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Monday, July 10, 2023

"A New Life in Brooklyn" by Torraco, Pamela - 2022 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist


"A New Life in Brooklyn"


by Torraco, Pamela  




"I'm getting married and moving to Brooklyn!"


My 67-year-old father's enthusiasm came through clearly as he made his

announcement in one of his rare phone calls to me from 600 miles away.


"To whom?" I stammered, my shock nearly blocking my voice.


He had been widowed almost 20 years earlier when he was 48 and I was 11. Each of us had lost our favorite person and our anchor and had struggled hard as we adjusted to our new lives.  After I left for college, knowing that I had to separate from him for a time in an attempt to find myself, he had lived for years as a semi-recluse.


So, for the first time, I was hearing his sweet, almost unbelievable story.



A few years before he met my mother, my dad, Pete, had been engaged to a woman named Jessie.  The engagement was broken for some reason and Pete and Jessie parted ways. But they had met again recently, 35 years later, still found each other attractive, and had decided to marry.


My dad had grown up in Jersey City and my mom in Washington, D.C.

After they married they moved to West Hempstead in Nassau County where I was born and raised. My family of three was a relatively happy and well-functioning unit. My dad was a hard-working aeronautical engineer and my mom, a former teacher, enjoyed being a homemaker, engaging in her many art projects, and welcoming neighborhood kids into our home. But when she got breast cancer, everything changed.  Following a mastectomy and radiation, both of which were rather brutal and debilitating at that time, she was never the same. Pete took loving care of his wife until her death less than a year later.

He then responsibly attended to the tough tasks of dealing with his own grief and raising a confused child-teenager.  I think he understood my need to go away to college to find some distance from our difficult relationship. But it was painful for him and I felt guilty leaving him alone.  Nonetheless he remained supportive of my endeavors and we were usually together during school breaks.  He kept the house, fully expecting that I would return.


While he waited, Pete lived mostly quite alone with few friends and little social contact outside of his work. I, along with relatives and friends, expressed concern about him but he brushed us off and politely refused offers of help. While he could be quite personable and had a wonderful sense of humor, he was also very stubborn and probably rather depressed. He dated only one woman that I ever knew of and that relationship was short-lived. I, meanwhile, had completed college and graduate school and was living and working in Michigan.


I sat down and took a deep breath in an attempt to steady myself as he continued his amazing story.  My alone and lonely father had been surprised when an old friend had invited him to his home in Long Beach. Others were there, too, people he had known years earlier.  And there, while swimming in the Atlantic ocean, Pete and Jessie reconnected, 35 years after their separation!  Jessie had never married and still lived in the Brooklyn apartment she had shared with her parents as a teenager, near Grand Army Plaza. Following a short courtship the couple decided that their marriage could probably work this time and, with no more time to lose, planned their simple wedding. 


I don't remember what I said to my dad when he finished his story but I hope I managed to find enough voice to congratulate him. I do remember asking for a few more details about Jessie, hoping that this woman I'd never met was a good choice and not one that  might further hurt and disappoint this tough yet vulnerable man.

The wedding day arrived and it touched my heart when Pete asked me to help him dress for his big day.  A radiant Jessie walked down the aisle of a Brookkyn church (unfortunately I don't recall its name) on the arm of her brother.  It was, of course, a happy event for our family and for Jessie's.

Jessie retired. Pete had already done so several years earlier. He sold his car and his Long Island house and happily moved into the Brooklyn apartment. Jessie took to calling my dad "Petey" - which he apparently didn't mind - and quickly set about improving his tired wardrobe. My dad, the better cook, set about making regular dinners for two. He loved to walk so he and his shopping cart put in several miles every week, returning with groceries. He took well to city living and soon looked and sounded more relaxed than he had in years.


For the next twenty-plus years the couple explored together much of the metropolitan New York area, especially Brooklyn and Manhattan. They went to concerts, shows, operas, museums, restaurants. Pete became the darling of the apartment house. He regularly picked up and delivered newspapers to residents who couldn't get out themselves. Every week he made a cake from a Betty Crocker mix, delivering an eagerly anticipated slice to friends in 3D, 12C, 9F, etc. Jessie and Pete were subway  regulars, of course, and they often took the train to visit relatives in Jersey and Westchester. They went on several cruises and trips to Europe, sending me smiling photos of themselves with the ship's captain or with new friends they'd made. When they visited my husband and me I could only smile when I heard them giggling upstairs in bed.


I had grown up knowing Nassau County and having some familiarity with Manhattan since I relished the few day trips we made there every year for special events.  I knew how Queens looked because that's where we drove to get the subway into "The City" and the Bronx was well-known by us kids for its wonderful zoo. We visited relatives in Queens, and in Elizabeth, N.J., Jersey City, Yonkers,  and Washington DC.  My high school boyfriend went to college on Staten Island so I had been there. But I had no connections to or memories of Brooklyn. Pete and Jessie introduced me to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza among other attractions, happy to share their love of the borough.  They had enjoyed many dinners at the Montauk Club so I arranged a 90th birthday party there for my dad and 40 members of both families spent a splendid afternoon celebrating.


At age 91 or 92 Pete was traveling alone on the subway one day and absentmindedly nearly missed his stop. He stubbornly caught the doors as they were closing, exiting just in time. But he was thrown off balance and fell on the platform. Waving away the kind folks who rushed to assist the older gentleman, he got to his feet and walked the few blocks home. A few hours later when his pain became unbearable he somehow got to the hospital where a broken hip was diagnosed. On the phone his doctor assured me that he was healthy enough for a hip replacement. And, indeed, a few days later when I visited, there was Pete with about ten other rather elderly patients, each with a walker, moving in single file in a large counterclockwise circle. "They've all had hip replacements," the physical therapist told me matter-of-factly, "and they're all recovering well. We have them gather here several times a day to walk these circles!"


Pete slowed down a little bit after that and he walked with a cane for the first time in his life. But he and Jessie lived quite contentedly together for a few more years in their vintage, rent-controlled, beloved Grand Army Plaza apartment.


Brooklyn truly gave my father a second chance and a new and life. He was grateful and so am I.


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