Growing up in Fort Lee, NJ, my family was like most residing there at that time: first or second generation immigrants living the American dream. Most of us had moved from city environs to buy their first homes in the heart of suburbia - or, at least what our parents saw as the suburbs. Fort Lee was more of a transition between the two. But, one way or the other, it certainly was a step-up from where we had lived before.
This was certainly true of my family. We moved in 1958 from a small, cramped apartment in Cliffside Park, NJ to the home my parents purchased in Fort Lee. It had three bedrooms (my parents would take one. my sister another, and my brother and I would share the 3rd), a dinning room, a living room, kitchen, and even a small yard to romp in!
It was like heaven to us.
My brother, sister, and I lived an almost idyllic life there (at least in hindsight). We had a roof over our heads, good parent-providers, food in our bellies, and a neighborhood with good friends. It was a rich existence in almost every way except one; my parents had no money beyond what was absolutely necessary to maintain our presence there. We called it Fort Lee poor. We never went "without" but had to forsake most of the so-called luxury items. For example, my parents never owned a new car until my grandmother bought them one. We used my aunt's recycled carpet for our living room, and we NEVER went away for vacation. Ever. Those things were luxuries we simply could not afford. Instead of going somewhere like Lake George or even the Jersey Shore, as most of my friends did, my mother took us to her childhood home - Coney Island. My grandmother still lived in the house where they grew up and we went EVERY summer to stay with her for a week. When we complained that our friends went down the shore, my mother's response was always consistent: "same ocean".
But, this year was to be different. We were going on vacation - a REAL vacation. Well, sort of . . .
It was the summer of '67. I was 12 and just entering young adulthood - yes, puberty. Unlike most of my friends, I was maturing early - at least physically! I already had the makings of a fuzzy, thin, but VERY black and noticeable mustache on my upper lip. So, I'd rather have been hanging with my friends, acting like a "big man" and flirting with girls at the beach than going with my family to the Catskills.
Yes, THE Catskill Mountains.
The Catskills had become famous for being a get-a-way for mostly Jewish New Yorkers. About 90-100 miles north of the City, its bucolic setting provided a perfect summer escape from the cramped environs of New York. It was such a popular vacation destination for New York Jews that it was affectionately nicknamed The Jewish Alps.
However, what most people don't know is that deep within the Catskills there were very strong Italian/Sicilian enclaves, too. And, we were heading for one.
It was near South Fallsburg, NY and called Villa Paragoni.
Apparently, my grandmother went to the same Sicilian social club in Brooklyn as the matriarch who owned the place. So, she worked out a deal with her and then paid for most, if not all, of our stay.
Despite my desire to be with my friends rather than going away with my family, I still remember being excited for the trip. After all, at least it was some place DIFFERENT than ol' Coney Island! We packed our bags, loaded up my old man's beat up Buick and left to pick up my grandmother in Brooklyn before the long ride up the country: my mother, father, and grandmother in the front seat. My brother, sister, and I rode in the back.
Once we cleared the City traffic, we were on the open road of the New York State Thruway to the mythical place known simply as Upstate. The whole trip would take a little more than 2 hours. During that time, the roads turned from clogged and congested to open and airy. The very air itself changed with each passing mile. I could smell the country! From endless cityscapes, the view changed to small, verdant mountains beckoning in the distance. The brilliant sun showered the distant meadows in a golden light. It was all so surreal. As we left the highway and began taking the back roads to our final destination, we passed farm fields filled with the summer crop of apples and peaches as well as swift running, fresh water streams. I envisioned myself wading in one of the streams catching fresh trout and other fish. The city ethos was quickly being replaced by a country one.
While on one of these country roads, it was not unusual for my grandmother to call for my father to stop the car. She had recognized something growing wild on the side of the road - an Italian delicacy - cardoones. After my father stopped the car, she would jump out, produce a small pocket knife, cut the plant at the stem and place them in a plastic bag to be cooked later. It was all part of the adventure.
After driving for what seemed to be half the day, we finally arrived at our destination: Villa Paragoni. At first impression, it was not much to look out. In fact, it appeared pretty run-down. There was a large, white building that was in the center of the property. Surrounding it were a few bungalow type structures, a swimming pool, some tennis and basketball courts, and playing fields. None of them looked terribly well maintained.
My father pulled up to the white building where the resort's office was located. After making the final arrangements, we were giving a tour of the place. The main building contained the dining room and also a ball room or casino for large parties. Most of the rest of the building was abandoned. The swimming pool was very old and NOT heated. In fact, it was filled with well water so cold that it made your bones hurt just to wade in it. The fields were far from manicured but they were playable. We were eventually led to the bungalows where we would stay for the week. They were rustic to say the least - no AC and few amenities. But, the upside was that we would each have our own bungalow to share; my parents and grandmother in theirs and my brother, sister, and I, ours.
The place was virtually deserted. In addition to our family, I can only remember two or three others there at the same time. We had the place virtually to ourselves. But, still, there were enough young people present to make friends and play volleyball or softball together. Only the hardiest of us were able to swim in the pool - even on the hottest days. We also hiked together and explored the abundant wildlife that surrounded us. But, it was the evenings' dinners that really made the place special. My grandmother's friend, the matriarch, was in charge of the kitchen and EVERY meal was prepared with the freshest, local ingredients EVERY day and night. The meals alone were worth the price of the stay! We had the best, most wholesome Italian food found just about anywhere.
After dinner, the resort's handyman prepared a bonfire for all the guests to enjoy. He was called Hirsch and he layed somewhere on the austism spectrum. He may not have been the brighest but there was virtually nothing he couldn't do around the place. And, he was friendly and fun. In addition to making the fires, he played a little guitar and led us in song.
After sitting around the fire, we usually retreated to the so-called casino in the main building to have some soft drinks, talk, and listen to the jukebox that was there. I recall that the Beach Boys hit, Good Vibrations, was the main title in the jukebox and we listened it so many times I thought the vinyl would wear out. And, there was a girl, about the same age as I was, who I was crazy about. It's funny because I can picture her face so clearly but I can't remember her name. She looked like a young Valerie Bertinelli. I recall dancing with her in the casino and holding her so closely. It made me tingling and I wasn't even sure why! I'm sure that it must have been love. I wanted to kiss her so badly but could never muster the courage.
The week flew by and it seemed that just about as soon as we got there, it was time to leave. We all loved it but never made it back. I'm willing to specualte that the place didn't last much longer after we left. It was part of a bygone era that simply does not exist anymore. I'm sure that the land it was located on was simply to valuable to leave undeveloped. The place must have been sold. Many of the Catskill resorts were actually turned into Ashrmas during the back -to-earth movement of the late 70's. Perrhaps, the place exists in a new form - maybe even as a Buddhist retreat. But, the truth is that I have no idea what became of Villa Paragoni or of those who made it so much fun for us. It lives now only in my memory.