I’ve often wondered how much of our lives are spent in physical places and how much is spent in the recesses of our memories. How much time do we actually spend inside our own minds, either attempting to figure out how to live our lives, or attempting to shut the world out. I’ve always been much more comfortable in my own mind than in the living world. If I were able to calculate how many hours I’ve spent dreaming, both waking and sleeping, and reading novels, I wonder what percentage of time it would take up of my forty-two years on this planet.
My dreams are often vivid enough for me to recall very specific details, like the color of paint, the feel of a puddle, or the breath of someone speaking to me. For years I’ve dreamt of my paternal grandparents and their home on Henry Street. My father is one of nine children, and all of them were raised in that apartment with only four bedrooms. I have wonderful memories of that apartment and the holidays we spent there with my cousins and aunts and uncles. Of course, since we are an Italian family everything would get very loud and chaotic, but I loved that at the time. When my grandparents moved out the apartment and to a house in Conklin, New York in the early 1980s, it was the first time my grandfather ever had a lawn of his own. My grandfather was born in that apartment on Henry Street lived most of his life there. His father had lived there before him after coming to the United States from Italy.
For years I had forgotten about the Henry Street apartment. Since one of my uncles still owned the building, one of his sons always seemed to be living there. But for a while all of our time was spent visiting our grandparents in Conklin. I never took to this house the way I did to the Henry Street apartment. Things seemed to become much more complicated in Conklin. Perhaps it was because I was moving into my teenage years and was beginning to discover my own world. Perhaps it was because I saw the very thin façade that most families cling to begin to wear away.
About ten years ago I began dreaming of the Henry Street apartment on a regular basis. In each dream, most of which I can recall quite clearly, the apartment is slightly different, but all of the same people from my family are still there. I would wake up with the residue of the dream still lingering vividly in my mind. Soon, all I began to think about was the apartment. So, over the course of a decade I learned to recall in any way that I could what the apartment looked like. I would also look through the various photographs my parents had of the apartment whenever I made it back to my hometown. I soon became obsessed with wondering what the apartment might now look like. I asked my father several times to get the key from my uncle so that I could take my own son there to show him a place that had been such a big part of my life, as well as my father’s, but something always seemed to come up and we never got the chance to go.
A year ago my uncle sold the building and my chances of ever getting back to that place seemed impossible. One day, last summer, my own family was driving through my hometown on the way to visit someone, when I decided to drive down Henry Street to pass the old building. As we did I noticed that the place looked abandoned. So, I parked the car in the driveway and told my wife to wait a few moments. I walked up the still familiar stairs to the door that led to the interior of the apartment. It was clear that no one was living there and I was overjoyed by the fact that I could look into the windows and see inside. I decided to test my luck and try the door. To my great surprise the front door was unlocked. I walked in, or perhaps “walked back” is a more accurate description.
Inside the apartment seemed smaller than I remembered, and the place was nearly destroyed. Some of the walls were down to the studs, and there was broken glass all over the floor. A shovel stood in one corner, leaning against an old tin garbage can. I walked into the kitchen to find much of the same. There were no appliances of any kind, and the floor had been ripped up. Despite all of this I was overcome with emotion. It was the first time I had been in that house in nearly thirty years. I stood for a long moment taking it all in. It’s not often that I allow myself the luxury of feeling nostalgic, but as I stood there I felt the overwhelming desire to cry. I rushed out of the apartment and back down the stairs to grab my son.
I can’t say why I felt it so important to bring my son up to that apartment, but I felt that if I didn’t at this time I might never have another chance. So, Aiden and I made our way back up those steep steps and into the building. I told him about all of the good times I had there when I was his age, and the food my grandmother used to cook. I told him about the jokes and the fun that my cousins would have with my brother and me (this was before my sister was born). Aiden seemed to take it all in stride. As we stood there it suddenly occurred to me that I was not doing something for him, but it was Aiden who was giving me a gift. He was sharing something completely foreign to him for my sake and I once again felt like crying. My seven-year old son suddenly seemed very mature and strong to me.
Although I had brought a camera with me, I decided not to take any pictures. I wanted to remember the place as I always had in my mind: loud and full of happiness and fighting, and cooking and gossip. As Aiden and I made our way back down the stairs, his seven-year old hand in mine, I took one last look up the stairs.
Perhaps our lives are really filled with a series of temporary places and the concept of home, or what it means to be at home, can never be tied to a specific place, but a feeling one has while in a particular place at a particular time. I spent some of the best years of my life at that apartment on Henry Street, but I am only now beginning to realize how temporary it all was.