A photo of her at 40 – gray hair unevenly cut like a boy with an errant lawnmower. Wrinkles, double-chin.
Oh but that smile. In 1974 at age 40, she looked 70.
Nana was what you called a ‘custodian.’ At my Brooklyn New York public school.
PS 215. Gravesend.
Custodian: Fancy word for janitor.
She cleaned toilets. She would wave to me in the halls and I’d purposely evade her attention. Occasionally, I’d flash a courtesy furtive grin in her general direction.
But grandma? Her wide smile never quit.
I loved my grandmother. It doesn’t sound like it, but I did. With everything I had. As a boy under the childish haze of immaturity, I was embarrassed.
As an adult, I realize she was the wisest person I’ve ever known.
I’m thankful she loved me so much.
Grandma’s life lessons stick with me. At five-years-old they went in one ear, rambled around between my ears. Over time, they found a place in my brain to settle, take root. Frankly, I think her wisdom is cordoned in a mental space not even dementia could set its long, dead fingers.
So, here’s to the grandmas.
SCREW STEREOTYPES – Nellie loved people for who they were, not their appearances. Many days I recall her providing food to families at the school who were having financial difficulties. Often, she’d provide lunch money to students who forgot theirs at home. Grandma held fundraisers for the less fortunate and ironically, she was one of the less fortunate.
BE NURTURING TO CHILDREN – Nellie would dress as Santa every year, saunter down the school halls in full beard, drag a sack and hand out pounds of candy to the kids in every classroom. The students and teachers loved her for it. Even the principal. Can you imagine someone dressing as Santa delivering candy at a public school today? So politically incorrect. You’d be fired – possibly arrested.
BE PROUD OF WHO YOU ARE – Grandma dressed matronly, slovenly at times. Yet her heart was thread in gold. I’ll never forget her battleship gray and white-collared school uniform that made her appear twenty years older. People couldn’t care less. Neither did she.
MAKE A KILLER BLT – Grandma wasn’t a cook, she was a worker. She helped support a family – brothers and sisters at a young age. She owned businesses, made dolls, spent hours on charities. But those BLTs. To die for. I know her secret to a mind-blowing sandwich and I’ll take it to the grave. Cook or make sandwiches for the ones you love.
SMILE & SAY HELLO – Nellie’s bedroom window faced a busy street. It was a little, unassuming house in a row. Today, all gone, replaced by a high-rise. One of her favorite pastimes was to sit on a high stool at the bedroom window and listen to a beat up AM radio and her favorite station (1010 WINS – GIVE US 22 MINUTES, WE’LL GIVE YOU THE WORLD). She’d watch people walk by. There was always a wave, sometimes a hearty hello and a smile. Even when people didn’t return the courtesy.
SAVE, SAVE, SAVE – Grandma was a Depression-era kid. Nothing went to waste. She wasn’t a hoarder; she just found a use for everything. My grandfather abhorred how she’d have him pull over the Ford Maverick because a salvageable treasure in a neighbor’s garbage out by the curve caught her keen eye. One year she found the coolest red wooden sleigh complete with ornate wood-carved reindeer. We had to lug it ten blocks to her house.
EASY FORGIVE – My dad was always out on the town with some gorgeous woman two decades younger. He’d tell grandma he was coming by and never show. She would shake her head and lament that’s my Benny, smile and move on. She told me – ‘you can’t control what others do. Only what you do.’
ENCOURAGE – Grandma always told me I could do what I want. I was smart enough. I could be the first in the family to attend college. She owned multiple businesses in the 1950s – a laundromat, a candy store. It was rare for a woman to take the bull by the horns. I think unfortunately, grandpa killed her spirit so she relented and gave up the businesses. Men weren’t excited about their wives doing better than they were. Unfortunately, I think that’s somewhat true today.
BE A GOOD FRIEND – Nellie was a loyal and loved her friends. She listened, supported and engaged. And most important…
TODAY IS EVERY DAY – Grandma’s shot at Stoicism. She wasn’t educated but she was wise. This lesson remains the most challenging and the most valuable. If I talked about my future or grew frustrated by my current situation, Nellie advised me to make the best of it, learn from the experience.
Today is all that counts.
Today is everyday.
Then she’d give me a hug.
And a BLT.
Sometimes, all you need is a hug and a sandwich by loving hands.
Thanksgiving Day fare in Brooklyn was full of gluten and the best of what Hollywood has to offer. Yes, the day was an old movie paradise for a teen boy. There seemed to be a penchant for apes that got off terrorizing crowded metropolitan areas. And yet, I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid rooting for them to bust a bridge, climb a skyscraper.
