Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Ancestral Homeland

While they're in New York, my brother, his wife, and their kids will be staying at my aunt's house in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx. The house was built by my dad's mom's dad and a group of his colleagues who worked in the building trades. He was a mason/bricklayer- all of the homes in the neighborhood are modest brick houses, all built in a huge collaborative effort by the folks who ended up moving into them. If you carefully examine the mortar between the bricks, you can find an occasional fragment of crushed clamshell- a free source of lime, foraged from the wetlands of Pelham Bay.

While my grandparents were alive, the house was a boisterous place, the sort of house which was invaded every weekend by a horde of grandkids. Much of the backyard was taken up by my grandfather's marvelous garden, the centerpiece of which was a maze of raspberry brambles, carefully trained on a network of stakes. There was enough of a grassy yard for a decent-sized bocce court- my grandfather staying close to his Italian roots, even though he married an Irish girl.

After my grandmother died, my Aunt Jane sold her house, a few blocks away, moved into the ancestral homestead, and assumed the mantle of family matriarch. At the time, my Uncle Jim was still alive. He had been the victim of an accident which resulted in a head injury serious enough to leave him with a steel plate in his skull. He had learned the mason's trade and worked as a bricklayer until he obtained a job as a night porter in Rockefeller Center. He made a decent wage, but he wasn't really capable of living on his own. When he retired, I traveled down to the union hall so he could file his paperwork, and then had a long discussion with my aunt about how to set up his account so most of his money was saved while leaving him enough "mad money" (as my grandmother would put it) to hold court at his neighborhood haunts.

After my uncle Jim's death, my aunt kinda sorta had the house to herself, though there has always been a revolving cast of visitors. Her grandchildren are there practically every day, and several of my uncles stay there on a regular basis when work brings them to New York. I stay there whenever there's work being done on my apartment. Hardly a night goes by when nobody is dropping by.

It's good to have a place in which the family roots run deep. My aunt has kept up the family tradition of hospitality which has been the model for generation, ever since my great-grandparents landed on these shores.


OBS said...

It's neat you have that kind of family connection at all, and one nearby with deep roots is pretty amazing.

After my grandparents (on my mom's side) died, the family essentially said "Well, now that they're gone, there's no need to ever see the rest of you shitheels." I haven't seen my racist redneck Texan relatives in years, and hopefully it'll stay that way. There are somewhat-more-sane relatives nearby, but we have essentially nothing in common. I see my mom and dad (divorced) two or three times a year, which is plenty. We talk more frequently, but still not often.

I often wonder what it would be like to have a closer family, but then I look at my relatives, and say "Y'know what? Nah."

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

What a great place! The only thing we had similar was my dad's dad and mom's place in Bayside, Queens. It was a modest one story place with a basement, so definitely crowded when we came to visit.