I suppose it’s true that you can’t go home again. Well, you can, but for most of us the home we think about and cherish exists only in memory. Places and people change all the time. That is the nature of the Universe. That is why I must bury my Brooklyn, New York and live more fully in my present, as we all might want to practice doing.
I should know this, but on vacation last week in New York City, I gave in to the need to revisit, rediscover, remember and try to reclaim the Borough of Brooklyn, and more precisely, the neighborhood in which I grew up. I wish we had made it to Coney Island, as originally planned, but we didn’t. Had we done so, I could have played on the beach of my childhood and created a symbolic burial in the sand of a past that is no longer reality.
The truth is that my past doesn’t really exist on the streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, regardless of how much I might search for it there. The landmarks of the neighborhood that are the backdrops for so many tales from my youth, happy, quirky, and sometimes even painful, are all gone. The street names are the same, but all of the places that are vivid in my head are nowhere to be found. The ethnic population has changed, as often happens in cities over a period of many years. Gone are the pizzerias that popped up like dandelions in the late 50’s and 60’s. Gone are the Jewish delis, the Mom and Pop groceries and drugstores. The Marboro Movie Theater, a neighborhood fixture, is no longer there. Jack and Irv’s luncheonette next door to the movie theater, where we ordered egg creams, (a New York drink that has no eggs in it) Lime Rickeys, and burgers, is gone. Anton’s luncheonette, where we would walk at lunchtime from Seth Low Junior High School and where my father would send me to fetch cups of vanilla bean and cinnamon-laden rice pudding and ice cream sundaes, is now a different sort of business. My old house is still there, but my father’s two tiny gardens that sat on either side of the entryway, have been paved over. The facade on the front of the house is different, there is now a fancy wooden door, new windows and an elaborate gate. I recognized the house only by the address numbers sitting up by the door, a wrought iron greeting to an aging pilgrim. We found one Italian bakery, instead of dozens, as we walked a stretch of perhaps fifteen neighborhood streets.
The population of mostly second and third generation working-class and middle-class Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, Italians and a few other ethnicities thrown in for good measure, has been replaced by aspiring and upwardly mobile Asians and fairly recent Russian immigrants. There are shops with Chinese characters everywhere and many Russian delis and other eateries. As we got further away from my old house and closer to the area of my old high school, I recognized only one business remembered from my youth, or at least, the name was the same.
As we walked and explored, I felt very sad. It was also hard to accept that so many decades had gone by since I was a pigtailed Brooklyn girl, a hopeful, bright-eyed young poet, with many adventures and achievements in store in the future. It was hard to think that not only did “my” neighborhood look different, but that I didn’t know anybody there now, had no family left there with whom to reminisce.
On the subway ride back to Manhattan, to our hotel, I moped a bit and felt tears ready to flow. As the subway jostled me, my attention shifted to the loud and bubbly chatter of a group of young teenagers who sat behind us. I caught bits and pieces of their animated conversation. I grew more and more fascinated as I tuned in and realized they were spinning stories, with each one taking a turn and then stopping to choose the next person to pick up and continue the tale. There was a great deal of laughter and excitement. I was drawn to their enthusiasm and creativity and was very impressed by what they were coming up with, for the most part. I turned a bit to be able to catch a glimpse of them, out of curiosity. They were a group of five African-American teens, probably between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. They were obviously bright kids, lacking the bored, superior expressions I have often witnessed on many kids that age nowadays, who seem to think it isn’t cool to smile or to be enthusiastic about anything.
My mood lifted very quickly as I enjoyed my time of eavesdropping and my glimpse of their innocent and promising young faces. For a bit, I was completely into their moment, surreptitiously soaking in their energy, and it became my moment too. Gone was the sadness about a past that has been lost in the clouds of time, having drifted away long ago.
I know that my past doesn’t exist in some brick and mortar buildings that have disappeared, or in some distant longing and stirrings of my taste buds for Anton’s rice pudding, for cherry-cheese knishes, for chocolate egg creams from Jack and Irv’s luncheonette. My past exists in my head and in my heart. It is mine alone,unique to me, to keep, to learn from, to examine, though I may occasionally share it with others who own their own versions that propelled them to this day, and to who they are today. My past is not lost because my old neighborhood looks and feels different. It still lives inside of me, and has served its purpose, just as my parents and brother are not merely what exists under the ground in their Long Island cemeteries, or my sister, in her grave in Lancaster, California. They exist in my heart, in all they touched, taught and stood for during their lives, and in the legacies of generations they did not even know, but who possess parts of them that they carry on into the future.
I am nowhere near the beaches, waves and fun of Coney Island, a Brooklyn landmark now, that I have been told was refurbished. I am not a little girl playing in the sand with my pail and shovel while my grandparents unpack a picnic lunch. My old Brooklyn has changed, and so have I, perhaps happily and thankfully. That is why it is really time to bury it. I am no longer disappointed or wistful, but more determined than ever to focus on the abundance of now. This is not always an easy task when life is complicated, when we have many responsibilities and our plates are very full. Still, I must do it.
If you liked this post, you might enjoy reading my poem, Brooklyn Summers