mitzvahs and Kiddushes, of sitting Shiva or praying in the Shul? A lonely citizen of the kingdom of Christ, I know only that there are good Jews and there are bad Jews and that I live in a community that consists largely of family-oriented, rather intelligent, jock Jews, a few of whom are truly extraordinary individuals.

Martin and I enter the timbered structure, greeted by the blare of electric guitars. Several girls have lately formed a rock band and their reverberations are echoing across the cavernous space. They’re good kids. I’ve known them since they were little. Silhouetted on stage, I see the future of our tiny enclave being amplified, though I wish not quite so loudly.    

Though he hides it, Martin has suffered considerably this past year, having endured a long convalescence. I refrain from telling him about my tilling the ground around the stunted maple in front of his bungalow in the hope that the spindly, little tree might gain a new vigor. Some things are better left unsaid. Here, beneath the tall pines, we all smile. We smile when we pass each other on Tennis Lane, we smile at social gatherings; everyone waves.

It is the Pine Lake Park way.

 



TODAY'S RAMBLING

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