It was my youngest sister’s idea. In recognition of our parents’ 60 years of marriage, we would return to where it all started. Brooklyn! The plan was pretty simple, Mom and Dad would come down from their home in Massachusetts with my sister and meet up with the rest of their children in Brooklyn. I cannot remember the last time we (Mom, Dad, and all six children) were together without spouses and grandchildren in tow.
We booked rooms at the Brooklyn Marriott and used that as our starting point for our tour. My brother had arranged for a tour guide from Brooklyn Unplugged and a large luxury van to take us on a four-hour tour of the significant locations in my parents’ lives. Our tour guide was Jeff Stirewalt, and our van driver was a gentleman named Tito.
We boarded the van in front of the Marriott at 1 p.m. Our first location was the house on Dean Street in the Boerum Hill neighborhood that was the center of my mother’s family for generations. As we stopped along the street, we, noticed the door open and an arborist coming out of the venerable old brownstone with the owner of the home. My sister jumped out of the van and introduced herself to the owners, Bob and Carol. As it turns out, they had purchased it from my great-uncle in 1989. To our surprise and delight, they invited us into the house for a quick look around. The house has been restored over the years, but the architectural details, many of the light fixtures and some remnants of my mother’s family remained. Our hosts talked to us for around 20 minutes. We were even invited up to the third floor where my great uncle’s study had been converted to closet space for the front and back bedrooms. It was in this room where my great-uncle had painted a map of a large section of Brooklyn with the Fire Department of New York firehouses, call boxes and equipment. When the closet renovation was done, the new owner could not bring himself to paint over the sections of the map that survived.
After speaking with the owners and reminiscing about our eccentric great-uncle, we offered our appreciation for their incredibly generous invitation to glimpse the house. We left Boerum Hill and headed to Red Hook, the neighborhood where my father lived as a child. While this part of Brooklyn had gone through a dramatic transformation from the turn of the twentieth century when it was predominantly populated by Irish and Italian immigrants to a mostly Cuban and Dominican neighborhood, some of the places from his childhood remained. The most emotional location was Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, my father’s family parish when he was a child. (Visitation is located at 98 Richards Street at Verona Street)
There was a social going on the in the yard next to the church when we pulled up. The front door was open, so we got out of the van and went inside. While we were inside the darkened church, a woman from the social came in and asked if she could assist us. I told her that my father’s family had been members of the parish and that he was an altar boy here in 1940. A smile came across her face, and she immediately offered to light up the church and illuminate the fresco behind the altar. Tears came to his eyes as he took in the sights of this grand old Gothic church. I am sure memories of both his parents’ families came to the forefront of his consciousness.
We loaded back into the van and headed to Coney Island to the place where my parents met as summer camp counselors for the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). I would be remiss if I did not mention our driver, Tito. He handled that Mercedes Van like he was in a car modified for drifting. He maneuvered us around Brooklyn as if he was on rails, narrowly missing cars in traffic, pulling U-turns on city streets and squeezing into tight spaces with remarkable ease. His handling of traffic on the Belt Parkway was NASCAR worthy! He was able to turn the transits between stops into a thrill ride. Every time we loaded into the van after a stop I made sure Mom was buckled in. As we traveled from stop to stop our tour guide, Jeff, filled in with facts about Brooklyn. My parents, of course, corrected him a few times! (I know my father is reading this so I will admit to chiming in a few times as well.) While we were on the Belt Parkway the subject of beer came up, followed by an impressive display of classic beer jingle singing by my brother, Bob, who belted out the tunes for Rheingold, Schaefer and Ballentine Beers, respectively! We were all having a grand time.
Once we made it to Coney Island, we offloaded at the West 28th Street ramp to the boardwalk at Coney Island, this is the place where my parents met and got to know each other while they were working at CYO.
Lunch had to be at Nathan’s! Tito somehow parked right in front of the restaurant.
My parents were full of stories about taking their summer camp charges to the pool and to the beach. Stories of their own adventures on the Cyclone, which turned 90 years old the day after we visited. You could almost see the memories in their eyes as they took in the sights and sounds around them that day.
From Coney Island, we traveled to the neighborhood that I remember, Park Slope. This is the area where my mother grew up in the big limestone on 4th Street, my father lived in an apartment on 9th street with his family, and I grew up in a brownstone down the street from my maternal grandmother.
Tito, our driver, was able to park the van across the street from the house I grew up in on 4th street. My youngest sister jumped out of the van and up the stoop to the front door of the brownstone. Ringing the bell brought the current owner to the door. I have no idea what she must have thought when she saw the group gathering on the sidewalk. Liz asked for permission to take a group photo on the stoop. Isabel surprised us all by inviting us in for a quick look at the house. Amazingly, for the second time today, we were entering into a house that was important to our family, welcomed by people who did not know us but were quick to offer a kind invitation to revisit memories.
We finally did get the photo on the stoop as we departed for our last official stop.
Tito dropped us at our final tour stop, St. Saviour Church on 8th Avenue. My parents were married here in June 1957. This is the parish to which both sides of my family belonged in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. It is the parish where my mother went to high school and where I went to elementary school. My father and older brother sang in the choir here. At the end of my choir audition when I was a child, the choir master looked at me and announced that they were also looking for altar boys. He pointed me to the front of the church. This was the center of parochial life for the family.
We arrived at the church in time for five o’clock mass, which we had arranged to be said for my parents. My parents seemed to be deeply moved by the service. It had been over 40 years since the last time we sat as a family in this church.
Once mass was concluded, and my parents had spoken with the priest on the steps of the church, we made our way to the Stone Park Cafe for dinner. Seated at a large round table at the front of the restaurant, we enjoyed a meal while talking about our adventure that day and sharing stories. We could not believe how lucky were to have Bob and Carrol invite us into their house on Dean Street and Isabel welcome us into the brownstone that was our home on 4th Street. Mom and Dad were ready to call it quits after dinner, so we made our way back to the hotel. Once we bid them goodnight, the “children” headed for a nearby tequila bar.
After a few drinks, someone came up with the idea to walk up onto the Brooklyn Bridge to check out the skyline. We had been game for anything all day, so why not? We ended up on the Brooklyn tower at midnight, taking in the sights of the New York skyline.
While looking at lower Manhattan, I had to wonder how many more times we would be together. Was this the last time we would be in Brooklyn as a group? Given how widely scattered we are from Massachusetts to southern Virginia I am afraid I know the answer to that question. As we packed up the cars on Sunday morning, my brother handed off two big boxes of old photos and slides from my father for me to sort, scan and catalog. I am sure that will keep me busy through the summer. After saying our goodbyes, I started my trek south to Virginia. While the family had moved out of the city years ago, I could not help but think at this moment we had left Brooklyn for good.
It was a fantastic day for my parents and my siblings. It was a celebration of Regina Kelly and Jerry Baumann on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary. It was a day I will not soon forget.
I want to thank my sister, Liz, for coming up with this idea and bringing my parents down from coastal Massachusetts. My brother James for arranging the tour and the guide. My sister, Cathy, for finding a fantastic restaurant. My sister, Eileen, for finding parking in Park Slope and staging a car to get my parents back to the hotel after dinner. I also want to thank Bob, the oldest of the siblings, for capturing the day with his camera and his encyclopedic knowledge of 1960 beer jingles.
For Bob and Carol on Dean Street and Isabel on 4th Street, your own kind invitations to come into your homes was astounding and much appreciated. I think I speak for all of us in saying that going into the houses again was the biggest thrill of the day. From me, from my family, thank you so very much!
Thanks to Jeff, our guide, and Tito, our driver, from Brooklyn Unplugged for an incredible afternoon!