(Written Fall 2018)
The wildflowers are cut. The circular garden where the early morning sun seeps in streaks of rainbow light, making an 1866 Gothic church look like a castle to my children as they shriek and laugh through it in those last few yards before the opened school door, is no longer. Now, like a manicured lawn, all the magic is gone.
The man who sat among those daisies last Sunday, who crawled over pavement, streaking blood up to the yellow line on St. Paul’s Avenue, before someone came to help, had been sitting on a lawn chair with a ripe tomato and a cold beer before the attack.
The church Reverend says, “that if the man's story is true, the incident highlights an ongoing issue of people who are not parishioners trespassing on church property.”
My children trespass too.
Chopped down to deter loitering, to prevent crime, but before they were raked away, these fallen flowers, in yellow, pink, and white, were strewn across the ground as though over a grave.
It sits sour in me. It speaks a nauseating reality about what I have made home. It inadvertently tells the story of my, decades long, unraveling revelation that this place isn’t mine.
For years and years I loved this island.
(I am forgiving.)
But this is my farewell tour.
It started with the sawdust covered vomit and the janitor’s push bucket mop. The smell of that 1987 New York City public school cafeteria still lingers. I was terrified. It was too loud inside but outside was worse. Each morning our principal, with that white mustache curled up on each side of his angry mouth in circles of tacky wax, would pick kids arbitrarily off their class lines to stand ashamed against the chain link fence in front of the whole school. I was so shy, so sensitive, that this environment ripped me open, unpeeled the safe, innocent, parts of me, daily.
At home it was the same. Perfection. Compliance. Silent fear.
Stolen Oreos and drunken parents. I sat in that dining room chair next to the window all of the first grade. Crying in my mind, soaking thoughts. He told me that if he didn’t pull out my loose baby teeth with a string then I’d swallow them and choke. And I believed him. Hours I sat there, shaking. Each tooth rocked in my gums, painful, and slowly coming undone.
All of this could have happened in another place, a different town or city. But it didn’t. It happened here on Staten Island. And it has shaped my perception of home. Of what it means to be home.
But to languish over the manifested moments of my past, the ones that, in no particular order, scream at me in dreams: the open wails from my mother’s cancer ridden mouth the night before she passed; the boy who convinced me that I was like a dead fish after the first time we had sex; the years spent dragging a comatose parent past empty wine glasses out of the nicotine yellow kitchen and into bed for the night (I never felt like it was okay to leave her there); the countless days of mindless, disordered, eating I used as a survival technique; the drug tales; the poor pre-adolescent choices; (the entirety of it) would conjure the same woeful, self-loathing, story of not being enough that we all tell ourselves secretly in the night.
Instead, I’d like to create space for a recollective of that which made me stay so long when I could have left. The times that dug me deeper into this claypit. These are the tiny pieces of my past that I choose to embrace:
He, with circular glasses, sat under a tree on the vast grounds of Mount Loretto reading a book. The first time I saw him. He was quiet and we never spoke much. It was a sticky July filled with laughter and irresponsibility. A few years later, in cooler weather, under a street light on Cebra Ave., we finally kissed. I’ve never been the same since. My dearest, deepest, love.
Each of our four babies were birthed here on this island. At Staten Island University North. In summer mostly; one in fall. After years of fertility fails and epic depression they came to us in a myriad of miracles. All Grace. And now I have nothing but intense appreciation for that tumultuous miscarriage- ridden experience. How could I be me now, or they, them, if not for that timeline?
During my own childhood years, whenever there was an evening rain storm we gathered, the four of us, as a family, on the chalice windowed front porch in Castleton Corners to watch the rain race down the street in torrents, listen anxiously to the thundering claps, and search for lightning and hope among the open sky above our neighbor’s roof.
Sometimes on a Saturday morning my mother would take out her Beatles record to play “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or maybe The Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” and we would dance wildly on the golden inlaid wood of our living room floor. It felt like freedom.
Fresh mozzarella, mortadella, and Sopressata on semolina bread. That was my north shore childhood lunch. It was everything. I thought everyone was Italian.
