Back In THE BRONX - The way it was!

The Benches

FALL 2007 • Vol. XV, Issue LVIII

My mother died last year. Her death qualified me for admission to an untitled support group of those who have lost a parent they loved. Never spoken about, you know your soulmates by the shocked gaze and hard swallow when they realize you share their pain. This is being written for those who share my hurt . . .

. . . I have been looking for my mother. I look for her in faces on the street, in clothes she wore, in thoughts she expressed and, often in my dreams. She is elusive and, because I now live far away, the long-distance grief process, not spoken of, or written about in self-help books, forced my search to continue. Last week I found some of what I needed in a burnt-out section of The Bronx.

Let me tell you about the benches. My early years were spent in the west Bronx, then a middle-class neighborhood, with a loving family. My entire family, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, cousins, and grandparents, met each Saturday and Sunday on a narrow strip dividing University Avenue. This median had small bushes, a concrete walk and was lined on both sides by wooden benches. The benches became our private country club. Here, events of the day and week were discussed, report cards were passed around. It was where I secretly wore my first bra, sure that all knew the change in me. Expectations were not defined, but you knew that you needed to excel because this group who loved you was so exceptional that you could not disappoint them.

The years passed and the West Bronx faded into suburban affluence and with it went many of my childhood memories. Thirty-five years later I returned looking for my mother. The markings on the street signs were so familiar, although I had never driven down the streets before. My elementary school, P.S. 82, stood in the same sturdy magnificence, looking as large and proper as I remembered it. The neighborhood had changed and Spanish words were everywhere. Where the kosher butcher had been was now a bridal shop. Other stores were boarded up or heavily grated. My loving shoemaker was gone, the cute man who stitched my broken sandal and later, my tiny briefcase. Many of the anchors of my memory had faded with the economic change in the neighborhood.

Yet so much remained the same. There was the building of my childhood. There were the windows to the bedroom my sister and I shared. The windows now had white eyelet curtains on them and they seemed to beckon me to come inside and remember, to capture the warmth of the mother who stood beside my bed, kissed me goodnight, tended me when I was sick and approved of my changing body and mind. What a gift I had. Her cocoon had permitted me to change from a moth to a butterfly, protected from the outside forces of danger around me. And, as I sat in my insulated car, outside the building of my youth, the years faded and I was a small child again, standing in the courtyard yelling “maaaa” for the fourth time that day to a mother who always responded. The mother with the tightly rolled pompadour and housecoat who became the jogging-suit sneaker-maven as she aged. Now, having been a mother myself, I understand how demanding it must have been as we called for permission, pennies and reassurance. Yet, she always appeared at the window to answer our pleas, as the frigate bird mother brings the food to her children’s open mouths.

My mother was a simple woman who fed us, clothed us, approved of us. And we, my sister and brother knew that, if someone this wonderful thought we were wonderful, it must be true. The psychology books talk of bonding, the nuclear family, and other terms to describe the mother-child relationship. My mother never took the course. All she knew was that we were hers and therefore we were good. So many things I never understood. My mother’s words reminded me that “a mother’s slap is better than a stranger’s kiss.” How I yearn for the modifier, the criticism, the appraisal, which only a mother gives with love.

As I sat in the car, memories of my early years flooded my view. Thoughts of the end of the Second World War and my uncle’s return from Italy appeared before me. My dear uncle, model of my life, sender of my first Valentine card, was returning from the war. My mother, flushed with energy, solicited ration coupons, decorated rooms, to celebrate the return of her brother. And there we all were, the shapers of my life. How can I explain the warmth I feel as I remember the treasure of loving and being loved so completely?

And then I turned to look at the benches. The benches were gone and in their place was concrete, stretching from one end of the median to the other. The neat evergreen bushes were gone, as well. For me, the benches will always be there, as will my memories of my very dear mother.

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