It was Mighty Joe Young, King Kong (and other movie classics), playing black & white on WWOR Channel 9. On a cold day when tree branches that resembled long, bony fingers reached for the sky and a sheet of gray cloud cast everything in shades of brown. The decay of sycamore leaves the only semblance of color left.
All the while, I never understood how the divine choosers of television programming decided Thanksgiving was a perfect day for savage gorillas.
Overall, it seemed the choices seemed to fit.
Anyway – I overdid the container eggnog-like dairy product (as usual), felt the edgy excitement about how the family-run stores in the neighborhood would be decorating for the beginning of Christmas shopping season (Black Friday), and listened to my mother who already overdid the vodka, try to wedge processed turkey breast (with gravy-like substance included) into a gloss-white Tappan oven.
Tiny kitchen, tiny stove, tiny poultry-like something. Big dreams, big hearts, big excitement.
All I heard was that tin-like cooker hit the blue-speckled sides of the oven multiple times before it awkwardly met its fate, settled in a hot tomb.
The more noise I heard, the more vodka I know mom had consumed. It was a holiday culinary symphony. And ironically, I miss and recall the holiday with fond memories. It was both of us against the world, even if it was for a time. A time and space when she thought only of me.
The best fake turkey I ever consumed was on those days.
Walking around early Thanksgiving morning back then is something I’ll never forget. Unusually solemn for city daybreak.
Quiet suffocated the apartment complex. The stillness was a priority. Not even the bustling subway trains ran on a normal schedule. Their odd disappearance generated vacuum-deafness louder than any roaring speed of steel meeting steel on elevated tracks.
Everything about Thanksgiving Day was magically different. The calm was so out of place, especially for a city. I’d get on the empty F train and travel its entire route on holidays.
I rode the subway out of curiosity. Behind speeding glass, the wonder of what was going on in the compact kitchens of other 3-room walk-ups captivated me. Most of it was in my imagination, but a comfort, nonetheless. My brain created all kinds of stories about Thanksgiving Day when even urban settings seemed quaint and provincial. The common threads among all these fellow dwellers were love and gratitude.
The quiet gave me a chance to breathe, gather thoughts, and stress out less over how the hell was I to eventually escape from the brick, cement, and tar crap hole.
Listen, we are all trapped in crap holes at times. Thanksgiving gives us a chance to break free. The holiday allows for warm thoughts and blessings bigger than ourselves to enter the crowded real estate in our heads.
We have a chance to appreciate those we love, whether they’re still with us or long gone. Sometimes, we give permission for old ghosts to sneak back in, and there’s a sad excitement to that too.
On Thanksgiving, we’ll strive for peace and gratefulness…
Like the feeling when a clanky, quiet holiday re-emerges from the deep of your mind. Or whatever your choppy memory of what Thanksgiving is. Or was.
When the sun is low, narrow, and yellow-sharp against a blue pitch, we think about all we have lost.
We try to let it go. But we never really let it go.
We just put it aside. And sometimes we don’t.
We allow in shadows of those we love and some we may not love so much.
We give them a free pass.
To follow alongside.
Invite them to feast with us.
And find comfort in what they were.
Good or bad.
Because at Thanksgiving, the peace and the quiet in our souls overrules everything.
In 1936, 26-year old Ellie McGovern found herself in a precarious position.
Caretaker to an ailing father – three years, exactly. For every turn of the planet he languishes, her spirit loses two.
If asked about her situation – how father was faring – the response would leave most scratching their heads until they just stopped asking.
Mrs. Abernathy next door. The first and last time around six months ago.
How’s your father doing, dear?
Response: He’s still here, if that’s what you’re asking.
Ellie keeps to herself, mostly. Correction: She keeps to herself always. For now, father is the convenient excuse for self-enforced solitary.
The daily rituals – Lift a body, a wet sack of cement from the bed, support a feeble frame to toilet, and every day, permit a frail soul the grace to crumble into a cracked leather chaise by an expansive picture window.
An empty soul, seemingly. He sits. He watches the outside darkness surrender to light when ironically his fate lies in the entirely opposite direction.
For three years of care for an only parent, Ellie as doting daughter placed her young, vibrant life on hold.
Ell’s life has been ‘on hold’ for as long as she can remember. She calls it ‘still.’
Sounds less debilitating with a hint of enlightenment.
