A love story
I WAS determined to get home in time to help Uncle Irving put up signs for the 4th of July parade—and before I saw the Abramov’s neighborhood torn down. The two were connected in a strange way. You had to keep taking care of freedom if you didn’t want to lose it.
The Abramovs had lived in East Tremont fifteen years—long enough to see kids grow up, get married and have kids of their own; long enough to think that street corners were for playing soft ball, not for crossing cars; long enough to put down roots deep enough, they thought, to keep a way of life from dying; long enough to think you had the right to listen to what your neighbors were saying on the balcony across the street; and long enough to think that men had progressed past mass destruction.
But by the 1950s, battles were already being fought between machines and men, commerce and community, highways and home. Without dropping a single bomb, the Cross Bronx Expressway destroyed fifteen neighborhoods in the Lower East Side. The weapons were wrecking balls and the generals men in silk suits. The cause, they said, was Progress. After 12 years, victory was declared when a concrete trench 7 miles long and 225 feet wide was finished. It was an engineering feet as shocking as if someone had found a way to put a man on the moon. The expressway left 113 streets cut off from each other: mothers cut off from markets, kids from schools, cousins separated from cousins, and the roar of cars silencing the chatter of neighbors and friends.
Rumor had it that our part of town was next. I had seen other sections go, but I couldn’t believe it would happen to Uncle Osip and Aunt Izzie until I heard the words myself. I left the meeting after a man they called Moses spoke out. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and I couldn’t believe his name was really Moses. I got home and told the Abramovs I thought his parents should have been more careful if they were going to give their son such a serious name. But then the Abramovs shocked me by saying that the real Moses had killed a man. I told them I’d have to think about that. In the meantime, I told them what had gone on at the public meeting. As far as I could see there was nothing public about it. It was all about the private plans of all those silk- suited politicians.
“I heard it with my own ears or I wouldn’t have believed it. That man Moses stood in front of all those good, hardworking people and said, ‘There’s no need to invite the turbulent and disorderly of all the world to come here with the goal of distracting our tranquility and slowing down our progress. This country won’t progress without the automobile. And the automobile can’t go anywhere without roads. If a few people have to be inconvenienced, well, that’s just the way it is.’ He couldn’t look at us when he said it, but he still said it!”
In the end, two hundred and fifty thousand people were given 90 days to get out of their homes. I begged the Abramovs to come north with me, but they said it was time to go home. They had relatives in Latvia, they said, who’d heard that their village home had survived the war. Much later in my life I learned that thousands of people had left villages all over Europe because, without roads, the modern world had left them behind. The young didn’t want to be farmers. They left for the cities where there were roads—even if those roads were lined with grey, faceless apartment buildings.
I said a sad “Goodbye” to the Abramovs and then to the race and roar, the diversity, destruction, dance and delight, the construction, creativity, culture and crushing out of life—to the mystery and miracle that was New York.
WAITING at home for me was Jake’s new friend. In his own way, Jake was a firm believer in cats. He chased every one he saw up a tree so he could look up to them. But Jake got pretty low after I left. The family couldn’t get him to eat or barely leave my room. Then, a week after I was gone, a cat showed up in Uncle Irving’s mailbox. She just sat there look- ing at him. He pulled her out, named her Dog, and took her up to my room to introduce her to Jake. “Jake,” he said, “this is Dog.”
That was it. After that, the two never left each other’s side.
That night I pulled out the Star Flyer’s log book. It was only half full but it held the only thing this world couldn’t take away from me: all that I had learned.
I sat up in bed, closed the curtains Uncle Irving and I had made that summer long ago and started to read. I laughed, I smiled, and I even cried. It was my story, but only now did I see that it was a love story: The old couple on the boat holding us in their laps and singing us to sleep. Aunt Magic and Uncle Nikkk taking in all those people during the war. Uncle Elbert choosing not to listen when the words weren’t kind. Lucia, the child servant who left her homeland with a baggage tag around her wrist, making us her family, a family she risked everything to save—even marrying a stranger. It took me a long time to understand that. But even Carmello Bellomo hadn’t meant to hurt her, I finally understood. He made sure he got us on the train to Boston even though it was dangerous for him. But he got us on our way before leaving us. Uncle Irving building his daughter a house so God wouldn’t think poorly of all those people who threw out perfectly good chairs and can-openers. The Shaker people hang- ing up their respectable brooms. It was all enough to make you think that, despite everything, life was a love story.
It was three in the morning before I finished. I read my father’s letters last, thanking the fields that had been full of flowers right there in the middle of war, the family who shared their only apple, and the soldiers who hung on to laughter:
The men from Texas and Arkansas are really a work of art! They tell the funniest stories about Yankees. Well, my children, all you need to know is that you have my love always. Merry Christmas. Papa
It made me stop and wonder if God gave Joseph and Mary a way to laugh that first Christmas far from home. Was it all real serious—or could they laugh when the shep- herds came running in, smelling like sheep, upsetting the Wise Men’s camels and waking the baby?
I FINALLY married. I hadn’t planned to, but Uncle Irving brought a local girl over one day and said, “This is Star. She teaches astronomy at Rewster Academy.” Her name wasn’t Star, it was Abigail Tilton. I called her Star anyway. We got married the next summer and, the summer after that, Abraham Lincoln Tilton Tilly was born. I got him a donkey when he was three. I planned on teaching him to drive a car when he six. He was going to be a modern boy, alright, but he couldn’t be anything if he didn’t know how to take care of life. So I got him a donkey. We called it Moses. It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. I learned that Uncle Osip was right. The real Moses had killed a man—but after that he became a humble man. Every time I saw the donkey I thought of that man in New York and hoped God had made him humble. I really did.
I took over Uncle Elbert’s store. He spent all his time making clocks. People even came from Boston to buy them—even with the name Himmelstein on them. It was still called Hammel’s Store, but the clocks were Himmelsteins. Uncle Elbert still lived in the back room. We added a second floor and Star, Abe and I lived there. On weekends we went to home Khoo House. There was always a project to help with. Uncle Irving was a believer in projects. He told me once (we were sitting in the kitchen eating tapioca), “You know, don’t you, that you always need a project? It gives you something to look forward to.” I wanted Abe to grow up with people like that: with Uncle Irving, and Aunt Magic and Uncle Nikkk—and with Lucia’s family.
That was the biggest surprise of all. Lucia fell in love with a Shaker man and they married. They moved in with Aunt Magic and Uncle Nikkk and took over the work of the old big house. They brought an orphan boy with them who the Shakers had taken in. His name was Seth. He looked after Abe like he was his big brother.
Miss Matoon went back to Boston to live with her family and Lilly went with her. Miss Matoon taught at the Boston Latin Academy and our own Lady Lilly got herself into Wellesley College. Ever after that, she was a Bostonian. She always made us proud. I think she even forgot the past. They say it’s possible.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry. My niece and nephews weren’t disappointed that their uncle was an immigrant. To them, the “uncle” part was stronger than the “immigrant” part.
When I was a boy I wondered who the last captain of the Star Flyer was and why he left behind a new log book. Uncle Irving had never said where he got it. But he told me once that his relatives came here in the spring of 1628. “The first one,” he said, “was a boy just about your age, Willy.” I then learned that his relative was a cabin boy who jumped ship, survived at first on the streets of Portsmouth and then settled down here. “He was just like you, Willy. He was just trying to find a home and he found it.”
Uncle Irving always knew just what to say. Sometimes I wondered if all his stories were true. But then I decided they must be. They were so full of life.
Here the Star Flyer’s log book ended, only discovered recently, tucked away in the “secret room” that had once been Willy Tilly’s.