Poppy made homemade rectangular pizza. He always carried mint from the garden in his dress shirt pocket. We would often walk up to Nixon Ave. together and into yards that weren’t our own.
Grandma Muffy shuffled over the blue carpet of my elementary school years to gift canned peaches in white bowls. At night she would caress my back to help me sleep. I let my fingers dance in circles over the white painted metal chair back, the one with the canary yellow cushion seat, that she had pushed up against the couch so I wouldn’t fall from my dreams.
My dad’s marigolds are deep orange happiness. His garden of zinnias and sunflowers and life overflows onto the Windsor Rd. sidewalk every August. He starts them in the coolness of early spring, the seeds pressed gently into boxes of soil. He keeps them inside, under light, until each is big enough for its own plastic cup. Then he plants rows and rows when the weather warms. It is heaven.
I’ll always attempt to emulate the elegant loops of my mother’s Catholic school trained handwriting. Her perfect signature. Patricia Plankey. Patricia Lamberti. Elena Lamberti. Elena Capofari.
On hot summer days we would walk through Grasmere from Twenty-one Eighty Clove Rd to Brady’s Pond. The Cameron Club. I learned to dive off the green AstroTurf covered dock and swam out to the Road to discover old tires sunken from years ago. The white sand they shipped in from the Virgin Islands had tiny cylinder shaped shells.
My dad bought me all the Nancy Drew books. I had a golden yellow bookshelf filled. The covers were painted pastels pretty and I wished to be brave like her.
Then there were Weezer-filled middle school sleepovers with Lauren and the wildness of no one watching while we ate countless cups of Ramen noodles.
The monastery on Grymes Hill was the abandoned buildings of St. Augustinian’s Academy. The bare hallway walls were coated in brightly colored graffiti. It was cold and beautiful and made mostly of adolescent dreamscapes.
Tommy had keg parties each Friday night in the Royal Oak woods. I didn’t know him very well but everyone was invited. It was spirited, mostly inclusive, teenage socialization. It was perfect. And I could walk home afterwards in giggles.
In the early high school hours she let castle candles coat wax across our desks and cover all our insecurities. With a platinum pixie and leopard print stilettos she taught me how to speak in rhymes and paste my pain to the page. Then Ms. Decker. Then Dr. Decker. Now my lovely friend Helen. Thank you.
I found God on New York City transit. The bus up Victory Blvd. from the ferry, to be exact. I was wearing black, slip-on, Pumas and felt like regret but he told me to meet him for yoga at Shakti anyway. And so it began, deep loud Ommmms in the pouring rain and calling out for the Divine Mother. I’m still asking Her to rescue me here from this moment but it is much more routine than desperate.
On Thanksgiving we go to Clove Lakes Park to run the Turkey Trot at 9am. We bring cans of food to donate or cash if we’ve been lazy. Everyone in brightly colored woolen hats. Everyone cold and happy.
I like to drink hot Hazelnut coffee from Beans and Leaves when there’s no reason to rush.
And I must always remember:
Our Occident Ave. family of neighbors: Ferd who Paul would call to as soon as he learned to speak; Charlyn and Marietta, separately, with hours of chit chat yoga; Tony who cut our lawn even on days he had chemo; Susan and the red cat who crawls across our yard; Bernadine, Cathy, Lisa, Lorraine, Jim, and little Josephine...
The hum. The boxed in movement and sluggish crawl. The internal silent meditation of the Staten Island ferry…
The soft gray moonlight seeping trapezoid shapes through the that skylight...
The solitude of Silver Lake on a weekday morning in autumn…
The grapefruit pink winter sunrise from my old bedroom window…
The half mile walk home…
Snug Harbor. Where we got married in December. Where Rita learned to love Art. Where there is a hedge maze with wild brown fur bunnies. Where Henry, our best dog, used to run free. Where we have picnics on summer days and kick a soccer ball around. Where Paul plays little league baseball. Where Andy explores happily in the Children’s Museum. Where Julia rides her blue scooter or climbs the stone wall. Where the flowers bloom like they are boasting. Where we make the most of it.