Like she knows something more than anybody else in this sleepy yet occasionally pretentious place.
In high school – a loner. No, it wasn’t her looks. Quite the contrary. She was a striking girl. When most of her brethren suffered through awkwardness of pocked skin, Ellie’s alabaster complexion didn’t relent.
When others were dealing with hair that never looked right, hers jet-black and straight never required much effort to sheen and fall.
Her eyes, pools of olive. In the light – emerald. In them, many lives witnessed. Lost in thought, there is always something going on behind the irises.
No, indeed not her looks. It was who she was. Inside and out. It was how she sought things to be. An invisible wall thick as lead nonetheless, kept others far until the point the girls, even the boys decided to just leave her be.
No. Never bullied. Perhaps it was an overall sadness about her. It draped her like an old ghoul for naught to depart a crypt. As if she had nothing to lose and one day just explode and take others down with her.
Whatever it was, overall, it was best to leave her be. And left she was, to take care of a withering parent who barely recognized a daughter.
His eyes could never meet hers for long.
In the enclave known for Eastman-Kodak, her existence a mere frame, frozen in time, locked in the lens with focus on the slow demise of another.
In a modest Rochester home with failing white clapboard, at the corner of Andrews and Paul, Michael McGovern, Mikey for short, embraces early mornings by a large living-room pane and reflects a toothless smile as sun claws into another day.
Redbirds gather outside. A young poplar’s limbs serve as respite, the gatherers stare ahead to reciprocate with the shell of a human in the window. As so it appears to Ellie, who observes.
The birds as accustomed to this habit as her father; she thinks it must be strange magic. A bit of nature’s message how senior McGovern will perhaps sprout wings and join them soon.
For Ellie, she forsees father’s return as more a dark serpent who slithers into Mrs. Abernathy’s chicken coup only to lose his head to the sharp edge of a hoe.
The thought shamelessly lightens her face. Not much makes her smile these days. Well, there are the sunflowers in the expansive backyard. In peak summer, they tower.
Unopened disc florets meet her eye-to-open eye. The wind bows them to her presence in yellow ribbons. She curtsies and dances among long stems.
Lost in the seductive rhythm of nature.
As the petals die or relent to forces greater than their delicacy, she does a bit too…
To Ellie, life’s snapshots are far from vivid. Trauma. One she never discusses. At ten years-old, she lost the ability to process color. Colorblind overnight. In every sense of the word, her world went to variations of gray. Yet the best of doctors could never find anything physically wrong that would cause such a dilemma.
Every morning except weekends around 7:30, for three precious hours her father sleeps uninterrupted – a combination of medication and onset of brain disease yet to be determined – made him restless often.
Ellie high-heel steps a short walk to Main Street. Before reaching the destination at the corner of Elm and Main, Ell’s olfactory senses ignite; prominent since the colored world abandoned her.
An especially beautiful morning for spring. A season when winter bows away, and a new enters gracefully as to not upset the balance of things puny minds of men can’t comprehend; the cold gentles to cool, then eases to warmth – slow like a warm blanket out of a dryer or a quilt hanging on a clothesline in June.
The air smells peppery – sharp, demanding, full of life. She inhales deep, hoping the razor fresh inspires her.
New sun yellows storefronts that grace her short journey. The baked artistry deep in the space of Wilson’s Bakery already showcased in glass upfront, ready for the day’s workers and anxious mothers who use sugar treats as pacifers or rewards for chores and school work completed.
Even with door closed, heavenly smells of fresh blueberry scones and six-inch thick cinnamon rolls – pregnant with thick white icing that glob-rolls and stills at the sides, penetrate brick and glass to overwhelm this petite, soulful girl.
She imagines how Benjamin Wilson’s artistry in swirly sugar and paste can ignite her sense of smell. She wants to believe his baking skills can magically flip a mental switch that turns her eyes to process colors again.
How she misses the hues of existence, the ones others take for granted. This black and white world belongs within the locked confines of aged film noir, not her life.
With dread, her daily commute requires she pass an empty shell of a dead business. Most days she crosses the street to avoid it. When she can leave the house earlier than usual, Ellie invites a longer sojourn that takes her way off a direct path to her destination.
For three generations this business thrived. Over the last couple of years, in Ellie’s opinion, it was fittingly left to die.
Today is different. Once a sinister, dark siren, the plank wood is gone from the front window. Lights on, door open. The large pane that faces the street of the the former Mikey’s Hardware and Paint, sparkles clean and inviting.
