Friday, October 07, 2011


My Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jim lived in Brooklyn.  Dad used to drive the seven of us kids and Mom over to see them when we were little kids.  God knows how we all fit in the old Packard.  We must have sat on each other’s laps in the back seat and two little siblings sat in the front.  The car was green, and then painted maroon.  I cannot remember the order of the colors.  It of course had no air-conditioning.  We lived in Hempstead then, which was on the eastern end of Long Island.  I suppose it was about an hour’s drive from Hempstead to Brooklyn.  Margaret and Jim had very little money.  They lived on the third floor – a walk-up – of an old brownstone.  As I remember it, the apartment was really nice.  A long wooden staircase wound its way to the third floor. The banisters were of highly polished wood.  There was a skylight in the bathroom and the toilet had a pull chain which was connected to a water tank above the toilet.  The kitchen was small, and all the appliances were old, even back then.  In the sitting room, which served as a living room and was the front room of the apartment, there was a beautiful breakfront made of wood.  It was beautifully carved, with a mirror in the middle and little shelves up and down the sides.  Uncle Jim was a poet – he used to write for the Brooklyn Irish paper called the “Irish Echo.” They never had children, and when we visited them, they lavished us kids with Cokes and cakes – chocolate cakes from Entenman’s Bakery, and ice cream and other goodies that we rarely got when we were home.  I did not realize until many years later how much it must have cost them to give us so much.  They just did not have it to spare. In later years, I used to hear Aunt Margaret say that when she needed money, it always had a way of coming along.  I do know that even though they had little in terms of things, of wealth, they sure were happy.   Whatever they needed came along.  I would guess that Uncle Jim made a little money from the paper.
I can still remember the view from their rear window, which looked out from the dining room onto the back yard.  The yard was small and filled with vegetation and little paths.  There was a statue of the Virgin Mary, which stood in the middle of a bird bath. Apartment houses filled the landscape for as far as one could see.
They lived there rent free since they cleaned the office of the dentist who owned the building and whose office was on the ground floor.
After dinner, Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jim sat in the living room on big soft chairs and told us stories of Ireland, from where they had come. Uncle Jim smoked a pipe and I still remember the aroma of his tobacco. On a hot summer’s day, the heat in the apartment was intense.  There was an overhead fan, and an occasional breeze from the open and screened windows.  But we did not mind.  I do not think anyone had air-conditioners back then.
The years passed.  Uncle Jim developed what was, looking back, Alzheimer’s disease and would leave the apartment and wander.  On one trip, which turned out to be his last, he was mugged and was found by the police.  He was placed in a nursing home not far from where they had lived.  Aunt Margaret was to follow him there a short while later.  They lived there for several years and died days apart from each other.  They were apart from each other and reality at that point.  But it was not to be a parting of the ways.  It was as if one knew the other had left this life and wanted to follow.
All that was a long time ago.  I am getting on in years, and when I go, a lot of old memories will go with me.  Maybe my nieces and nephews will hear snippets of conversation, but they, too, will lose their moorings to this life and will fade into history.
Like Aunt Margaret used to say, they were given what they needed.  And, more importantly, they shared from their very modest means.
And we, too, are given what we need.  There is nothing we can hold on to forever.  There comes a time when we have to move on.  We can be a blessing to those we love, by sharing what we have.  We will get by. And learn something about God from such fleetingly rich memories of Cokes and cakes on hot summer days, all gone, but somehow still alive, still whispering to me.

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