Thursday, June 13, 2013

Bronx Reflections: Cherished Childhood Friends

I have always been sentimental, I take after my grandmother, but I find I have become even more so since I have been sick.  I have been thinking a lot about growing up in the Bronx and also in Manhattan, where my grandparents lived and where I spent so, so much time. The city was an ideal place for a child like me, independent and curious.  There was always something to do and, luckily for me, there was usually someone to do it with. 

Two of my childhood cohorts, Hank and Mary, are easily my oldest friends, going back well over 55 years.  It is amazing how an accident of geography placed us together and yet we were such a perfect fit.   Mary was one of only a handful of children who lived in our large apartment building, but we were made for each other, both of us mad for animals, horses especially, and yet content to spend an afternoon reading side by side or playing paper dolls, even if the weather outside was fine. She lived on the top floor, I lived on the ground floor.  I was sturdy and tough, she was tiny and delicate and we were inseparable. 

Hank’s aunt lived in the building next door and every summer he was sent to stay with her.  He, with his chipmunk cheeks and adorable, mischievous dimple (which he still has), arrived in late spring and left in the fall, but oh the fun we squeezed in for those few weeks every year!   

 We all romped, first, directly in front of our respective apartment buildings.  Then, as we got older, we branched out to frolicking around the entire block and into the wilds of the space in the center of that block, behind the buildings.  We called it the Back Lot and I have to laugh at how barbarous and rough that sounds, because this was a lovely, middle class neighborhood.  It makes us sound like grubby, neglected urchins, when we truly were closely supervised and strictly raised.  But children love leafy, mysterious places and that is what the Back Lot was.  It was filled with boulders, ailanthus trees and weedy shrubs, shot through with rocky paths, shortcuts through the block from one street to another.  A perfect setting for all sorts of adventures.  When I think of the kind of misadventures we could have encountered I shudder.  But we never did.  It was our own personal playground.  The park was off limits for us at that time, too far for us to go alone (although I, defiant and fearless, frequently sneaked down to the park that bordered the Harlem River, often dragging my hapless brother along).  The Back Lot suited us just fine for the most part.

(All the greenery in the middle is our "Back Lot", the wilds of University Heights.  The yellow line is the route I took every day from my front door to school.)

There were actually four of us, not just three.  Our dear Noel rounded out our particularly close quartet.  He was in my class at Holy Spirit.  He was quiet, smart and made funny faces that made me laugh.  I adored him.  We adored him.  It is one of my life’s great sorrows that none of us have seen or heard from him in over forty years.  We have searched online and found no trace.  There have been tantalizing clues here and there, including the possibility he entered the priesthood, but otherwise there is nothing.  His full name is relatively common in England, where he was born, and in Ireland, so that complicates things.  We miss him terribly.

One of our favorite games was acting out scenarios based on 1950’s TV shows, especially the Superman TV series. (We watched A LOT of television!)  It is so funny to think of now, because both Noel and Hank were sweet and gentle little boys, certainly not aggressive or in any way dominating, but they were our Supermen, taking turns in the role.  And Mary and I would take turns as Lois Lane.  Maybe I am being overly nostalgic, but I don’t remember ever quarreling in our weeks and weeks of playing together every single day.  When the other kids were added to the mix there was inevitably rivalry and, sometimes, tears.  But the four of us always got along on our own.

Both apartment buildings had roomy courtyards ideal for running around in and my building had a vast lobby and great open hall on the first floor that we also took great advantage of.  We always had some fantasy we were acting out, we were a particularly imaginative and creative bunch.  We also were bookish dreamers, which is why I think we were so close.  The other kids on our block were not bad, but they could be bullying and bossy.  The neighborhood at large had a hefty population of Irish Catholics with big families, but, ironically, our side of the block had a very small proportion of children, I can only think of maybe ten all together, including our siblings.  That was it for two large apartment buildings.   

Our building alone was a great big L-shaped that contained probably about 50 apartments.  My side of the L had the address of 106 W. 179 Street and the other side of the L was 1944 Andrews Avenue.  But the majority of tenants were older people, primarily Irish Catholics and Eastern European Jews, and many of the later were Holocaust survivors.  When the 1940 Census was first available online, you could only access people by address, not name.  So I looked up my Bronx address because it was easy to find.  Incredibly, several of the wonderful older people I grew up knowing had lived in the building since 1940, including the couple who lived in the apartment over ours, the Hartmans.  I was so lucky, because these were like an extended family and they were all very, very kind to me.  They really shaped the person I became. 

