Jay and Walt Whitman June 5 2016

While visiting my home, I also visited Walt Whitman’s Home and Museum on Long Island on June 5, 2016.

I was born into a middle class, two story, brick house in Flushing, Queens in New York. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and Living room with a fireplace on the first floor. Up the stairs were two bedrooms and a bathroom down a hallway with closets and  storage space in nooks and grannies. Until I was 13 years old, I lived downstairs in a bedroom next to my parent’s bedroom. I shared that room with my brother, Mark, who was four years older than me. Then I moved into my own bedroom upstairs as my older sister, Billy (later named June) and my two older brothers, Lawrence and Richie left the house.
There was a basement with a heater and washer and dryer and lots of storage space. My father put in a large machine for sawing wood, a long desk and many bins,spaces, cabinets and hooks for storing building materials and tools. He was an engineer and built many things down there, including a wooden table for me to do my homework on when I was around 12 years old. Because of all the noise in the house, I could not concentrate and my school grades had fallen. Eight people in a small crowded house meant lots of noise till late at night. This was not a good environment for a child to do their homework in. I told my father that I had no place to do my homework, so he found me a space upstairs with my own desk and chair.

I left the home I was born in and ran away at the age of 16. I made it to California. I was arrested and returned five weeks later. I took several more short trips away from home until leaving for good to go to college in Bridgeport, Connecticut at the age of 19.

Still I returned to that home on 69th avenue and 184th street in Queens at least once a year for 43 years. Usually it was for four to seven days. Some years I went two or three times. For the past 30 years, most of the time, I went with my Greek wife, Vicky. She also came with me for the five years she was my girl friend before we were married.

I got the news last year that my younger sister, now 54 years old, might be selling the house. She is the only one who lives there now. My mother died at age 93, four years ago. My father died 26 years ago. It was this news that made my annual trip back there, this time so strange. I knew that this was possibly the very last time I would ever be in that house.

I went home last week, June 3 to June 8th, 2016. I always get flashbacks and memories when I go to the home. The memories and feelings were very much like seeing ghosts who have become old friends. This time I would be seeing the ghosts and saying goodbye to them, possibly for the last time. My heart was breaking.

There were so many ghosts of me at different ages still here in this abode. Which me was me, the me I was at five, ten, twenty, forty or sixty? How could they all be me. What the about the ghosts of others, the others in my family were also many different ages. There were also many different relationships between the many me ghosts and the other age ghosts.

Who are the ghosts that I see? I see myself on the kitchen floor at age three. My mother young and beautiful at age 39 is talking on the telephone. She would talk for hours, sometimes for eight hours from 9-5, talking to a dozen different family members. She had eleven brothers and sisters and a mother and other relatives. I would hear her tell stories, the same stories all day long, repeating them seven, eight, ten or twelve times. She kept the essence of the story the same, but embellished it and made it more dramatic with each telling. I hated that she paid so little attention to me and my various tricks to get her off the phone for a few minutes didn’t work as well as they had when I was two.

I remember being on the kitchen floor this one time and thinking a really terrible thought. My thought was this – one day I would not be a child any more, I would be grown up and she would be old, and then she would die. I had not learned the wonderful religious fable that we would all be reborn and live together in heaven after death. I was three years old and contemplating the horror of the death of the person who kept me alive. I thought surely that I would die too when she died.

“Ma, stop talking on the phone and look at me. We won’t be here forever. Love me this moment before it is gone,” I silently pleaded with my eyes and soul.

Now here I was all grown up and she was dead, just as I had imagined it 59 years ago.

Of course, I did not know that her death would be 54 years later. I did not know that she would spend the last 9 or 10 years fading away with Alzheimer disease. I did not know that she would forget my name four years before she died and not recognize me at all for the last two years. I did not know that I would be happy when she died that her daily suffering was over. Instead of a hurricane, her death passed over me like a gentle, Summer rain.

That is not the first ghost of myself that I remember. I remember myself at one year old being tossed up in the air and caught by my father, Nat. My mother screamed for him to stop and threatened to call the police on him. I felt the joy of the tossing and catching game and  laughed at my mother. I knew my father would never let me drop.

Thirty five years later, my father, Nathan, would die. That was a hurricane for me. He did let me drop when he died, but I was old enough to survive by then.