Ellie peeks in. A flurry of men in overalls work feverishly. She finds her breath labored, her heart pounds loud in her ears. She fights for air in large gulps; she’s forgotten how her lungs operate.
She wants to pass and ignore this place. She wishes often for it to burn to the foundation but she also doesn’t want anybody to get hurt.
Ellie doesn’t fancy what Ms. Barilla will do if she’s late for secretarial school. For some reason, it doesn’t matter today. Her feet with a mind of their own, lift above the single concrete step of the entrance.
Willingly, her body gives in to the mouth of the beast.
She moves with guarded cadence. Her heels delicate, stem to toe, manuever as if she walks a mine field. Nobody pays her any mind. The distinct, sour smell of hardware, embedded in the walls for over 50 years, a shade of its former self. The pungency of fresh paint enough to destroy it.
Drab battleship-gray no more. Bright, or white to Ellie, makes the interior seem less ominous. Narrow aisles once filled with non-descript stuff such as nails and hammers used to make other stuff, are gone. The space is wide, no longer threatening.
At the longest wall, a worker in overalls. On second to the top rung of a towering ladder his back to her, he paints. Much like a surgeon works a scalpel, this young dark man small brush in hand, forms a petal. One of a giant sunflower.
As one tingles when eyes are upon them, he stops to turn his head. He was the prettiest man she’s ever seen. Their eyes meet, she can’t turn away, she cannot blink…
“Can I help you?”
Her mouth agape, all she manages is a squeak, such as the last gasp of a dying mouse.
Ellie takes off, flees for the exit!
Fred Johnson, the artist on the ladder leaps from his perch. In a single jump, even before his work boots hit the floor, he gives chase. It’s as if he first fled on air before gravity brought his soles to earth.
He halts on the sidewalk out front. Already, pedestrians walk. Fred looks around. The girl who captivated him now gone.
A couple pass. A hitch in their gait as they shoot Fred dirty looks for blocking the sidewalk. The two observe a young woman as she cowers in the doorway of Manna’s Shoes two doors down.
“Well, this place is certainly getting strange,” the woman laments to her flat-lipped husband.
Ellie figuring her day interrupted, skips class. She crosses the street to Beckman’s, the diner a neighborhood fixture for 32 years, and takes an oval red-leather seat at the counter. She spins herself once. Angela Beckman there to meet her after one revolution around the diner.
“You want to order Ellie or are you just here for a spin?”
The girl chuckles. Her clear skin only rivaled by the whiteness of her smile. Ellie feels naughty but warm inside. An unfamiliar feeling.
“Coffee please. Cream, sugar… Oh, and one of those,” Ellie points.
Under the heavy glass of a circular counter pastry display, a muffin. The blueberries erupt from the top, crystal-sugar fractals the overhead lights.
Angela with a skeptical look on her face, commands a square of wax paper lifts the lid and pulls the breakfast delicacy.
“You’re gonna eat this all by yourself, huh?”
Angela’s eyes pour over Ellies’ tiny figure.
“Where you putting it?”
The muffin is shown no mercy. A ravenous pastry tiger, Ellie rips it apart and takes in carbo-chunks in large bites.
An elderly man at the next seat, stops his breakfast to watch her. Ellie notices and slows. She wipes clean her hands, her cheek bulges like a squirrel late to gather nuts.
“I’m… I’m sorry. That wasn’t very lady like.”
“Oh no, no. Nice to see a young girl… Relish her food. Don’t I know you? You’re Ellie. Ellie McGovern.”
“Bill Larson. I worked for your father at the hardware store. My lord, look at you. All grown up. Heard your pa was ailing. How is he?”
Ellie digs through the innards of her purse, pulls a couple of dollars, tosses them on the counter.
“Sorry I need to go.” She’s off the seat. Bill notices it still spins long after she’s out the door.
Angela now where Ellie WAS.
“What’s up with her?”
“No idea, all I did was ask about her father.”
Angela gathers the two bucks.
“She paid for a dozen muffins. I haven’t seen that girl in ages.”
Ellie scurries home, key to the front door in hand but she doesn’t need it.
The door is open.
Her eyes dart. To the trees in the front yard. Next, the bushes. On to the poplar by the front glass. Through the window, she believes she sees her father in his familiar spot. But that can’t be. How would he get there? Ellie enters, her step deliberate, ready for anything.
Indeed her father is there. Eyes closed, mouth open. In his chaise. All around him, the redbirds. On his shoulders, top of his head. In his lap.