The 1940 Census shows our upstairs neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Hartman, were living there 14 years before my parents moved in.  Mrs. Hartman's mother was gone by then and they had no children.  They were very, very nice to me, and I shamelessly dropped by for visits with embarrassing frequency.  They always treated me to cookies and milk.

Mrs. Clune lived upstairs with her little dog, who she walked, it seemed, constantly.  She was a teeny, delicate lady, very sweet, always with a smile.  I have no memory of Mr. Clune, who must have died before I was born.  Their son was probably in his thirties when I knew him, but I thought he was an old man.

But back to us...our idyll only lasted until we were about 12.  My parents moved our family to the wasteland of rural New Jersey in 1966, where there was literally nothing but our hideous, cracker box development and cornfields.  My mother didn’t drive and there was nothing within walking distance, not friends, school, shops or, worst of all, the library.  I don’t think I have ever gotten over it, going from independence and my cherished friends to trapped isolation.

I wish I had pictures of Hank, Mary, Noel and I together, but we don’t.  Almost all the pictures I have of the neighborhood are as it is today.  A few exceptions are snaps of me in my mother’s arms outside our building, but facing the apartment house across the street.  That was a sumptuous complex with gardens, sunken living rooms and multiple bathrooms.  Now it is boarded up.  Although now the neighborhood is more family oriented again, the terrible, crime-ridden days seem to have passed, they left an appalling legacy.  The courtyards where we ran and played our games are locked up, with some gates topped by barbed wire.  The cement steps between the buildings that we used to access the Back Lot have crumbled.  The decorative limestone balustrades that lined the front steps of our apartment building have been demolished and replaced with cinder blocks.  Crime is less, but shabbiness and poverty exist where pride of place ruled before.

The building I grew up in; no gate or barbed wire in my time.  The first two windows to the left were my bedroom.

The other side of the building.  There used to be grass and decorative wrought iron fencing where those concrete slabs are now.

The space between our building and Hank's; the steps are all crumbled and broken now.

The gate enclosing the courtyard of Hank's building.

The beautiful building across the street from ours, the gardens are now all boarded up.

My mother and I took a trip in to see the old neighborhood about 14 years ago, with a friend from the Internet who had gone to my grammar school and his wife.  We had such a nice day exploring, even got to go into Holy Spirit school, as CCD was being taught that day and the school was open.  It was like a time capsule, absolutely immaculate, from the shining wood floors to the bright, windowed classrooms.  It was so good to see, and I am glad I had the chance, as the Dicosese of New York is shutting it down this month.  It is a disgrace that a school which has been in operation for almost 100 years is being closed and the education of inner city children, who are the most vulnerable, is being sacrified.  For shame.

It goes without saying that Hank and Mary grew up to be just as wonderful as they were when they were kids.  Mary is a devoted mother of a large extended family.  She still has a big, sensitive heart and a special love for animals.  Hank is a loving, loyal friend and he works hard to make a difference in this world (here is a link to his website).  Life and geographical distance prevent us from seeing each other as we would like, but, especially since I have been sick, they never fail to remind me how important I am to them and how I am in their thoughts and prayers.  One cannot ask for much more than that.

I am so grateful for how my sweet friends enriched my life and I thank you all, Hank, Mary and Noel.  I believe somewhere in the universe there is a faint echo of the laughter and pure delight in life that four children shared together a long time ago.  There is no way that joy, that simple pleasure in each other’s company, could ever fade away.


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Monday, June 3, 2013

Sadness and Miracles

I am so relieved to be home, but there is no getting back to normal as there is no normal left.

I had been in the hospital for three days while the options for surgery on my gall bladder were batted around.  That third day my surgeon, a local superstar wunderkind, previously all good cheer, came to me with an absolutely stricken look on his face.  An ultrasound, x-ray, MRI and CT scan, all done while testing the gall bladder, were showing a mass on my liver.  It did not look good, he told me.  In fact, it was probably a worst case scenario.  I was pretty stunned, but not as upset as I would have expected.  I didn’t cry or anything, I was just numb.  Fortunately, my friend Christine was with me the first time he broke this news and that made an enormous difference.  Thank goodness I was not alone.  He had already been concerned about doing gall bladder surgery because of my compromised breathing.  Now the surgery I needed for a liver tumor was so complicated and serious, I actually had to be transferred to a different hospital where he worked with another surgeon who specialized in liver surgery.  And there was no question of not doing it.

