I've had a writing category here since I started, but I've rarely used it. Came across Blogging 4 Books today and thought what better chance to get the lead out than now! So here's my first attempt. Let me know how you like it. It's a little rough - just found out about it today and midnight is the deadline. I'm also having trouble posting tonight, so I keep getting only half the essay. Sorry about the "continue reading" at the end. I can't get rid of it! The end of the post here is the end. Ain't no more.
You can read more about the contest at Faster Than Kudzu.
I grew up in a small town just outside of New York City. I attended the same elementary school as my mother and my grandmother before her. I had a bevy of relatives nearby, so even though I was an only child, I never felt like one. I was surrounded by family. And when I say surrounded, I mean surrounded. If you did something bad on the way home, the news of it beat you through the front door.
One great aunt and uncle lived across the street. Another about four blocks away and my grandmother lived about a ten minute walk away, provided there were no distractions. I had cousins that lived in my building. Technically a latch-key kid, I was blessed with choices - I didn't have to go home, I could spend my after school hours with any of my cousins. Most often I would choose to go to my grandmother's because she would always have a snack waiting in the fridge for me. Since she usually arrived home from her housecleaning jobs a little while after I did, I got to spend time by myself doing homework, reading a book or watching the Monkees on TV.
I often refer to my growing-up years as the Last Idyllic Childhood in America. I knew nothing of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, drug use, drive-by shootings, or any of the things Hollywood likes to associate with life in the projects (low-cost government housing). I played outside with my friends until the street lights came on and everyone had to go inside (or else!). We played tag, rode our bikes (I had a yellow Huffy with a banana seat), made up dances, did Cat's Cradle with shoelaces, knit with scrap yarn and two sharp pencils, went to the candy store on the corner and tried to decide between Pixie Stix and Sweet Tarts. We found secret hideouts, climbed trees and started games of kickball in the street. Sometimes we walked to the phone company to see if there was any colorful phone wire so we could fashion our own jewelry. In winter we got out our sleds and headed for the hillside. I remember one year, after reading a number of Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I tried to make candy by pouring syrup on pans of snow and leaving them on the balcony. It probably would have worked had I known the difference between real maple syrup and pancake syrup, but life in the projects is all about making do with what you have.
Unlike the Evans family on Good Times, my days were spent worrying about when I was going to develop, rather than where the next rent payment was going to come from. In fact, I never worried about money, even though my mother would constantly say that we couldn't afford such-and-such. I figured that was merely a ploy to vary the usual, "No. Because I said so" answer. Besides, I was rarely told no in regards to my most coveted items: books. My money was usually spent at the candy store or in Woolworth’s where a dime could buy you a bottle of bright pink nail polish or a plastic daisy ring you would lose before you had a chance to show it off at school the next day.
Greenburgh, New York was my comfort zone until 1976. One week before my twelfth birthday my mother and I headed west to San Diego where I was certain my every spare moment would be spent hanging out with movie stars and going to Disneyland. I would have freedom away from the watchful eyes of a million sharp-sighted relatives - something I never even thought was possible.
And, except for three trips back in the summertime, I left my New York roots behind after my fifteenth birthday. I had to create a new identity for myself in southern California. One that didn't involve who my mother went to school with or third cousins twice-removed. Over the years I started to think of myself as a Californian, a native even, falling in love with my new hometown to the point of forgetting what winter felt like or how crisp New York air gets in September.
Twenty-five years passed before I was in Greenburgh again. My grandmother passed away just before Christmas last year and it was her wish to be laid to rest next to her brother and sister-in-law. I had known of this for years, but it always distressed me because I wondered who would care for her grave. Who would bring her favorite yellow roses on her birthday and Mother’s Day? I returned to my old hometown with a wild mixture of grief, curiosity and the anticipation of once again being surrounded by my relatives.
I was surprised to see that I recognized so many streets and buildings. Normally, my sense of direction requires that I have a Google map to find the sky, so imagine my surprise when I could point out where the candy story used to be. Deborah's house was still on the corner a block away from my apartment building. The hill I dared to ride my bike and sled down looked like a bump in the road instead of the colossal adventure it used to be. My grandmother's former apartment in the "old projects" still overlooked the now abandoned pre-school my cousins, Eddie and Marcus attended. The elementary school still stood with its nine-paned windows that had to be opened with a long wooden pole with a metal hook attached to the end. Union Baptist Church still stood on the odd triangular plot of land that is pictured in my mother's wedding photos.
I discovered new things, too. Places I didn't know in my childhood, like where the funeral home was. The Galleria mall. The Cheesecake Factory where we celebrated my cousin Eddie's birthday after the funeral. The cemetery where my Aunt Libby's headstone had not yet been placed after her unexpected death two months earlier. I also discovered that it's easy to chat with a total stranger on the train and catch a cab driver in a hustle to overcharge me. I can find my way to "the clock" in Grand Central. I can meet my half-brother for the first time on the day after my grandmother’s funeral and not develop a nervous tick.
I was surrounded by family for five days. From "play" cousins to aunties and uncles to previously unknown relatives, I was surrounded by love, laughter and tears. It was an amazing week. I didn't realize how much I missed having my extended family nearby. How much I missed that little town where nearly everyone was somehow connected to some small branch on my family tree. I liked seeing my little cousin Brianna every morning and hanging out with my first cousins – we haven’t all been together since the 70s!
For more than a brief moment, I entertained the thought of moving back “home”. Starting a new life had its appeal – perhaps being in a more literary world would get me serious about my writing. I could work for Conde Nast or Simon & Schuster. I could leave my laid back, sunny California attitude behind and jump feet first into the fast-paced, New York state of mind with minimal adjustment, couldn’t I? $1600 for a one room studio was doable, right? And I would get used to the weather again, I was certain. All signs seemed clear: I could go home again.
I don’t remember how we arrived at the gravesite on that brisk December day. I wonder if it was a limo. I don’t remember having ridden in one before, I should have paid attention. As we said our final goodbyes to the woman I considered part of my soul for forty years, it occurred to me that I wasn’t interested in moving back to New York. I was interested in capturing a time that was lost to me. I didn’t have to move 3,000 miles away to relive the perfect childhood – I just had to close my eyes and remember. I just had to turn on my computer and write it all down.
There’s a great deal involved in burying a coffin. There’s excavation, transportation, beautification…hydraulics, and a host of other procedures I’m sure I’m not even aware of. I do remember the grass being very green that day. The mud was covered by a piece of Astroturf, as if the by covering up the dirt, we could cover up our grief. Twice before, in that very area, the earth had been removed to make a place for my Uncle Sam and my Aunt Libby. Now my grandmother was joining them in the plot they purchased for her. They had been closer than friends, closer than relatives – their relationship was some other entity that has yet to be named. Once again the threesome was side by side in a new Heavenly adventure. It became clear that it was her homecoming and not my own. It was her moment and not mine. I was just required to honor the passing in my own way and take refuge in the support system of legacy she left behind.
We left New York on Christmas Eve. A late flight, westbound, out of JFK brought me home.