New York City was not good to my mother. I never knew that until recently though. Growing up I heard of the beauty of Central Park, the elaborate window displays at Macy’s at Christmas time, and the “fun” times my mother and aunts had operating dumb waiters in their tenement building and stringing clothes lines—and kids—between buildings.
Some stories were exaggerated, for sure, but what didn’t emerge, or what were just snippets of a darker side, I later recalled from stories my grandmother and aunts told or picked up from reading through packets of letters and papers my mother begin sending me as an adult.
There was the story of my mother getting lost and not being found for hours after suffering from amnesia in the Big Apple. Then the one about her being hit on the head with an iron pipe by neighborhood hoodlums. One very vivid one of her being shoved down the stairs by a racist middle school teacher who said she was lippy.
Put into the context of learning that my mother at six had, like many of her generation, suffered polio and spent time in an “iron lung” and been nursed back to health was enough cause me to pause with sympathy – but then there was more.
Indeed, I learned that as my mother was on the verge of being a teenager, a younger sister succumbed to one of the other illnesses that claimed many in those days. Little Betty, 7, died of diptheria.
And that wasn’t all. The final act that drove my Cuban-born grandfather and large family to drive across the country with a car full of children headed west to California – was the shooting death of my mother’s older half-brother, Sergio.
At 12, I heard it was mother who had stood alone at the doorway of her family’s home to hear the news from a New York City detective that her beloved 21-year-old brother was “accidentally” shot dead (in the back) by a plain clothes detective who “thought” he was stealing a television. She went into shock and didn’t speak for days. As it turned out, the city of New York after a trial settled with my grandparents and the detective lost his job. Sergio was helping a family move.
Years later, it seems, New York City was not much kinder.
Indeed, though I’ve seen a picture of my mother and father (who was also originally from New York City) posing in front of Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, the memory is eclipsed by what I know must have been the horror of being in one of the largest cities in the world with a child.
I can imagine my mother just wanted to go home by that time—to where her family fled when New York was cruel the first time around.
Abandoned in an apartment with an eviction notice on the door with a one-year-old and no food to fend for herself while her husband lived it up on the other side of town with a wealthy woman—my mother had little choice but to finally leave—again.
My mother had good reason to not want ever to be in New York City (though she never really expressed this) and yet I’ve always wanted to go there. Now more than ever, perhaps to somehow make it right again.
I had the opportunity at Thanksgiving and it seemed that nearly every memory I made, I also thought a quick: “This is for you, mother.”
We stayed on the 42nd floor of a hotel on Times Square overlooking 7th Avenue all the way up to Central Park. We could literally see and hear the entire Macy’s Parade coming all the way down the street. It was surreal.
My 27-year-old daughter, Belinda, the explorer and navigator, was a joy to watch and follow. As we boarded subways, traversed streets, and checked out dozens (!) of Starbucks for hot chocolate – I marveled at how much my mother would have enjoyed her at this age. I am proud of Belinda for the both of us.
My husband, John, comfortably stashed away at the New York City Public Library for some of our time, was busy studying our roots. Since both of our families are from there and they have great records—he was busy gathering information.
For a week we enjoyed the city where my mother was born and grew up.
We had Thankgiving lunch in Central Park at the Boathouse. It was glorious to see rowboats out on the lake and walk through the park.
Belinda and I took in the Metropolitan Art Museum and the Frick Collection the following day. She urged me to walk the 42 blocks from our hotel. I complained the entire way—but the reward of walking up Madison Avenue was rich. We saw Mama Mia.
We took in more sights the next few days—Grant’s Tomb, Columbia University, and Central Park, again. Macy’s and FAO Schwarz. We watched the Gators play on the large screens at the ESPN Zone and visited the USS Intrepid, walking through Hell’s Kitchen. We enjoyed the Rockettes’ Christmas show. We ate authentic New York cheesecake and pizza and shopped briefly in China Town. We met up with an old friend and browsed the shops in Greenwich Village and dined at an Italian restaurant, an Irish pub and Cuban cafe. We ate at Carnegie Deli. We saw the majestic St. John the Divine Cathedral, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the Flatiron Building.
The soles of my feet hurt so bad I asked Belinda to rub them one night. But my heart felt good when we passed the neighborhood my mother grew up in when riding the subway on Sunday morning. Looking out at the tenement buildings just off the George Washington Bridge, I thought about what it must have been like growing up there.
She had happy memories, for sure. They were mostly centered around playing with her sisters and enjoying the community of living among people she loved.
And of the city there were memories, too. Else I would never have heard of the elaborate window displays or the majesty of Central Park—the wooden escalator at Macy’s. I remember her talking of those places with a shining in her eyes—a wonder.
And my eyes were filling as I slowly trod past those same windows and rode up the very escalator – trying to snap off a few pictures, navigating the crowds – thinking about mother.
She would have enjoyed our trip. Dios te bendiga Madre. Descanse en paz.