Friday, November 03, 2006
Great Uncle Sean had lived in Brooklyn. Or was it Great Great Uncle Sean? Or Great Great Great? It was hard to know. He had sailed to America as a boy, on board the magnificent Cunard liner Campania, on a speed-record setting, Blue Riband-winning, run to New York in 1893 or 1894. The story included all of the detail. The sunshine of the day of departure. The looming shadow of the massive Cathedral of Saint Colman above the harbor. The steam ferry carrying him and hundreds of others from the quays out to the waiting ship. Five days, nine hours, twenty-nine minutes from Queenstown. The first twin-screw steamer. His steerage bunk back above the thundering engines. A glass like August pond stretching from this Emerald Isle to Liberty's outstretched arms, untouched on this journey by the wild tropical storms that bedeviled so many crossings.
I could almost sing the tale. The telling had its own specific melody that flowed around the smells of thick beer and pipe smoke and peat fires and sweat held in woolen jumpers. Sean arrived at a gigantic Hudson River pier and followed cousins across the Brooklyn Bridge and out to a place called Flatbush. I could not imagine that. There were two pictures in a family photo album kept under a table in the front room. One showed two houses in an empty field. The other showed huge crowds moving toward a place where baseball was played. I could not connect them into a scene I could understand, so I simply saw old gangster films but with horses instead of cars. When he grew older he became a policeman. That was crucial. He made it in America. He worked in a towered police building in Brooklyn. He had a badge. He had a gun. He was a person with power.
We knew no one with power, except for the priests and the bishop. We knew no one who had been across the ocean. But we had objects that had returned by post over the generations and over the years. There were mugs with the New York skyline etched into the glass. There were heavy brass weights shaped as the symbols of the 1939 World's Fair. There were those photos in the album and a pen with a pocket clip that looked like the Empire State Building. And I went to sleep each night under a blanket whose label read "Macy's Herald Square" with a red star. Thus, dreams were born.
copyright 2006 by Ira Socol