Recently, like Joshua of old, I lived through my longest day. For Joshua, that day the sun and the earth STOOD STILL.
In my case it was quite the reverse.
Eighty-five years old, widowed and legally blind, I dared leave the vast, cluttered, memory-laden five-room, Manhattan apartment on 190th Street overlooking sylvan Fort Tryon Park our family had inhabited for a quarter of a century. I ventured with the stalwart, reassuring encouragement and assistance of my three children, after months of vainly plotting how to shoehorn a mother lode of shabby possessions into two rooms at the northern edge of Greenwich Village.
This move was really a long delayed reprise. My married life had begun downtown on May 2, 1953 in two rented rooms over a disreputable basement bar, “THE SQUEEZE-INN” on East 4th Street.
Now, widowed, I was a complicit returnee. For the past half-century my mate and I had wandered across the world — my late husband, an anthropologist studying Indian and Trinidadian cultures while I wrote fiction and helped raise our three children; frequently we returned to touch base with our beloved city.
I am currently professor emerita (very old). The CUNY college in which I still teach sits comfortably adjacent to theaters, restaurants, and opera, to a brilliant vibrant Manhattan world. I love New York’s many amenities. MOVE CLOSER! Common sense and greed argued for a new accessible venue. The trees and gardens of Fort Tryon Park are no longer enough.
But I am almost blind. Glaucoma, Macular Degeneration, and age have taken most of my sight. Familiarity, comfort, and habit were powerful arguments for staying put. Kind neighbors, inertia and laziness, along with convenient patterns, weighed in. And fear. I doubted that I could successfully move.
Ultimately, common sense prevailed. My family would be just around the corner and the city’s many delights and resources would be easily at hand.
And just like that, I moved, seemingly effortlessly, for these days the movers do everything. I did only the fretting. I am an excellent fretter.
So I am no longer where I was. No trees. No Fort Tryon Park. Instead, bright subway signs mark the territory. My major landmark is Union Square!
And I have thus far survived. These last months have not been easy. How to account for the frequent terrifying awakening and frightened groping in the new darkness? Night after night I woke in an eerie hostile miasma. Scared! I was lost, wandering unaccountably in strangers’ homes, unable to find my own place. THEY, the haunting apparitions, were ghostly unknowns I dared not approach, unfamiliar and unfriendly; indeed, hostile surroundings kept me searching, frightened, from room to room. What was I doing here? Where was here? Why were these oddly familiar apparitions asleep in MY home? Something had obviously gone awry with the world.
There was no point reasoning with this sleepy, disturbed, irrational me. No respondent either hinted or said boldly, “Mama. You’re nuts!” Instead, my children did their best to comfort me. Days, nights, weeks passed slowly, very slowly; and what had been life as I’d known it before began to disintegrate.
Time gnashed memory into the past. The old rooms – indeed our old life was no more. I had initiated its demise by moving. I, who loved and lived on family life, on family memories, had disrupted all. In the mirrors those weeks lurked an unbelievably wretched wrinkled crone, an ancient woman living in a slowly emerging, rather pleasant, and attractive setting. Our many beautiful and treasured BOOKS — especially those family-written — and our glorious family photographs gleamed in the better light. The brightness of the new rooms evoked past joys; our lives had been reordered, scraped and redecorated, reconfigured!
I knew I needed to try harder to learn to live with what I’d wrought.
Could this ever truly be home? Why couldn’t I sleep at night? We’d only moved downtown. Simple geography.
But it was not geography. It proved to be history – family history. For amidst all the tumble and the havoc of moving, I’d come upon a small, worn, plain cardboard box about 3 by 5 inches, ferreted out of a crammed closet. Cradled in old geometry notes and a discarded ivory satin wedding dress, carefully tucked away – lay a gleaming Purple Heart. Yes, the medal awarded to my kid brother for heroism during the Korean War!
In 1997 my novel, IN A COLD OPEN FIELD (Black Heron Press) told his story: a high school dropout, a runaway from an unhappy home. Arnold Sigmund Solomon died bravely saving his buddies on a Korean battlefield. Somehow, unbelievably, I had misplaced that small plain box, that talisman of shattered adolescent dreams. For years afterwards, I’d searched to no avail. Now, here it was at last. It had, indeed, lived with us all along. Perhaps I’d concealed it, unwilling to live each day with its terrible truth, after writing the novel?
No longer. We have, indeed, Moved! The medal sits in a place of honor on my book shelf. I am so pleased to keep it with me for what is left of my life. I remember my kid brother with joy, his sunny smile, his cornball knock-knock jokes, his adolescent hopes and dreams. The Purple Heart quickens my slow footsteps and gives meaning to the move, indeed, to my days. It evokes courage. It reminds me vividly of those I love and loved and of how complex and brave and really heroic our lives are – how incredibly strong and lucky we survivors are. Even the battered ones like me, who go on complaining and storing memories and savoring what is indeed this very precious life!
What a wonderful recitation of the joys and perils of change – for all of us! I’m so glad I’ve seen your lovely new apartment. My favorite part: the bookshelves dedicated to books written by your highly-talented family – you, Mort, Perri, David, Judy, William Tenn, and the boxes of stories not yet published. It is, indeed, a writer’s home!