I still remember that late summer day in 1965 when my dad took my brother and I to Samuel Untermeyer’s estate, which sat like an ancient ruin on a high ridge, overlooking the Hudson river. Hidden by thickets of trees, it was far removed from the surrounding apartment houses and busy streets of Yonkers.
The place had the magic of old things made strange when the world moves on without them. My dad knew of that magic and wanted us to discover it along with him.
The first thing I saw of the gardens was a wall running through that surrounding thicket of trees. It was built from dark, rough stone and topped with tall spikes of black iron.
It looked a lot like the wall around the playground of the old grade school I was attending, but it was out in the woods. The wall beside the playground kept us kids off the busy street. There were no kids playing where this wall was. So what did it keep in – or out?
In the wall was a gate formed by four tall pillars. Beyond that was a high ridge overgrown with twisted trees, thick vines and tangled brambles. A walled staircase was cut into the ridge and seemed to disappear into the shadows of the treetops. On each side of the stairs was a large stone frieze. One depicted a majestic lion, the other a wild looking stallion.
My dad told us there was an incredible garden he knows of from his childhood, though he had never seen it. It was identical to one built in ancient Rome two thousand years ago. It was at the top of the stairs.
By the look of the two friezes I knew there was something extraordinary up there. But to my little mind, that silent tangle of foliage creeping through the twisted tree trunks was troublesome. It seemed to be hiding something strange, something I should be careful around.
It was not like the well cared for, ruler-straight rows of tomatoes and swiss chard in my grandmother Florence’s sunny little garden.
Her garden was tended to with love. This one seemed to be tended with a brooding, pernicious will from the shadows of the woods.
Was the purpose of the wall in the woods to keep people out of that garden?
My brother must have been thinking the same thing. We both stopped walking when we stepped through the gate.
When I looked up at my dad, I could see he was not afraid of what lied ahead. He could see that I was, more so than my older brother.
Thinking my dad might also be afraid of what lied ahead, I looked up at his face. But he was not. He was gazing through the tree at the top of the stairs. His eyes showed determination and his physicality forward motion as he studied the path ahead.
He looked down at me and smiled. “Don’t worry, follow him,” he said and put his big hand on my shoulder.
In that moment, I was transformed. His expression of self-assurance and that gesture of reassurance, sent an invisible arc of confidence into me. Somehow, he handed on a small piece of his maturity, his ability to face and master things that appeared daunting. The wall in the woods and the malevolent undergrowth were no longer the things of fear and apprehension. If he could take these on, I could too.
We did go to the top of the stairs and explore Untermeyer’s Gardens.
All afternoon we roamed along the marble reflecting pools that were tarnished with weeds and fallen branches. We wandered through the rows of larger-than-life statues, many half- covered in vines and graffiti. We took a break under the dome of a temple-like building and commented on the identity of the face in the center of the floor mosaic. For a long time, we sat on the temple’s circular balustrade of carved white stone and looked out on the mighty Hudson River.
I was happy my dad had taken me there, even though it was scary at first.
Despite decades of abandonment that had tarnished the Gilded Age glory Untermeyer’s vast wealth had built, it was still awe inspiring.
On the ride home I sat in the back seat of the car. Images of that mysterious world swirled around in my head. I was not sure if I had visited a place where the ancient Roman gods had lived or just the home of a rich man who had faded into history when Dad was my age.
I also wondered how Dad changed my mind about climbing those stairs. He must have had some secret super power that only dads have. That thought was the result of reading Marvel Comic books at five years old.
It was not until years later and having children of my own that I was able to see clearly what was at work in that moment.
More is handed down to children through your example when you do things together than all the life lessons you could ever tell them.
Thanks, Dad. Eighty-five and still awesome.
The restored gardens as they look today.