When I was a kid I would visit my grandfather in suburban New Jersey. He lived about a 30-minute train ride from New York City, the only home he’d known after being shipped off at 6 to live with relatives from Naples.
Apparently, as I came to learn later from my mother, he was the youngest child of a large family that had been decimated by the influenza epidemic that swept through Europe following the First World War. Imagine this: you’re 6, your parents and most of your siblings are dead, and you’re taken by another family and brought back to the United States to work.
He landed, as my mother told me, on Ellis Island. The immigration officer couldn’t pronounce his name. So Philip DiMartini became Louis, and then, when he was adopted into his new home in Brooklyn, he lost his given last name, too.
He lived in New York City until he and my grandmother moved to the calmer wilds of New Jersey. This was in the early 1970s. They bought a tiny cape cod house that at the time, was surrounded by cornfields and playgrounds.
This I remember. I would drive with my family from Philadelphia to this red shingle house and play in the neighborhood, walking alone or with a friend to the streams and open spaces that defined the landscape.
As you can imagine, that place is long gone. The last time I was there was 20 years ago, in 1999. And by then it had already developed into a sprawling megalopolis of office park towers, condo complexes, and strip malls. That was the last time I saw him. He passed away a few years later. I was living in California at the time, and didn’t have a chance to see him before he died.
That’s not really the point of this story, though. During those years I spent coming to see him I would ask him, as I watched him take on the growing metropolis around him, “Pop, do you ever go back into the city?”
And he’d always say the same thing:
“No. I don’t want to go back. I just like knowing that it’s there if I need it.”
He’d say it with a little half smile and add nothing more. I never really understood what he meant by that.