As an adult, I lived in three different houses on one block of Mountain Road. Four, if you count the apartment I shared with my second wife. I now live about a half a mile from there. Most days, particularly in the warmer months, my walking route takes me around these former residences. My emotional relationship to these places vary from the insignificant to the life altering, but because I see them so often, these connections tend to stay in the back of the memory bank. They’ve become part of the background scenery.
These are some of them: my daughter was born on one of these addresses; I lived across the street when I graduated from college; my family had a small garment business in an industrial building — now converted to condos — at the beginning of the street; I faced a “dark night of the soul” at another one of the residences at the end of the Road and lived to see the morning light. That was two and a half decades ago. I also see the house where I last saw my father alive, in a cold day in February, thirty years ago. This house, overlooking the Island of Manhattan and the Hudson River, is vacant. It waits, along with a few of the neighboring properties, a rebirth by redevelopment into high-end housing units.
Accompanying me on these strolls, part exercise, part attitude adjustment, is my family. My wife, my almost-three year old son and our dog Celeste. There’s a water fountain at the end of the street, almost right at the edge where our town becomes another, that is of particular interest to my son. When we reach this spot, without fail, he motions towards the high-flying water in front of the high-rise. My wife takes him out of the stroller and brings him over and holds him over the edge. He dips both hands in and occasionally, wets his face as well. After this small ritual, he comes back to the stroller, a wet smile on his sweet face. My son waves good bye to the fountain and we’re ready to move on.
Even more important than the fountain is the playground. His little hands sign playground as we approach it. The smile returns.
On the way back home we walk by the house once — and possibly still — owned by someone I once knew. I’ve never ran into him or his wife, or his kids in the ten years I’ve been walking by. I wish once again that I would run into him, he was such a nice, happy fellow. But no one comes out, or goes in, as we pass by. I don’t know why I haven’t knocked on his door in all these years. I guess I don’t want to be impolite.
I almost never discuss my old memories with my wife. Most of them are sad, and I think twice about bringing up unhappy remembrances. We’re working on creating new ones and a dog and a toddler require most of our attention.
Besides, nothing ever happens to bring forth these memories that I carry with me. But sometimes, something stirs.
We’re coming back home, up Mountain Road. My wife is pushing the stroller. I’m pulling a tired doggie. Dusk is turning to night. We’re walking by the vacant house, the Private Property sign prominently displayed on the door, weed covering the front yard. I look at the two shuttered windows on the ground floor. I remember living there with my parents. Good memories. As good as memories can be in one’s first decade in exile.
My son spots the intermittent tiny light-bursts of a group of fireflies. There’s a dozen of them lighting up in my old front yard, so close to the sidewalk, you can almost touch them. No one is more grateful for an unexpected encounter with the small wonders of this world than children. My son is particularly good at it. The look in his eyes is pure joy and appreciation. It was a special family moment. A new happy memory that was gifted to us on that late afternoon walk. And we all knew it.
It was later in the evening that I realized the connection of that chance encounter to my past. I suddenly remembered something about the place where we had seen the fireflies. I have an old photograph of my father on that same spot. He was coming back from the corner bodega. There was snow in the ground. Later that day we traveled to Cuba to visit his ailing mother, my grandmother. He hadn’t seen her in ten years. Embargoes and family visit restrictions had gotten in the way. My father died in Cuba the day after he saw my grandmother. He was Forty Seven years old.
The last image I have of my father on Mountain Road is on that very spot, where the fireflies now entertain my son.
Each time we walk by now, my son looks for the tiny lights. And so do I.
A father, his son and memories shared.(This post was first published August 9th, 2009).