As kids, Don and I spent a lot of time with our cousin Chris. Some of it was spent in Hopatcong as his family had a house in nearby Mountain Lakes, but we also saw each other a lot in the city. Uncle Vincent (Mom’s brother) and Aunt Ruthie lived in Brooklyn in what is now called Park Slope. I am not sure if it was called that then, but hey landlords can get higher rents by saying their place is in Park Slope now, so there it is. They lived on Prospect Place in a brownstone with a garden with a huge Elm tree out front. We would have Christmas Day dinners there, and it was a trove of delight for Don and me as Chris had the best toys. I should mention that Chris was about one year older than Don a very competitive and happening guy. Years later he donned the beret and went to Paris and came back with many ideas of Socialism which always didn’t go down well with Dad, but no one ever came to blows. But at the time I am speaking of we were all very young, me obviously a lot younger than both of them but somehow I kept up. His whole family was very into sports – Ruthie loved to play tennis with Mom, the whole family went skiing religiously, and Chris was on the hockey team at school. And he always had the best equipment, the best sold in the sports-oriented stores. We would show up with our beaten-up baseball gloves; me not even being sure what position my glove was actually for, and Chris would show up with multiple gloves so he could play any position. Or when it was time to play “street” hockey, we could come with beaten up sticks, Chris with a mask, pads, and of course a much better stick. But it was just economics nothing more and he was always generous in sharing what he had with us. And we never felt envious, though we did marvel at it all. We had the plastic soldiers that came in bags from the five and dime, Chris had metal, hand-painted English soldiers perfectly formed and baked to resemble actual figures in the battle of Balaklava. You get what I mean.
Anyway sometimes we were allowed to do a sleepover in Brooklyn and it felt like I was going to the country. Being brought up in an apartment in Manhattan, the idea of having a backyard garden in the city was a concept beyond my comprehension. But there it was. I should always mention Aunt Ruthie was a great nature lover and instilled in us a love for that world, and we both learned a great deal from her. She, of course, had many bird feeders in that backyard, and I am sure now if I saw it, it would look rather small. For a six-year-old, it looked like the country. So it was. All relative right? Our visits there were full of playing on the street outside shaded by huge trees or listening to records on the very large and impressive hi-fi in the living room. Oh, and the place had a fireplace too! Too much, and so different from our apartment in Manhattan. But that is what made going there overnight feel like a mini-vacation. Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Vincent were always warm and welcoming and happy to share their home with their nephews. At those Christmas dinners, the fireplace would be roaring, a huge decorated tree would adorn the living room, with many presents under the tree. Ruth would make a Christmas ham and I loved it, so different from anything we would have at home. They, in turn, would come to our apartment on Easter Sunday for homemade – and I mean totally homemade ravioli and sauce. What a great combination of families that accented each other and allowed different people to experience different cultures, and no one ever thought of it like that. It was just spending time with family and they looked forward to homemade ravioli just as much as we looked forward to Christmas ham and sweet potatoes. Good stuff. All good stuff.
Years later, very many years later, I found myself living in Brooklyn, in Park Slope when it was called Park Slope but before it became a home for the millionaire class. One day I told Leslie about Cousin Chris’ house and she said we should try to find it. It was a long walk (at least for me) as we lived on Ninth Street. We found it. The tree outside was still there, but the house was empty and I was able to walk up to the front window and look through the bars and glass. And there it was. Empty now, but there was the fireplace, the place where the Christmas tree stood, and beyond the dining room where we shared so many great meals. All empty and dusty. I felt kind of sad at the time but on the walk home Les reminded me of how much of a gift it was that I could go back and see that space again, just like I remembered it, and of course how lucky I was to have those memories in the first place. And as always she was right, and I began to feel good though I wish at the time I was still in touch with Chris as I wanted to tell him about our visit. I’m not sure if it would have meant anything to him, but somehow I wanted to share it. To tell him that yes your childhood home still stands, and it looks the same, and if you close your eyes you can hear the crackling of the fire again, and the happy voices from the dinner table.