The Forty Year Mourn
It wasn’t always so cold and devoid of life here, the brownstone at 80-23 Surrey Place. My childhood was a comfortable one, never in need of any of the physical essentials like food, or clothing, or a roof over my head. The childhood home was a humble brownstone, humble by the standards of it’s neighboring homes towering over our little shack.
The neighborhood was serene, idyllic, perhaps even other worldly. The streets in the community were not the standard New York fair seen in photos or the movies, where each home is a carbon copy reproduction of the other, aligned perfectly with military precision, rows and rows of clones. Like a brigade of West Point Cadets in their dark blue cutaway coat with scarlet facings, brass buttons, white waistcoat and tight pantaloons on the parade field marching as one.
No – the streets I grew up on added a romantic sentiment to the phrase ‘going home.’ As I applied pressure to the jarring chime on the Q46, the mere glance of the community sneaks a smile on to my naturally pouty face. Getting off the bus I always instinctively stopped to steal a moment and admire the odd sprout of heavy vegetation surrounded by the four major fairways of Queens. It’s like Grandmother holding out a soft, warm blanket straight from the dryer, with a faint smell of the dryer sheet still intertwined with the fabric on the grayest, coldest, wettest, most miserable of days; waiting and beckoning for me at the front door.
The 503 acre community was bursting with large magnificent enormous oak, maple, elm, and chestnut trees. The tree trunks were enormous, bold, and their bark formed patterns like scales on a dragon, gallantly standing guard over the community. I remember Mother used to grumble about our after dinner walks because the thick, twisted, knobby tree roots would protrude through the sidewalk just enough to be a tripping hazard. The roots defiantly projected themselves above ground, through newly poured sidewalks, like squatters refusing to leave. The branches were often the size of treelings in nurseries, extending out with purpose and fierceness, like arms to stave off the woes of the day. Some of the more prominent trees were on the outer perimeter of the community serving as a moat abruptly separating an inner peace from the hectic pace of big city life. I use to take such delight walking from the Q-46 bus stop making my way up Surrey Place. It was like passing through a magical threshold leaving behind the rumbling sound and smells of the diesel engine busses, the chaos of the bumper to bumper traffic, and the boisterous pedestrians. Beyond the tree line, the world instantly hushed like stepping into a soundproof room.
I fail to recall the precise moment when everything changed. It seemed like one morning I woke up and the tranquility and the custodial presence simply abandoned its post. The houses, the trees, even the rebellious roots remained but something intangible in the air had gone amiss.
Mother use to take my brother and I out to dine once a week. It matter not that she worked 10 hour days, we always managed one meal together. If it was a particularly harrowing week, she would bring take out for us to enjoy, together in the dining room. We used to frequent the parks, take long walks, and go to shopping malls to have an Orange Julius and soft twisty ice cream. But as time passed, the gravity of being a widow at the tender age of 42 with two young school age children feasted on her like maggots on rotten flesh. She condemned herself to wearing black for an entire year after Father’s unexpected death. A traditional Chinese shrine was created atop of our formal dining room armoire with a large 11×14 black and white photo of Father staring down as we passed through, from the living room into the kitchen. His eyes haunted me. Relentlessly staring. Staring right through me, following me from one side of the room to the other, infesting me with such a fear of death and ghosts that I eventually was simply too petrified to go through the dining room and detour myself to take the long way down the main hall from the front door instead. A heavy black clay bowl was placed in front of Father’s eerie image and every day for a year Mother burned three sticks of incense at once and placed it in the bowl. The bowl would catch the ashes containing it from scattering. Once a month she would make a special trip to Chinatown to purchase the special type of incense for tribute to ancestors. The fragrance imprisoned the entire first floor in a subtle smell of bitterness. It was an odd combination of cool and sour and for an entire year, it was as if I had been involuntarily committed to live in a Buddhist monastery.
The woman who scandalously married a recently divorced man twenty years her senior was once spirited, robust, brimming with life. But as the days went on, Mother incrementally withdrew herself from the world. She cocooned herself in murder mysteries, Carol Burnett, and work. Her new lifestyle left very little room for anyone or anything. Mother obsessed over work and volunteered to work, no matter if it was a Saturday, a Sunday, or both. I can recall weeks during the school year where I only saw her in passing as she came home from work at 8:30 p.m. and retreated to her bedroom straight away, locking the door behind her. We became strangers cohabitating under one roof.
Father’s untimely demise essentially made me one step above an orphan. Mother and I never could overcome her incessant mourning and self imposed solitary confinement. It has been years since we have last spoke. Her only two grandchildren are in universities having no memory of their grandmother. Ironic that I am who was summoned to be the executor of her will.
For a moment I stood still to inspect the brick exterior noticing a few bricks has been haphazardly patched with window caulking instead of cement. The front yard was farcely overgrown and neglected but not abandoned entirely. The front two steps had been outfitted with a makeshift ramp of thin plywood which yielded ever so slightly to my weight. I gingerly made my way to the front door and softly grasp the brass round door knob, slightly warm from the beating sun. I glanced down casually procrastinating the task at hand when I noticed a new doormat. It was a Christmas themed in gaudy array of standard holiday colors of dull green, awkward red, and dingy gold. There was an animal of sorts which I can only assume was meant to be a reindeer. It read “WELCOME” in all capital letters at the top then in slightly smaller font, “but especially if you are Santa.” A crooked smile sneaked onto my face as the mat was obviously a Job Lot after holiday clearance item. I welcomed the distraction and with an exaggerated sigh I turned the door knob to what was once home.