Returning to the Earliest Place

First published as the column
A Walk About Town: Returning to the Earliest Place
in the Monterey Herald, 12/5/15

IMG_1582This month’s A Walk About Town isn’t about a walk that took place in Monterey, and though its particular locale matters a very lot to me, that’s not so much the point of the story. The point of this story is the kind of walk it was—the kind of a walk you may have taken or may someday take, unless you are a refugee or for some other reason find yourself unable or un-inclined to go back to your beginning place following the death of a parent.

Last February, at 93, my father died, and this would be my first return to New York City since then, to the city of my father’s birth and of mine. What would it be like to walk in the places he and I had frequented many times together, now that he was absent from the physical world? As I wrote in my new book, Step into Nature, “The mind thinks differently when the feet are in motion.” Might my grief transform step by step?
IMG_1580Though this wasn’t a physically singular walk but one taken over a period of a few days, each time I stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the Manhattan apartment where I was staying and into the bustling city, my focus was singular. I was on a personal, spiritual quest of reclamation and renewal.

If my father were to be anywhere in the physical world ten months following his death, it would be there. I went to walk beside him the only way I now could, hoping my sadness might loosen its grip while out on the city streets—where the long avenues stretch out, the yellow-framed traffic lights dangle, the autumn-scented air floats above the East River and the Hudson, and where the art museums always invite me in.

New York—the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan—is the one true place that I ever felt I wholly belonged. Before I ever gave a thought to the idea of belonging, New York was the simply my place. I knew it from the start, akin to how I knew myself as a child, without having to think about it. I was as defined by that place as I was by family and stories. It’s the first city I ever loved, before San Francisco and Paris; maybe it’s the only city I truly love. If asked, my father would have said the same thing, glad as he was, in part, anyway, to have made the cross-country move to California.

New York is where I initially learned the intricacies of geography and art. That’s where I had my first plate of spaghetti—my grandmother’s, my first cannoli, where I learned how to skip, where I first reveled in the joy of laying on the floor in front of a large sheet of paper with a crayon in hand and a whole box of them nearby, where I saw ballet come to life, watched the winter skaters twirl effortlessly on the ice at Rockefeller Center, and where I waited in line on a snowy day with my mother to view the Mona Lisa. Who we are and where we come from are as intertwined as a woman’s long braided hair.

One afternoon on this trip I met cousins in Astoria, Queens, the working-class neighborhood where my father grew up, at La Guli’s, our favorite Italian pastry shop. We sat for hours, drinking espresso, eating pignoli tarts and sfogliatelle, and telling stories of our shared past as we never had before. Everyone in the generation before us is gone; it’s up to us to define who we are as a family.
IMG_1559My father was the only son of an immigrant father and a first generation Italian-American mother. His first language was Italian. His family lived in Brooklyn and then in Queens. But it was in Manhattan where my father forged himself into being.

Sunday morning, I headed toward Central Park. The mild autumn air made it possible to linger on a park bench watching the trees change color, the weekend walkers stroll by. Tears splattered, but with a sensation that had been missing for many months. I texted my husband, “I’m so happy!”
IMG_1592The Metropolitan Museum of Art was my next stop. I wanted to spend time with old friends, those my father had introduced me to when I was little, when he first drew my attention to color, form, and composition, pictures in the 19th and early 20th century section—the work of Van Gogh, Valadon, Bonnard, and Matisse. Then I went to visit my favorite modern paintings. Standing in front of a Picasso, there he was, my father, and I took his hand.