A Simple Gift
I lived the first six years of my life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when it was a place to move from, not to - not the Williamsburg of hip, trendy clubs, art lofts and cool cafes, but a place of broken bottles, abandoned lots, and sketchy street corners.
We lived in an extended family brownstone full of tiny, noisy apartments, with aunts and uncles and cousins on every floor. It was heaven for the kids and chaos for the adults.
One by one, though, we all moved away. Only my Aunt Ted and her family stayed in Williamsburg, or the Burg, as everyone called it.
As years went on, whether it was a touch of agoraphobia or just common sense, my Aunt Ted rarely left the house. And every holiday season, I went back to visit.
One year, in college, I took my girlfriend along. We made sure to park her little gray, humpback Volvo out front. Across the street, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway roared past.
I opened the gate to the front yard, remembering each detail; the scruffy dirt beneath my feet, the rough, porous texture of the brownstone stoop, the climbing tree, once so proud and noble, now spindly and bare, and the heavy iron door to Aunt Ted’s basement apartment.
I rang the doorbell and my aunt appeared, all smiles in a faded housecoat, and with tears and kisses, swept us through the narrow hall to the back kitchen.
We sat and talked over tea and butter cookies, still warm from the oven, and my cousin Karen came rushing in. She had taken over the three-room apartment one floor up and added some designer touches - shades of the Williamsburg to come. My aunt shooed us out and busied herself in the kitchen while Karen hustled us upstairs to the hallway outside her 2nd floor apartment.
"Did Nicky tell you this was his family's apartment when they lived here?” Karen grabbed the door handle and gave it a yank. “We ran up and down these stairs all the time,"
The sliding kitchen door warbled on its metal track, and I stepped back into childhood - kitchen, living room and parlor each playing their part in a flood of memories- the rooms making a box like L with doors on either end, emptying into the hall - perfect for running games and shrieking laughter, the endless clamor of cousins.
Aunt Ted appeared in the doorway with a food platter in each hand and we feasted on each delight she brought us- laughing, joking, and telling old stories.
Between the steady clatter of plates and platters and glances out the iron-grated 2nd floor window to check the car, "they'll steal it in a minute if you don't watch," my cousin Karen pinched my cheeks and told my girlfriend to "be careful” because she “just might steal me away.” My Maryland born girlfriend was charmed and entertained but didn’t quite know what to make of all these reaching hands, thinking aloud thoughts and out-front personalities.
After I had my fill of family gossip and the plates were cleared, we came back down the basement stairs to see Aunt Ted.
Sitting on her thread bare sofa with an oversized cushion to support her, she asked about college and parents and music, resting her hand on my arm, an intimate touch of my childhood. Despite the bleak day and the glimpse of urban blight through the bone cold windows, the air was rich and warm with memories, dreams, and tender feeling. In the brief late afternoon pause, Aunt Ted sighed, and we settled, and a peaceful silence overtook the room.
It was time.
The ritual began.
Greeks do not say goodbye quickly or easily. If there are three rooms in a house, we will say goodbye in each one of them.
By the time we got to the foyer, my aunt and I both knew what was coming. We hugged and kissed, and she slipped a five-dollar bill into my pocket. I laughed, protesting, and slipped it back into her housecoat.
Back and forth we went, each exchange accompanied by an embrace. As the hugs got stronger and longer, the bill traveled to my shirt, to her hallway desk, to my hand and back again. She tried to enlist my girlfriend.
"Take this. Go have some fun together.”
Finally, Aunt Ted waited till the last possible minute, slipped the bill in my winter jacket, and closed the iron door, all in one grand sweep. She always prevailed somehow.
As the sun set across the Brooklyn streets and my girlfriend and I hunkered down in her little gray Volvo, we laughed and watched the old neighborhood go by. We spent the five dollars that night on an ice cream sundae.
But the gift of Aunt Ted's enormous heart has lasted me a lifetime.