Comprised of rock, the path bleached white from the sun; further crushed to pebble from the universe of dreamers before me who have perhaps traveled here…
To the town I’ve never been, others have never been, too.
Don’t ask me how I know.
I’ve participated in the crush of these stones, although I have never been behind the wheel of an auto. My feet have not tapped a gas pedal or rode the brake. Yet, I have gone 35 mph over hills through wooded canopies to get to the place I never traveled.
I pass a farm on the way to the town I never knew.
A shadow man rides a tractor through vast acreage, uniformly tilled. He never fails to wave as I pass. His hand gray smoke, it disappears to a whisper and reunites with the wheel of his machine.
I make sure to return the greeting before I enter the town I have never been.
Eyes on the road. Broad-leafed trees afire in fall, a perpetual season of harvest. Boughs relent, drip low in orange-red homage to those who pass underneath.
Limbs extend in the direction of this hamlet. They point directly to the place I visit often and yet I have never been…
Verdant arteries spider down jagged hills of blood-red dirt.
At bottom, green melts into blue-emerald water. White caps twirl, roll, collapse into the clear. The peaks, briefly sunkissed before collapsing into blue, then rise again in a steady, calm cadence.
But, I haven’t experienced the cool of this water on my skin…
A cliff across the waves. Majestic, comfortable and worn with time. Houses pepper the strata. Each place, distinct. Each occupied. At least I think. Lights on, shadows shimmer in windows.
A special abode. Constructed mostly of redwood. An expansive, wraparound deck; a wall of glass showcases an unobstructed view of the town I never seen, close or afar.
In the living room a majestic tree, it prospers through a wood floor. The biggest Bonsai. Six-feet tall – highly unusual for such a species. A floor-to-ceiling stone hearth captures embers that never die, perpetually warm. I never planted this tree. Nor have I sparked an eternal flame that warms inhabitants and visitors. This seems to be a safe place.
The walk through town, visitors who enjoy the view from the deck, have been occupants in my head – a persistent dream for going on four years now.
I am relentlessly at peace in this house I’ve never been…
I enjoy the company when it decides to arrive. I have no idea how and why they’re there.
The air, cold. Not a bite, just a nip. The winds pregnant with warmness of wood on slow glow. Jasmine rises and is carried by air. The fragrance of rosemary permeates dusk. The sky, bluebird blue; dissipating heat births broiler waves onto a blood-orange horizon as warm water relents to the cool of the night.
The town itself is small. Quaint. Aged with whitewashed exteriors, they badly require a coat of paint. Some structures are brick. Inside each establishment, the walls replete with cedar panels.
A pub, a tiny restaurant – lit candles on every table, a grocer; a shop that sells dried flowers and tinctures. I can never make out shopkeeper faces except for smiles. Although nondescript, these folks radiate warmth and invitation.
These friendly souls beckon me to stay, but I never do. There’s no time for that yet. I need to depart…
The people I see for who they are; the ones who visit the town I never been and house I never lived, are those I know. Or knew.
They are people long gone.
Loved ones from the past. My past. Friends, family, mentors. It comforts me to see the serene expressions on their faces as they investigate and enjoy the town I’ve never been.
Mind you, once I succumb to sleep, I have no idea if the town will ever again enter my nocturnal thoughts. I have no idea who’ll I’ll run into.
A couple of nights ago, dad came by. Haven’t seen him in a while. He tried to tell me something. His mouth moved, formed words. Yet they were non-sensical, jibberish, as much as I tried to understand.
I probably wasn’t ready to hear what he was saying.
The town I never walked is a place of comfort. I’m always excited to visit. The home with the Bonsai tree is a sanctuary, a fortress of love.
I watch the sun from the deck as it gives up the last edge of light. The dying warmth makes everything gleam; the dull, faded wood of the town I never been, appears to glow.
I drove someone who’s alive into the town I never been.
Her breathing radiates with the sun. A slight crinkle to her nose when she smiles which I can never forget, makes me believe she’s earned a visit to the town I never been. The burnt of leaves warms the already-natural beauty of her face.
We navigate a convertible through the trees.
She’s happy for the adventure.
And with this woman I’ve been to the house I never been…
The farmer waves.
The shopkeepers smile.
The Bonsai bows.
The woman’s hair captures the sweet fragrance carried on air.
The town thrives.
But with eyes open, life has a way of saying.
Visit me whenever you like, you cannot stay.
We’re not ready for you.
You are not ready for us.
But someday, this white road you travel will be your last.