In late February 2002, I went to New York. At the time, I was doing research for my novel An Ordinary Star, and this provided a convenient cover for a journey much deeper and harder to explain. It was a period of recollection, the Christian season of Lent. In New York, the mark of ashes had awful resonance, but the ash of mortality is also meant as a sign of oneness with the earth.
In Manhattan, I could feel this profound connection. I was staying with my cousin in Chelsea, and in the morning I’d stride along West 23rd Street in the chill air. I felt like a cell in the city’s body, humming with the racket of trucks and buses, alive with an astounding energy. I savored everything: Chelsea’s galleries and restaurants, the subway rides, the long conversations with my cousin Mary Ellen. After a long walk, I relished the chilly day’s pleasure of coffee and hot buttered cornbread, as if I’d never tasted anything in my life. I went to Mass, but my deepest communion was with the city, with the solid earth beneath my feet. Then I took the subway north, to the Bronx neighborhood where I’d spent much of my childhood.
No doubt because of my meditative mood, it was the church that seemed most alive and beckoning — Immaculate Conception on East Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, its two blue-domed towers setting it apart from the grayness of its surroundings. It was the place where my parents were married, where we children were baptized and where, in a temporary classroom in the Capuchin monastery, I began first grade. I hadn’t visited it since the Sixties.
Silent and beautiful, it still inspired awe. The parish, once Italian, is now for the most part Hispanic and Dominican. The aesthetic sensibility has remained the same — a palette of vibrant blues and reds, restored ceiling frescoes of Christ and the saints, the statue of Mary with an aureole of stars, the serpent crushed under her foot. The church gleamed with care and attention. A stained-glass window at the front of the left aisle was inscribed: a gift of John Dursi, in memory of his mother. John Dursi was my Uncle John, a wealthy businessman who married my mother’s oldest sister, Aunt Frances. My family roots, in glass and stone, were in this building, too.
Here, on June 3rd, 1939, my parents were married — three months before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. I wondered what they knew about the turmoil across the ocean, or if they suspected the horror that was about to engulf the world. It’s likely that they sensed what was coming. Yet in this beautiful place, I could still imagine their innocence, still conjure up the simplicity of their young and hopeful lives. I wanted to walk the symbolic path that drew them together, that ushered them into the world where one day we would encounter them.
At the back of the empty church, I began, with great deliberation, to walk down the aisle. Through their eyes, I saw the well-wishers on either side — aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins and friends. It wasn’t a long aisle, but in a moment I understood that for my parents, it must have been a very long walk away from their childhoods and the world they knew — a journey that would lead them through war and suffering and the birth of their beloved children. We were the flowering of their story. We were to become their hope fulfilled. It was merciful that they hadn’t lived to see their city attacked. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what they would have thought if they’d been alive, what wisdom they might have offered us.
A portrait photo shows two attractive and brave young people on their wedding day. Antoinette is twenty-three; Jimmy is twenty-seven. Their eyes are warm and full of trust as they gaze at what’s impossible to see, at everything that is just about to happen.