I remember being six years old and going on the front porch with an empty coca-cola six pack carton on my heard like a crown, and proclaiming myself the king of coca-cola. My brothers and some friends laughed. My sister, 20, at the time, was beautiful with long black hair, which she often put in a pony tail. She studied at Lee Stratsburg studios in New York to be an actress at that time. She thought I was being stupid and screamed at me to stop. I felt disappointed that she didn’t see the creativity in my joke. She would tell me that my teeth would fall out from drinking coke. She would also tell me stories of how Marilyn Monroe and other stars sat in on her class at the acting studio. She still lives in New York City. She in 77 years old and frail. We went together to the Museum of Modern Art on this trip.

I remember being ten years old and studying the sports pages to find out how Hofstra University did in basketball and football. My brother Richie, who danced on teenage shows like “America Bandstand” and studied Karate, went to Hofstra University. I planned to go there too. He reminded me of Ricky Nelson on the “Ozzie and Harriet Show,” a popular television show of the late 50s and early 60s. about an ordinary loving middle-class family with two boys. He was going to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. I wanted to be just like him.

I remember being eleven and sitting quietly in my room downstairs while my twenty-one year old brother, Larry, the family rebel, made love upstairs to his pretty girlfriend, Laura. They kept the music playing loud, but the squeaking and shaking of the bed and their laughing and joyful noises made me aware that something called sex was going on. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were doing, but I knew that I would one day grow up and marry and do it too. I knew it involved taking clothes off. I was so shy that I thought I could never do that in front of a girl. I would die of embarrassment if I did that. I imagined on my wedding night that my wife would be as shy as I was and we would both turn the lights out and do whatever sex was with each other.

I remember endless baseball games  with a whiffle ball and bat in the driveway, from ages six to fourteen with my brother Mark who was four years older than me. He was much more skilled than me and almost always won, but once in a great while, he would lose interest in the game and let me win. Whenever we hit a home-run over the roof of the garage, the ball would go into the neighbor’s yard. I would run around the block into the neighbors yard, get the ball and come running back. My brother would count. I would try to get back before he counted to fifty. I would run as fast as I could. Sometimes I made it, but most of the time I didn’t.

My little sister, Jo-anne, eight years younger than me, wore steel braces on her legs as a toddler, at age two. The doctor had said that she would be bow-legged when she grew up if she didn’t wear them for a year or two. She hated them, and my mother would let her walk without them. I would get angry at my mother and remind her what the doctor said. Then she would do her duty as a mother and put them on her. Many years later, I found out that the doctor was completely wrong and she didn’t need the braces. I really felt sorry that I had made my sister wear them.

She took care of my mother for the 20 years after my father died. For 14 years, they had a great time together, shopping and going to parks and museums. The last six years, when my mother’s health really deteriorated, and she was confined in a wheel chair, things became much tougher.

As an adult, after I married and we had my daughter, Aphrodite, we visited the home many times. Only my mother and sister lived there, then. Still, I felt that being in the house helped my daughter understand who I was and where she came from. On one trip when she was about eleven years old, she laid and sat on the front lawn, in the evening’s warm sunlight, just as I had done many times as a child. Jo-anne snapped pictured of her. On another trip a few years later, there was a blizzard and snowstorm of about four feet. we got to play in the snow. I think it was the first time she had ever seen snow (she was born in Florida, where I have lived for 30 years). She was about 13 and walking with me through the snow on the same streets that I had often walked through the snow when I was 13.

These ghosts of myself and my family and so many others memories live in that old haunted house. I revisited them every year for all my adult life. I was so afraid that they would just disappear, as this was the last time I would be in that house. Yet, I was also happy to be saying goodbye to them.

Although, I never lived in the house after age 19, I still considered it my home. It was a place of safety. I knew that if things went really bad in my life, I could always return there. Now that option would soon be gone. My home, the place of my childhood and my safety would soon be gone forever. It would soon be in the hands of others who would make it their own, and I would never see it again, at least from the inside. I again remembered the moment of realization of my mother’s mortality at that I experienced while sitting on the kitchen floor at age three, watching my mother talk on the telephone

I said goodbye to all the ghosts.

I know now that I don’t need the house, The memories are a part of me and will be with me as long as I am conscious. I am so happy I had a chance for this last visit. I realized that the ghosts are not in the house. I carry them with me in my memory. Perhaps, I will get Alzheimer’s disease like my mother and they will slowly fade away. Still, the memories of my family will be beautiful to me for ten or twenty or thirty more years.

My wife, Vicky, also carries many of my memories with her.

And you, my daughter, Aphrodite, will carry some of them with you for many more years, and with your husband, Gavin, you will make new and beautiful ones for your new daughter, “Aleigha.”

 

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