A Room of My Own in My Father’s New York…

I ought to have been born between the World Wars, when it was romantic to be sentimental, when having an attachment to the past was normal, when lovers would hand-write nostalgia-filled letters whenever apart, when taking a journey down a memory lane strewn with tales of adventures and friends and events long gone by could rouse a spontaneous and unembarrassed launch into Doris Day’s and Les Brown’s rendition of A Sentimental Journey.

Gonna take a sentimental journey
Gonna set my heart at ease
Gonna make a sentimental journey
To renew old me-emories…

My parents, unapologetic romantics, loved Doris Day. They listened to big band music, wrote long letters and took countless black and white photographs of people long passed into the Al di là, which my mother tucked away in envelopes or framed and hung on the walls of the house I grew up in – the house my father built for her with his own hands, the ultimate amorous gesture – with a multitude of framed memories from their individual and collective lives.

Artworks suspended on stuccoed walls next to pen and inks of places I thought I would never have an opportunity to visit conjured imaginary blueprints of the imaginary house with the imaginary rooms I dreamed of building for myself one day, the walls of which I would hang with art and photographs curated from my own memory lanes.

A Place to Write, New York City

Got my bag, got my reservation
Spent each dime I could afford
Like a child in wild anticipation
I long to hear that “All aboard”

My mother’s impromptu, and frequent, oral histories of her life with my father colonized my thoughts with a rigor that her collection of framed black and white photographs never mustered, despite their careful arrangement, and infused my childhood home with hypnotic energy.

She would laugh outright at the telling of a particular tale, and giggle when something made the goosebumps rise again, or merely smile at the memory of something romantic until the tears welled up all over again. Sometimes there would be something I would want to rush off to do, but I would always acquiesce when my mother would start a story, nudged by the instinct that she repeated them over and over after my father died out of fear that one day she might suddenly forget them, forget him and the life they had shared, one day losing forever the part of herself that she loved the most, the part that had been loved by him.

Seven, that’s the time we leave, at seven
I’ll be waitin’ up for heaven
Countin’ every mile of railroad track
That takes me back

With each retelling of any one story the details would remain the same, but the flavor of the memories intensified in the transfer of the stories from my mother to me, as though she were standing at a conductor’s podium instructing me how to interpret a story – pointing out that one I had understood to be an adagio was really an allegro – making sure that the verbs and nouns and cadence of the particular language she and my father spoke would drift into my ears like bits of dialogue and music from the movie script and soundtrack of their lives.

I always thought she hoped that in the continual re-illumination of their life I would come to understand who she was, who my father was, who they were together, and therefore, in part, who I was.

Absent a woman’s husband, the father of her children, how does a mother give her daughter a sense of her roots?

She tells her stories…

…and the stories my mother told me were borne of a need to repaint, rephotograph and re-experience the life she shared with the man she had loved and lost, and to make sure that I knew him, that I knew what she was like when she was with him, and that I forgave her endless wistful reveries.

In the homes of my friends I was always drawn to the bookshelves, pianos, desks, side tables and walls covered with photographs, mostly of still living members of their families – children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews – immortalized behind glass and framed for public presentation on a photographic stage, where I imagined them talking to one another, singing, gossiping, arguing and laughing when everyone was asleep, the images a continual chronicle of their lives rushing by, rather than an historical lament for lives that no longer existed, which was the case in my home.

In our house, the people in the photographs that hung on our walls were silent – I could not imagine their voices, how they would have spoken, what they would have sounded like. There was no sense of whether they had known one another in real life and what their relationships might have been, some from mysterious towns in Italy where we had still living relatives, others from the farming community in Iowa where my mother had family to whom she was not close, still others from various cityscapes around the world.

Among the photographs of people and places were scattered works of art, made either by my father or by close friends of my mother’s, which were very much alive, chattering loudly from their perches in the living room, the breakfast room, my mother’s bedroom, in voices I could easily hear because I had known, to varying degrees, their makers.

The whole of the compendium comprised a whacky kind of wall symphony, the various players out of tune with one another yet still managing somehow to harmonize, though it was necessary to move from room-to-room to get the full effect. For me, these photos and wall hangings were not merely decor, but rather companions in a childhood marked by the stories my mother told me, which gave me the impression, whether it was her intent or not, that the important part of life had already been lived, instead of still yet to come.

The assemblage has shaped me all these years, influencing the creation of a movable environment that has accompanied me wherever my own sentimental journey has taken me, to every apartment in every city I have called home. My personal spaces, no matter how small, have been creative respites, in homage to the ateliers and studios of my mother’s women artist friends, each of them, no matter how small, as open and light-infused as I could make them, I filled with books and photographs and homemade works of art, nothing expensive, nothing elaborate, yet everything personal and with a history that meant something to me.

