A photo of my father and Aunt Renee by the eagle sculpture in Fort Green Park when they were children growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘40s.
I captured a similar photo of my adult daughter, Marina.
Brooklyn will forever be losing an ambassador and a goddess when my Aunt Renee leaves us. The colorful stories of her childhood in Brooklyn have been an important part of my life. She made this incredible place come to life as she detailed the adventures of growing up in Downtown Brooklyn. Along with these stories, she has also been the memory keeper of the father I never knew. Was it destiny or fate when my daughter, Marina, moved there after graduating from college to work in Manhattan? Brooklyn had come full circle for me.
As Marina and I walked streets with familiar names, the stories from Aunt Renee flashed back and I had an incredible sense of “home.” This was the magical place where it all started for me when my handsome father met my mother, a Puerto Rican beauty, who moved to Brooklyn in the ‘50s. Unfortunately, despite having five children, their union didn’t survive due to lives strife with mistakes and bad choices. One story my aunt tells: as children, she and my father were sent to the bodega to buy needed items for dinner. As they approached an elderly woman walking toward them, my father slyly scoped things out, winked at Aunt Renee with a grin and, said, “Be ready!”
Before she knew it, he had grabbed the women’s pocketbook and took off down an alley. Completely caught off-guard, Aunt Renee tore off after my father, her Mary Jane flats slapping the sidewalk angrily, as the lady yelled after them in shock and horror, “Help! I’ve been robbed!” followed by a litany of expletives. When my aunt breathless, unbelieving, finally caught up to her brother, he nonchalantly took the money out of the pocketbook, shoving it deep in his pocket, discarding the stolen goods in a dumpster, and walked off with his cool-guy swagger. It was at that moment she knew her brother, my future father, was a bad egg. But, that was just the beginning. I would never get to know this brilliant, charismatic sociopath (we know that now) that lived much of his life incarcerated.
One day, Marina and I set out to search for my grandpop’s apartment on President Street where I mailed him letters for many years, until his death. The apartment had succumbed to gentrification, as much of Brooklyn has, but it gave me pause as I stood on the stoop and imagined him reading my letters there. I still get nostalgic when I think of the Filipino meal he prepared for me. His years as a restaurant chef served him well as I remember that delicious lunch fondly 42 years later.
I have yet to visit Coney Island. But I know how I want to do it: I want to buy fried chicken, take the subway, sit on the sand, and imagine the fireworks illuminating the sky, as they flash and sparkle in my eyes, as my Aunt Renee describes her family doing regularly when grandpop had time off from work.
Marina’s apartment was a corner unit in a brownstone overlooking Fort Green Park. I looked forward to mornings at the park watching the dogs enjoy the fresh air and freedom that comes with open space, much as my Aunt Renee and father experienced as children at the same park. The expression on their faces in a vintage photo from the ‘40s is worth more than a thousand words. Their expressions show promise and adventure. I captured Marina at the same location for a similar photo. Aunt Renee’s beautiful smile lit up her face when she saw it.
Exploring Brooklyn, I finally understood the bond my Aunt Renee had for her birthplace. In Brooklyn, I too felt I found my people. I love the inclusivity of Brooklyn, the smell of it, the sound of it. I can envision the neighborhood my aunt Renee described to me where they grew up with a Filipino father and German mother. They fit right in with the Puerto Ricans, Italians, Irish, Polish, Jews - different religions, different cultures … a melting pot in the truest sense. This place taught her street smarts, confidence, grace, and acceptance. I love the bodegas and overhearing the many different languages spoken. I love the buildings and architecture and the variety of restaurants. I love the sense of Brooklyn pride the residents share. We can all learn something from this place and its people.
Without sounding too calloused, there’s not much I can thank my parents for, but I do think I am lucky they met in this magical place…Brooklyn… because that’s how my story begins.
This story is dedicated to my Aunt Renee. The smartest, hippest, most beautiful lady that did Brooklyn right. I’ll miss her forever. RIP Aunt Renee.