When I posted this on Facebook, the response was staggering, with comments and encouragement and support from almost one hundred people, some of whom I didn’t even know.  Father David, our wonderful Interim pastor, visited and prayed with me, but to be honest, my own prayers were hollow.  I was dazed.  I sent final messages to my children and funeral plans to my friend Louise, to be given to the kids as needed.

The night they transferred me I had a final CT scan before they organized the surgery.  The next morning the surgeon was in my room again, this time almost speechless.  He felt like an idiot, he said, because the CT scan from the night before showed no tumor on my liver anymore.  There was nothing there.  Nothing.

I did not believe the surgeon was an idiot, although I don’t think that was the most appropriate approach to the news he had.  I also do not believe several doctors could have misread multiple radiology studies.  On the other hand, I had had no expectations of miraculous healing.  I just wanted a peaceful death.  Full of self-loathing, which is cheerfully supported by the people I love most in my life, I never considered myself a miracle candidate.  But it seems that might be exactly what I got.

I have sign hanging on my bedroom wall that says “Count Your Blessings”.  I bought it long ago, before I got sick, when I was leading what I felt was a charmed life.  Four fantastic kids who were wonderful, fun company, a terrific, rewarding career, my little dream cottage, travel, back in school for my Master’s, there were almost too many blessings to count.  Then they started falling like domino’s when I was diagnosed with transverse myelitis and, ultimately, MS.  My family relationships are now in a shambles, with most of them not even speaking to me anymore.  My career is finished and I will lose my cottage anytime now.   Travel?  I cannot even travel to my back garden.  My friend Marc, the Wheelchair Kamikaze, likens a diagnosis of MS to a personal Hiroshima. (Read his moving post hereIt may seem like a histrionic and hyperbolic reference.  But the comparison is apt in that the destruction of your former, healthy life is complete.  Our lives are ultimately shattered as thoroughly as that city was by the atomic bomb. 

Despite what turned out to be incredibly good news about no tumor, it is very, very hard to keep positive.  It is a gorgeous spring day today here at the shore and my family just left for the beach and the Ocean Grove flea market.   In my previous life I would have been there already.   I long to sit in the sun and listen to the ocean, to stroll around the flea market and people watch.  But I can’t get there myself anymore and I wasn’t invited to join them.   I am too much trouble to take along.   The logistics of getting dressed, getting me and my wheelchair into the car and then getting onto the actual sand are overwhelming. 

I am simply so weary of being ill.  Anyone else would have had the simple gall bladder surgery already and would be on the road to recovery.  I sit here, a bundle of complications, with a tube in my abdomen, playing a waiting game until someone is brave enough to take me on.  I have already been told I can expect to wake up from surgery with a tracheotomy and on a vent (a hole in my throat and a machine breathing for me).  They anticipate that I will not be able to breathe on my own as I come out of the anesthesia.  The prospect of living on a ventilator makes me feel physically sick.  Yet I feel tremendous guilt for being so miserable, because I know there are people who are far worse off than I and I am still fortunate in many ways.  I still have many, many friends, each a blessing in themselves.  I suppose my ‘miracle’ is another blessing, put in my path to ponder.   I continue pondering…but mostly I ponder my lost son, how incredibly sad I am and how much I miss my old life.


To while away the idle hours I have been doing a lot of embroidery and some sewing. Whilst my familiar perches at my head. 

I loved these little sailboats from Sew and the City.  I had saved the pattern for my youngest grandson, but I think he has probably out grown them already.  So I stitched them up for the baby of a dear, dear friend who is coming to visit.  I stuffed them lightly, the easier for bitty hands to grip them, and I tied together a few bells and put them inside each.  If the little nipper managed to somehow open the toy, they are too big to choke on in a bunch like that.  My Resident Critic, my daughter, felt they are too girly.  But babies love primary colors, so I stuck with scraps from my Depression-era fabric patterns.  I think they are cute.

The only problem is it made me think of my precious little grandson, who I have only seen twice since he was born eighteen months ago.  I have lost so much, did I have to lose him too?  So I ended up crying the whole time I worked on them.  Tears are supposed to be cathartic.  They are not.  I simply feel worse than ever, bereft and utterly broken by the casual cruelty of this inexplicable estrangement.  

The birds and pansies came from a pattern that I got from an embroidery designer who is based in Cape Town, South Africa.  They were inspired by a Victorian gift book published in 1896.


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