Ask me where I'm from, and I'll tell you I'm a Bronx girl. I've lived in other boroughs, but the Bronx is where I was born and spent the first 20-plus years of my life. I eventually moved to Long Island, and my mom came to live with me just before my father died.
My mother moved back to the Bronx when I divorced, settling into a second-floor walk-up near the church where she was married and one block from the house her parents owned many years ago. It was a perfect fit in a mostly Italian community. Some of her old friends lived within walking distance, and all the stores on her shopping list were accessible on foot. Early Sunday morning, she would go downstairs to the bakery for a freshly baked loaf of bread, pane di casa, to have with some butter and her morning coffee. She often queued up with the after-church crowd at the pastry shop to buy sfogliatelle and other desserts for our traditional macaroni and gravy meat dinner together. My mother lived in that apartment, independent and happy, until she died 11 years later.
The extended contact with the Bronx sharpened my childhood memories, often evoking walks my mother and I took to my grandmother's house each Saturday to do her cleaning and laundry. My chores included light ironing and dusting, and a trip to Salvati's grocery, usually for cold cuts and a bottle of milk. My mom gave Gran'ma a weekly shampoo and pin curl set with crisscrossed bobby pins. For years, I assumed all grandmothers had the same blue hue to their silver hair, the result of a final rinse with a laundry product.
I continued to visit the old neighborhood after my mother died, driving over the Whitestone Bridge, parking, and taking the Express Bus into Manhattan for doctor appointments. On my way back, I often saw Mom's old friend Maria, bringing lunch and pastry from stores my family had shopped at for generations. Walking from the Avenue, I imagined Mom taking the same path on her frequent trips to her friend's house, wistful that some of my footsteps might have matched hers. Ties to my roots remained strong for many years as I traveled my circuitous route.
Time passed, and Maria died. I was deeply saddened to lose a dear friend and lively raconteur. She had been keeper of the history of our families, intertwined long before I was born. I also thought about my loss of connection to the Bronx, as I no longer had a good reason to stop there.
In an effort to maintain that connection, I set out on a quarterly visit to my Manhattan periodontist. Following my usual pattern after crossing the bridge, I parked and walked to the corner express bus stop with 10 minutes to spare. Leaning against the shelter wall, I waited to renew my spirit once more. Instead of the usual feeling of contentment, I became acutely aware of the harsh sounds of traffic. The faces of strangers around me seemed distant. There was no polite banter about the bus being late, or the chill of the wind. I didn't feel the usual welcome and sense of peace. Something was different, and it was within me.
My passport has expired, my extended stay revoked. I no longer belong. The threads that have bound me to this place for so many years are gone. I am merely a visitor.
I may not travel to Manhattan via the Bronx anymore. If I do, I'll just be passing through. Perhaps, if I'm lucky, I'll catch a glimpse of ghosts from time to time. Certainly, I will never forget the echoes of my ancestors and the sights and sounds of my childhood. Letting go may be prolonged, and I lingered longer than most, but, at some point, you can't go home again.
--Rosanna DeVergiles, Islandia
Lesson of paying my way
I graduated in the top 10 percent of my high school class, but I knew that if I wanted to go to school, the bill was on me. (I was the fourth of six children.) I paid my way through my undergraduate years at Cortland State and my masters at Adelphi in the 1970s. No regrets. That responsibility taught me money management, accountability and efficient work habits, skills that have been great assets throughout the decades.
--Patricia Butt, Oyster Bay