In the shadow of my brother’s death, it felt appropriate to go to New York City for the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Brian and I were in a somber mood, touched by a personal loss that felt entangled in a larger calamity. Three weeks after Phil’s funeral, we went to Manhattan.
We stayed with my cousin Mary Ellen, whose presence linked us both to shared history and a poignant anniversary. In her dining room, she displayed an old postcard on her antique cupboard. Created by the artist Michael Langenstein, it showed a dreamlike, holographic image: the Twin Towers in the desert beside three pyramids under a full moon. Written in several languages, the caption on the back read Two in Time. The shimmering hologram invited verbal play. In time, two… There were many unpleasant ways to complete that sentence. Two in time will perish. Only this was an image of eternity. Pick up the card, view the hologram from another angle, and the towers reappeared in a new light, eerie, cosmic images as permanent and silent as the pyramids or the moon.
My cousin and I sat with Brian at an oak dinner table with huge lion’s-claw feet. It had once belonged to our grandmother, Nana — the same table where our mothers did their homework while Nana studied with them, working to improve her English; where we sat as children on Sunday afternoons in Nana’s old house on South Oak Drive in the Bronx, nibbling biscotti and absorbing the grownups’ passionate views of the world. On the night before that first anniversary, we sat with the ghosts of our parents, aunts and uncles, reminiscing as the shadows fell.
It was a warm late-summer evening. The windows were open to the slight breeze, to the voices and street sounds below, to the sultriness of a city night with its complicated scents and tastes, to the breath of memory in the night air.
We sit and talk about simple things, about summer evenings in the Bronx when we were kids, how my mother would visit my godmother, Aunt Ursula with me in tow. Alongside my cousin’s house on Bartholdi Street was a tree heavy with ripening peaches, and their plump, juicy globes perfumed the air. I felt sure I was the only child in Westchester County who ventured into New York City to pick fruit. Along with gardening, Aunt Ursula and Uncle Chris loved animals and had a cat. Having no pets, I used to catch fireflies in their garden and put them in a jar with holes in the lid. When we’d return home, I’d shove the jar into my bureau drawer, hoping that the following night, the lightning bugs would sparkle again. Instead my mother would discover the critters lying in state under glass, alongside the tidy pile of socks and fresh-laundered underwear. I don’t remember that it made her angry, because she always took me back to my aunt’s where I’d capture another jarful of small, lit creatures. I never tired of these visits: the sudden bump of the car wheels over cobblestones as we entered the Bronx, as we drove through night in the old streets of childhood, derelict and loved.
There’s a skein of memory that I share with my cousin. One of us holds it in outstretched hands, the other picks up the strand of a story, preparing to knit it into some scrap of reminiscence. On this evening, we recall how our mothers were close, how they spent their teenage years in Nana’s clapboard Victorian house with its enormous beech tree, its grandiose black fountain topped by a fat, naked cherub, its wooden gazebo where years later, we kids would play games and munch crusty-rolled sandwiches fat with salami and roasted peppers. When my Aunt Ursula married Uncle Chris, she moved a few blocks away to the tiny brick house on Bartholdi Street with the peach tree in the garden. I continued to visit with my family until I left for Toronto, feted by my aunt’s banquet of homemade ravioli and savory sausages. Three years later I returned for her funeral when she died of a stroke at the age of fifty-five. I never went back again.
Aunt Ursula’s in the room as my cousin and I play cats-cradle with memory, a gentle back-and-forth from hand to hand. Once upon a time, our parents grew up, raised their families and lived out their years on earth. They have returned to be with us, on New York City’s shadowed night.