What Used to Be, and What Is

My mother and I returned to her childhood apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in 2015. It had been 52 years since she moved away. She will tell you she doesn’t miss New York. She will tell you she has survived because she adapts, and that the past belongs in the past, no matter that I keep telling her the past wraps the present with its ribbons.

When we get to New York, she tells everyone — from the Uber driver to the waiter to the docent at the Brooklyn Museum — that she used to live here. “I lived in Bay Ridge,” she says, and the young people smile at her and ask her about it.

We go to an Italian restaurant just a few blocks from her childhood apartment and when she tells the waiter she used to live here, the owner, a jolly man with a thick mustache and red-flecked eyes comes and sits at our table. “Right down the block,” she says to him.

“It’s sure changed,” he says, his accent Sicily-thick, “but it’s still our block.”

He brings us grappa and a tiramisù to split on the house, the lines in his face as deep as my mother’s. “Welcome home, Bella,” he says and raises a glass. My mother’s green eyes water. There are framed color pictures of men, mostly emergency workers, who died on 9/11, arced across the foyer. Votive candles burn beneath them. They used to be here. They are here.

She wants to find a T-shirt that says Brooklyn. Even better, one that says Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that doesn’t exist anymore, except that they do in that neighborhood, and they do in the mind of my mother, and it isn’t actually hard to find a T-shirt that says Brooklyn Dodgers, and she makes me buy one for myself even though I don’t wear T-shirts.

We walk toward her old apartment, which is a third-floor walk-up in a part of Brooklyn that used to be the end of the world but is now hip and full of babies and dogs in coats and juice bars. She stops a teenager on a bike wearing a shirt advertising a butcher. She points at the logo. “Do you work there?” I offer a reassuring nod to the boy, who stops pedaling and talks to her.

“Yeah,” he says. “I got a delivery to make.”

“We used to get all our meat there,” she says. “Is it still where it used to be?”

The boy shrugs. “I don’t know where it used to be. I know where it is.” He gives us directions and we go to visit the butcher, which is both where it used to be and where it is, a comfort to my mother and a comfort to me.

When we get to her apartment we stand in front of the old wood and glass doors. “We used to clean the stairs inside,” she says. “The snow would come and make icy mud.”

I stayed in that apartment once, on the only trip we made to visit her mother. She was an alcoholic, but she was also beautiful, and she won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes before she met my grandfather, and she could see the ghosts from Finland in the house. When we left her after that trip, she watched us drive away from the window, waving. I never saw her again, though she lived two more decades. I’ve frozen her there, waving at us, before she went back to get another drink.

My mother remembers her mother passed out. Angry. Demanding. Haunted. My mother did what she had to do. Graduated early. Moved away. Started over. When I tell her I see things sometimes, hear things sometimes, find stories in walls, she says, “My mother did that.” To survive, my mother became a mathematician, building a life of logic and probability, a life of parallel lines. As her daughter, my lines are always intersecting.

“I want to go to the Brooklyn zoo,” she says, and so we catch another train. These trains are labeled with different letters than the ones she remembers. The IRT and the BMT lines are gone. The codes she knew that carried her home have been overwritten with new numbers. This frustrates her, and she tells me at every stop what the number used to be. Where the train used to go. Where she got off to go to work. Where she went to school. Where she went on the weekends to get away from the house.

The Prospect Park Zoo is small and we spend most of the time watching the sea lions and the cats. She’s quiet. The zoo is where it always was but it is not what it used to be. We each get a hot dog and a Diet Coke and sit on the plastic picnic tables and watch the children. We are in two different zoos.

On the way out, we stop at the carousel, which is exactly where it used to be and is exactly what it used to be and when she used to ride it as a girl, it was already 40 years old. The teenage operator scrolling through his phone looks up when we get close. “There was always a line here,” she says, and I can feel the swarm of children dancing in the light. No one is waiting today.

She opens her wallet to buy two tickets. “It used to be a nickel,” she says and smiles. “Does it play the same song?” she asks the kid.

He shrugs. “I dunno.”

We are the only two on the carousel. She walks between the horses, touching their painted manes, their glass eyes, the poles that impale their hearts. She finds the one she’s looking for, a white stallion with a red saddle and fire-green eyes. Her horse is on the outer ring. I choose a horse beside her, inside toward the center. The kid starts the ride and the notes from the song are brassy, summoning ghosts. My mother stands up in the stirrups and holds the pole. She stretches out her right arm and waves at the kid as the carousel circles, smiling wide as the rivers that the bridges span.

Her parallel lines have intersected.

“It’s the same song,” she says, and reaches for my hand. “It’s the same song.”

This essay is adapted from Laraine Herring’s forthcoming memoir, “A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir With Ravens.”

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