I’m sitting in my father’s chair in the apartment I grew up in, where my parents still live. This old place is chock full of memories. Some good and some bad. I remember getting my college acceptance to Fordham in this apartment and being elated. It was my parents’ dream to send me to college and it was my dream to simply go. It exceeded my wildest expectations to simply be a college graduate.
But some bad memories exist of this place too. I was mugged in front of this house for a lousy $2. I used to live in fear of the house being broken into as the neighborhood wasn’t always the safest place to be. A young man was shot and killed on the street corner by a father who didn’t like the idea of the young man telling his little son to not hit another kid with a wiffle bat. I would fear walking home from middle school over gangs on Ash Street–just down the hill from the “city steps”–a junky-always-broken concrete slab that was a nightmare in the winter. (I fell at least three times on them)
Yonkers is a humble town. Buffalo reminds me of it in some ways. But humbleness also comes with a price. At times, being too humble puts us at a disadvantage of ever thinking we can be better than what is expected of us. If you’re not being humble enough, you’re an egotistical jerk who has forgotten where he came from. My mother’s mantras of “What will the neighbors say?” when I would do something wrong would also be tempered by her other mantra of “Who do you think you are?” when I’d think too much of myself, or I should say when she’d think I was thinking too highly of who I am. You can’t ever really win with those parameters of judgement. So in some ways, I always felt like I needed to escape this Yonkers neighborhood and it seemed like it was my parents’ mission to make sure that happened. And yet, at times it seemed like they wanted to keep me here. At times the city and this home seems like a backwards place, a place that never seems to be able to escape “working class” status, whether in the downtown area, or even in the mentality that my family regards itself. Getty Square which is near the Metro North Station always seems hopelessly downtrodden. The hospitals and schools never seem better than you see in other suburban outlets. Political and economic solutions seem to go against all the trends that eliminate poverty–like the building of the Casino on the grounds of the old Yonkers Raceway. Casinos almost always bring a rise in criminal activity in the area that they are in. Poor people also often think that they are going to crack the system that wins the jackpot in the lottery or the slots.
But yet, for all of the bad parts, this is also the place that formed me, so it’s hard for me not to have some nostalgia for it. I think I’ve done pretty well for myself. At the very least I need to praise some heroes who helped me become who I am. And I should start with my parents and my sister who started me reading when I was two years old and who gave me all they have. They have a hard time accepting help from me but I’ve become more insistent on things lately. It hasn’t been easy for me or them and I often feel like reconciliation is far away from being complete, but again, there’s a lot of good history behind us as well. And for that I always feel a large amount of gratitude.
My teachers pushed me as a young man. Mrs. Balassi, my first grade teacher had an old SRA reading kit that we were all required to use. These kits would start by having the students read a passage and answer questions. There would be packets of stories grouped by color. So the first group would be red and when you got through the red section you’d go on to the blue section, etc. Most of the students in the class by the end of the year would advance to a non-primary color, like orange or purple. Mrs. Balassi saw my gift of being a good reader and she pushed me very hard to excel. I was on Olive by year’s end. Far ahead of the entire class. She was a great teacher. By high school, Mrs. Stein would get me and help me be a better writer and speaker. I won elections thanks to speeches that she helped me write. An amazing woman who was hysterically funny, Mrs. Stein would encourage me to find a voice for writing and I certainly owe her a great debt of gratitude as well.
Bruce Springsteen writes about his hometown of Freehold, NJ in his song “My Hometown” and it’s always resonated with me. Our hometowns and our families, are things we didn’t choose for ourselves. But we will always be tied to them, both the good and the bad parts of those places and people. Today may we pray that we are able to transcend the shadow side of memory and accept who we are and where we have come from without regret and continue to grow into the people we are called by God to become both despite and because of it all.
And remember our hometowns with gratitude and forgiveness.