WHEN YOUR HEART IS YOUR MAP
I remember it well.
I was driving along the Cross-Bronx Expressway on a three-hour ride back to my Hudson Valley home from Long Island, after an evening of game-playing with my nephew’s boys. It was winter. My mind wandered, as it does on long drives, when a pleasant feeling suddenly came over me, like a familiar door had just opened, a light peeked through, and a blanket of warmth followed. Thinking it might be a hot flash, I opened the windows and let in the sounds of the taxis and 18-wheelers screeching by. But it was no menopausal flash. It was a revelation: “Yes, I’m moving back.”
Let me explain.
Sixteen years ago, my husband and I moved with our two kids to Orange County, in upstate New York, after ten years in our starter home in suburban Nassau County, Long Island. The reasons were typical: the desire for a bigger house—less expensive for sure—and close to my husband’s job. Family and friends were shocked, but eventually understood. The first year-and-a-half were tough. Very tough.
I had grown up as the youngest child and the only girl in a Brooklyn home with three brothers. It was hard work trying to be their equal, and I honed my skills at the funny quip or quick retort. There was rarely a family get-together without a game of some sort, usually trivia, the kind they play on “Family Feud.” There were no prizes, we just liked playing.
Truth is, my parents started it. After they married, they began regular game nights with neighbors. As we kids came along, they taught us poker, and that was it. One night it’d be “Jacks or Better,” and the next it’d be “Michigan Rummy,” maybe Pinochle. The games were kept on a high shelf in the coat closet: Yahtzee and Scrabble, inky Bingo dabbers, and ancient Danish cookie tins filled with poker chips. A new sport was added one Saturday in May when mom or dad suggested we put a quarter into a hat, pick out a name of a horse, with winner take all. None of my friends ever stopped playing to go home to watch the Kentucky Derby.
These were not only warm family activities, they were educational. By the time I was 8, I knew which cards beat a full house and how to make sure the ante was correct (math skills, of course). And it went on for years. Even without a game, there were pizza nights or six-foot hero nights, and mom, a widow by 1981, didn’t bother to cook anymore. She’d count how many of us showed up and order take-out. Our dining room conversations varied, what’s new in the neighborhood, who was up to no good, and what happened to the deli on Ralph Avenue? There’d usually be a few family stories in the mix. Those who married into the family got into the act, and as the group grew bigger, mom had to insert the two leaves in the center of the dining room table.
Then, in 2000, my husband and I found the bigger Orange County house—two bridges and three hours away. I was heartbroken, but determined to make it work. And I made peace with it.
As the family continued to gather at Mom’s, we couldn’t always make it. With weekend soccer games, evenings with karate or parent-teacher conferences, I had to accept that I’d get there when I got there. Mom passed in 2011, the house was sold, and the next generation of Hanleys took up the torch. My nephew had game nights out on the Island, my niece organized ones in Queens. We travelled when we could, over two bridges, two to three hours away.
But now it’s 2016. Divorced, with grown children, my thoughts have turned to where I will live out my next few chapters. I’ve made a fulfilling writing life in the Hudson Valley, authored two books, made lifelong friends, and was a part of many worthwhile projects. But I’m not committed to any job for the benefits.
When you get to this age, you know a lot of what you like and what you don’t like, and you can either continue doing something out of habit, or make the change to be where you know you want to be. I feel ready for a big change, but where should I go? I know I want to be near my brothers and extended family, but that’s not all. I want to be near the shore, and near a big bustling city, have access to mass transit, and be within walking distance of a main street.
On that bumper-to-bumper drive that January, I decided right then to go back to that world where my heart is—before it disappears completely. There are nephews and nieces growing up too fast. I don’t want to be so removed from their daily lives, just as they don’t want to be so removed from mine.
I knew it was not going to happen overnight. There was still lots to figure out, and some things to finish. Importantly, there are no regrets, only gratitude. So where would home be now?
The answer came on a on a mid-summer day, during a visit to Long Beach on Long Island’s South Shore. I was meeting my brother and sister-in-law for a library event. After parking the car, my eyes rested on the Long Island Railroad stop. I walked a block to the coffee shop, down the block from the library. And three blocks south was—you got it—the beach. A pleasant feeling came over me, like a familiar door had just opened, a light peeked through, and a blanket of warmth followed.
I knew it wasn’t a hot flash.
MJ Hanley-Goff is a freelance writer who lives in Orange County, Upstate New York. Author of two books, MJ conducts writing workshops throughout the Hudson Valley and plans to continue doing so when she’s back on Long Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.