My grandmother’s house in New England sits on a quiet street lined with hedges and hydrangeas, halfway between the neighboring town’s main road and the ocean. Before the pandemic, I spent every summer and every winter there, at number 82, in the company of my six cousins. The house stands tall, wood-shingled with white trimming. Looking at it from the front, you’d never imagine there could be room for more than ten people to fit comfortably inside, but every Christmas dinner, there are at least fifteen of us crowded around the table. My family is Jewish, but we celebrate Christmas because my grandmother loves giving gifts and hates being thanked (Santa Claus was the perfect alias). My memories cycle through seasons spent at 82—hot green summers catching fireflies in the backyard and snowy winters spent wandering the local village, fir trees perched on every corner and red ribbons tied to each lamppost. I learned to swim in that little strip of the Atlantic. I learned to drive on those small town roads. 82 is my family’s nucleus.
I was born in Los Angeles in September—a Virgo, pragmatic and distrusting from the beginning. On the day of my birth, across the country, my grandmother planted an elm tree in 82’s backyard. She planted something for each of her grandchildren. Eventually, there would be seven of us, and the backyard would be lined with fragrant rose bushes and blueberry thickets for my cousins. My tree was just a sapling at first, nothing more than a twig. From the beginning, we had two things in common: a late summer birthday, and a place at my grandmother’s house.
My grandmother would spend months worrying about that little twig. It was so thin; surely it would snap in half. Twenty years later, the elm is almost as tall as the house itself. It has survived more East Coast hurricanes than I have. It was struck by lightning once, and its trunk was nearly split in half.
Until fall break, I had never spent an autumn at 82. In twenty years, I had never seen my grandmother’s house when the leaves changed. I had only ever seen my tree full and green in the summers, or completely barren, branches shivering in the winter frost. But the town is quiet in the fall, and I think I like it best without the summer’s mosquitoes or the rush of the holidays. I think I like my tree best in transition, leaves yellowed and golden, still bearing its lightning strike scar.
My family hasn’t made many permanent changes to the house’s frame. We even kept the original wallpaper in the first floor bathroom, which is the most violently hideous floral pattern I have ever seen (make no mistake; my grandmother has excellent taste. She kept the wallpaper because she found it amusing). But my tree’s roots reach deep into the ground beneath 82. It looks as though it has been there forever, as though it has spent lifetimes guarding the backyard. It will be there long after my family is gone, watching over the house for us.
In many Jewish families, it sometimes feels like we have spent generations running. My grandmother is the captain of our familial ship, our matriarch. 82 is her gift to us, her love in the shape of a house. She gave us a place to run home.