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It didn’t matter if the sun was on high, or if it was pouring rain, or if the snow-covered trees and the snow-flecked roadside stores assumed a poetic Robert Frost quality. The road was always quiet. And so inexplicably pretty. And the road was always there, even though the stores and factories and shops it served opened and shuttered over the years. Although the name of the road escapes me, this time of year, the village at the end of that road always comes to mind.
Woodridge, N.Y., had always seemed to be frozen in time. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s, Woodridge was still in the ’50s.
The surrounding area was bucolic and lovely any time of year, as the Catskills could quite possibly be the most underrated mountain range in America, especially when you get around Buttermilk Falls. The Village of Woodridge was the embodiment of a Saturday Evening Post cover.
I always looked forward to the overall handsomeness of the drive. It was 450 miles to Woodridge from my parents’ house in Cleveland, and the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes were such slushy messes of speeding, rusting cars that the rutted two-lane road, whose name escapes me, was actually a welcome relief at the end of a nine-hour snowy drive. Because at the end of that road was Woodridge, dotted with Christmas lights wrapped around some houses and menorahs in the windows of others.
Woodridge was a genuine melting pot of religions; a place where many immigrants settled after coming through Ellis Island, located only 100 miles away. It’s where Sam and Birdie Kagan, my great-grandparents, decided to settle down after he fled Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 and they first met in New York. The butcher shop where my great-grandfather worked, and the small apartment above it where he and Birdie lived, were at the end of the road.
The holiday season in Woodridge always meant a homemade brisket, a table lined with veggies and casseroles, and family gathered around the table in that cramped apartment. Although the village was comprised of working-class immigrant families, many of whom were of very modest means, the Woodridge I remember — the one at the end of the road — was a kingdom of love and spirit this time of year.
Most of the townspeople came at the end of World War I, like Sam (Birdie was American-born), and they raised children right there in the Catskill Mountains. They raised first-generation Americans who would then carry on the now-Americanized family name. They would recognize and celebrate every American holiday because they survived the war and the rough steamship rides from Europe and Russia. They were here for a better life. Although working in a butcher shop — and living above it — was hard, it was better. Sam and Birdie’s kids would have even better lives, and their kids even better, and then it was my turn. And now it’s my kids’ turn.
I’m learning, as time goes by, that this time of year brings pride to people all over the world. Perhaps the pride is a byproduct of generations of families traveling to one particular place so they can celebrate together. Just a thought to consider when you’re reading Samuel G. Freedman’s cover story on Rome (page 54), which is one of the best travel covers we’ve had in my four years as editor and which makes tiny Woodridge seem as significant as Rome this time of year.
There’s a road that wraps around a densely wooded thicket in the Catskill Mountains. It’s weathered and worn, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be; that’s the way all of us residents and visitors of Woodridge remember it. While the people at the end of the road are no longer there, the village is. And right now, someone is in that upstairs apartment, squished around a kitchen table, celebrating the holidays as a genuine American family.