A Place to Live, New York City

A place in which to live and dream, in which the people in the photographs would speak not only to one another, but to me.

A place in which the story of my own life could exist, not as part of my parents’ historical past, but as part of my own present and future, something ongoing, something continuing to happen, something improvisational, like an ensemble of actors dedicated to site specific theatre, moving their sets and props from town to town, from apartment to apartment, performing their dramas, their comedies, their cold readings, for the select people I would invite into each new environment I would occupy.

Each space has kept me company no matter the circumstances of my life, and unlike so many people I know, who seem able to detach from people and places as they move through life, granting them lives blissfully free of sentiment, I have been infused with something of my mother’s fondness for mementos and the past, and I carry that fondness with me, in framed wall form, wherever I go. I have also kept every letter and postcard I have ever received. Like my mother, I am an unapologetic romantic.

Not at all surprising then, that when I graduated from college I set my sights on living in New York City, where my father was born. There was something both challenging and romantic about living in a city so rich with history and so chock-full of apartments that had been home to countless tenants who had immigrated to Manhattan from all over the world, each of them bringing with them suitcases and steamer trunks full of personal mementos and family history.

Not surprising at all that New York had felt like home to me since the first time I had visited when I was 14. A massive city. An historical city. Difficult. Expensive. Noisy. Bustling and teaming with millions of people whose covered their walls with framed photographs and works of art. Imagining all those interior spaces made me giddy.

Never thought
My heart could be so yearny
Why did I decide to roam
Gotta take that sentimental journey
Sentimental jour-ourney home

I don’t know when, precisely, sentimentality and romanticism began to get a bad rap in modern culture, but it seems to have begun in the 70s, when an insensitivity to our frailties, our fears, our missed dreams and shortcomings ceded to cynicism and toughness, to a sports continuum that thrives on sucking it up, thick skins, and a “just do it” mentality. We malign tenderness, nostalgia, reminiscence and remembrance.

As time passes perhaps it is increasingly impossible to fathom that men and women like my parents, who made it through the Great Depression, World War II and Korea without the benefits of modern technology, would often wait six months to receive a letter from family abroad. That they would drop off a roll of film to be developed, only to find just one copy of each photo in the envelop unless extra money was paid. That phone lines were party lines and privacy difficult to come by. That passage from state to state was more often made by train than by car or plane. that in the time spent in a club car watching the scenery pass by, many letters to many friends and relatives could be penned before journey’s end. And that, at journey’s end, no doubt there would be a letter containing the news that a brother, a cousin, a friend had been lost to war. And all that would be left to remember them by might be a photograph.

Between loading a fountain pen with ink, setting thoughts on paper, licking a stamp, taking a finished letter to the post office and waiting for a response weeks or months later, the time that passed could give rise to a froth of attachment to the stories, tales, anecdotes and black and white crinkled photographs anticipated within a return parchment envelop come all the way from Iowa…or Italy.

People of my parents’ generation didn’t need to be any tougher than what was already required by life. They softened their thickened skins with dinner out with friends and dancing on Friday nights. With stories told to someone willing to listen. With spontaneous and unembarrassed sentimental journeys to romantic places, if not with the assistance of an airline ticket or boat or train passage exactly, then more immediately and less expensively within the nearby pages of a photo album.

Or by listening to Bing Crosby, Xavier Cougat, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore or Doris Day on the radio.

Or Bob Dylan, who, in an unapologetic nod to standards my parents would have loved, has recorded Shadows in the Night. Dylan’s version of Autumn Leaves, written by Johnny Mercer in 1947 and popularized by Nat King Cole, is a veritable homage to sentimentality.

Or, since no one listens to the radio anymore, one can watch the very modern Emmy Rossum, sing elegantly about These Foolish Thingson YouTube.

Perhaps there is hope for incorrigible sentimentalists.

Oh how the ghost of the past does cling…

“These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)”

(lyrics by Bud Green, Les Brown & Ben Homer, composers)

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things remind me of you

A tinkling piano in the next apartment
Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant
A fairground’s painted swings
These foolish things remind me of you

You came, you saw
You conquered me
When you do that to me
I knew somehow this had to be

The winds of March that make my heart a dancer
A telephone that rings but who’s to answer
Oh, how the ghost of you clings
These foolish things remind me of you

You came, you saw
You conquered me
When you do that to me
I knew somehow this had to be

The winds of March that make my heart a dancer
A telephone that rings but who’s to answer
Oh, how the ghost of you clings
These foolish things remind me of you
Mmm remind me of you
Remind me of you
They remind me of you 

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