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Remembering things past in old New York

By Kenneth Kowald

Years ago I heard (or read) that an expert in memory believed that after seven years or so we don’t really remember something. We remember remembering it.

My memory was jolted not long ago when I read stories about fig trees in Brooklyn and the good news about Buick cars selling very well again.

At some point in my evening session education at CCNY, I arrived very early for classes and decided to sit in the library for awhile. I took out a blank pad and began to write down things that I believed I could remember up to the age of 6, when we left the Lower East Side for Borough Park. Eventually, although not that night, I came up with about 25 items.

One that I have remembered all my life is being given a balloon and how happy I was as I toddled along with it down Rivington Street. But, I let the string go at some point and the balloon sailed away. I was not happy. That night, as I was in the bathtub, with my mother bathing me, there was a thunderstorm and I was worried about what had happened to that balloon. Shades of infinity?

Memories can come from an elegant pastry, as it did for Marcel Proust. I must admit that I found him boring and never went beyond the first of his multi-work of memory — which I had to do in college. But he was right about how memories spring up.

In Borough Park, then a heavily Italian-American neighborhood, the fig tree was everywhere. Beautiful and bountiful. I remember the heavy wrappings for the winter. The trees survived, thanks to loving care, year after year. So did many grapevines.

Now, it seems, many Brooklynites are suffering fig damage from our winters of discontent. I hope their trees will survive. To me, those trees and the grape vines seemingly everywhere conjure up a happy childhood. I wonder if there are many in borough park these days? That community was not mentioned in the article I read. Perhaps those fig trees and grapevines are all gone. If so, that is a great pity. I wonder if any such trees and vines are left in a community with “park” in its name.

Part of that childhood in Borough Park was playing stickball. Not everyone had a car in those days, so we could play uninterrupted for some time. Even this athletic klutz enjoyed it and did not do badly.

In those days, it seems to me, all doctors (they made house calls, imagine!) drove Buicks. When we lived in Elmhurst, on very warm, lazy summer afternoons, I would sit on our small porch and watch the cars go by on 57th Avenue. Still not too many, but enough. I became something of an expert about being able to tell what kind of car, including the year, was going by. There were many models then. It made a small mind stay active in the heat.

And, yes, the doctors — it seemed — drove Buicks.

It is more than seven years ago, but the balloon, the fig trees and Buicks remain a memory or a memory of a memory. It is something Proust and I have in common.

But so does the whole world, no?

Happy spring and happy memories.

Je suis Charlie

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