Road trip to paradise

I grew up listening to music on our family’s prized possession, a stereo system nestled deep within a richly oiled mahogany cabinet with two huge speakers that dominated the corners of our living room. Sunday mornings were dedicated to classical music, the afternoons were filled with Broadway musicals and the evenings were a potpourri ranging from classical guitar and folk to calypso and big band. It was during these wonderful forays that Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews taught me that “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” and John Gary wooed my heart with “This is All I Ask.”

But one of my all-time favorites was a tune by Burl Ives, his sugary voice eliciting images of delight in my seven-year-old heart. I later found out that the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was originally recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928 and described a hobo’s idea of paradise. Ives sanitized his version, substituting peppermint trees for cigarette trees and deleting all references to alcohol!

The chorus in Ives’ children’s version went like this:

“Oh the buzzin’ of the bees in the peppermint trees ‘round the soda water fountains,  Where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

I would dream of this magical place and the house I would build there. The walls were made of chocolate chip ice cream, the roof of crunchy peanut brittle. There was a swimming pool filled with ginger ale that I could drink to my heart’s content. And the yard had lollypop and gumdrop flowers, and talking squirrels with names like Squeaky and Scrumpy.

Fast forward to the summer of 2011, when my husband, Ray, and I were driving from Montana to Tucson on the back-road of Highway 89. As we followed a winding turn, a magnificent golden peak loomed large, taking us totally by surprise. When I read the sign, I literally screamed out in delight, causing my road-weary husband to brake in fear of an unseen animal on the road.

“Wait, pull over, right now! Look where we are!”

A sign announcing the Big Rock Candy Mountain stared us in the face.

It’s not often that one arrives at her childhood paradise, so of course we had to spend the night. It was a bit disappointing to learn, however, that the hotel walls were made of wood and the pool had chlorinated water.

Paradise is a complex and intriguing idea that has been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time. In many cultures and religions, paradise was imagined as a garden, a place of extreme beauty and perfection like the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word for paradise comes from the root word for pardes, which means orchard.

Most world religions identify paradise as the physical place where righteous souls ascend after death to dwell with G-d. But the concept is not as clear in Judaism, where ideas about the afterlife are varied and somewhat difficult to define. There is no mention of heaven or the afterlife in the Torah, although there is reference to a place called Gehinnom or Sheol (Hell). The Talmud, the Zohar and later rabbinic teachings refer to an afterlife and Olam Habah, or the World to Come. This is viewed as both a place in time and a physical place; an era in history heralded by the coming of the Messiah, as well as the place where righteous souls will be rewarded after death to “feast on the brightness of the divine presence” (Tractate Brachot).

I was seven when I first imagined paradise as a candy mountain where I could feast on ice cream and talk to animals. But as my sense of self and the world has grown and evolved, so has my concept of paradise.

In my earlier years, it was related to what I didn’t have – to what I hoped to achieve, to my goals and dreams for the future. But in my sixth decade, paradise is more about what I do have – the blessings of my life, the love of family and friends, and work that is meaningful. Paradise for me is not a far-off place. Paradise is right here and right now.

And even though I have suffered great losses, including that of my husband’s passing last June, I know that what we created and shared was our own version of paradise.

Each of us may have a unique and personal version of paradise that changes throughout our lives. But it is only through awareness and appreciation of what we have that we can see how close we are to finding it.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide.

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