Not sure if I ever told you, but just after I was born, my family emigrated to America, the land of opportunity where the streets were ‘paved with gold’. Although I’ve been back many times since, earlier this month my sister and I decided to retrace our childhood steps and set off for Brooklyn, Noo Yawk to see if we could find the ancestral tenement.
The year was 1946. Dad had gone on ahead - Mum to follow with Marilyn aged 4 and I, aged 5 months. Decked out in her newly-purchased post-war undergarments: brassiere, liberty bodice, panty girdle, seamed stockings and suspenders, hand-made wool dress with matching coat, high-heeled shoes, hat and gloves all specially designed for her grand arrival into the New World, she didn’t reckon on the flight taking almost four days...
We set off from our home in Tottenham where all the neighbours had turned out to wave us goodbye and wish us luck. We reached the Croydon Aerodrome for the first leg of the journey to Shannon only to be told that the aircraft would not be air-worthy until the following day. Trooped back home again. Our grandmother, with whom we’d lived, had already let the rooms.
Off again the following morning with slightly less pomp and ceremony, we eventually reached Shannon only to be told (in great confidence) that the aeroplane on which we were due to fly the Atlantic was deemed ‘unsafe’. Women and children were advised not to board. Everyone else was!
They put us up that night in a boarding house on the west coast of Ireland in a single room with another mother and her two babies, one of whom had whooping cough. Mum sat up all night shielding our delicate rosebud mouths and button noses with pieces of muslin to distract the ambient germs.
By morning, she’d run out of nappies and was obliged, according to family legend, to use scrunched up toilet paper (of the rough Izal kind) plus sheets of cardboard for my delicate little tush. Her elegant costume, as well as her mood, was by now somewhat frayed around the edges. Our Dad meanwhile, in the absence of adequate lines of communication, cast a worried eye across the empty skies.
We finally took off in a tin box held together with spit and sealing wax and rattled across the Atlantic for 21 hours finally coming down with a flop of relief in Newfoundland. They put me in a drawer for landing. The pilot thought it would be safer than wobbling about on my mother’s knee when she already had a fractious 4-year old to contend with.
Onwards to Manhattan, and from there to Los Angeles. Mummy didn’t take to the sun-drenched, sprawling, unstructured city with no public transport whose only redeeming feature was a pubescent film industry in a suburb called Hollywood. We settled nearby and stayed for 8 months. There I spoke my first words and took my first steps.
Back to New York where my mother reckoned she was halfway home. We moved in with Aunt Miriam (who weighed 24 stone) and her Polish immigrant husband, Uncle Mike, who hardly spoke a word of English. Our address was 3085 Brighton 13th Street , Brooklyn, an address imprinted on my mind ever since from the airmail letters with a $5 bill inside that Aunt Miriam used to send us for our birthdays after we’d returned to the UK in 1950.
And so, in October 2010, my sister and I arrived in NYC after an effortless 7 hour flight and set off to find 3085 Brighton 13th Street. It was a Sunday. We took the subway from Times Square but were turfed off halfway due to ‘works on the line’. Shame shit. Different continent. We boarded a shuttle bus (slightly less traumatic than our mother’s journey 60 years before) and watched the street names rumble by until one said Brighton 10th Street where we leapt off.
As we walked towards 13th Street, my sister, who generally has little memory for distant detail, suddenly began to have flashbacks. “OMG! That’s where Daddy used to go to phone home!” she said excitedly, pointing to a small news and candy store. At the back of the shop had been 2 telephone booths where you’d book a call through an operator and go back 6 hours later to see if it had come through!
We walked on wondering whether our building would still be standing. The other side of the road was seafront – the famous Boardwalk (...under the Boardwalk, out of the sun, under the Boardwalk, we’ll be having some fun...) that leads all the way to Coney Island.
3085 was indeed still standing - a 5-storey, brick-built Victorian block much grander than I expected for our then humble circumstances. It’s now mostly occupied by middle-class Russians. We followed a couple inside, found the janitor and told him our story. He listened fascinated then showed us around. My sister again began to remember stuff: the rubbish chutes hidden in a small cupboard on each floor, the laundry room in the basement that housed the washing-machines into which our Dad would place his dime – the dime he’d drilled a hole in and tied a piece of string around so he could retrieve it to use again!
The building’s manageress had joined us by this time and asked if we remembered which number we’d lived at. We didn’t but by description she said it must be 2C and when she knocked on the door and asked the lady if we could look around, my sister freaked out.
It was exactly the same – the layout, the view from the bedroom window down to the yard where she used to play (remind me one day to tell you the story of my beloved panda...) the bathroom - in this apartment still unmodernised – where Marilyn reminded me I was sitting on the loo one day aged two and the ceiling fell down on my head! This may explain certain things...
The lady now occupying the flat had a china plate of Noah’s Ark on her wall. Later we walked along the Boardwalk and stopped for lunch at a Russian restaurant called Tatiana – 2 of my grandchildren are called Noah and Tatiana! Later I went to the loo in a branch of Wendy’s!
All in all, it was a wonderful re-affirming experience I was so glad to have been able to do with my sister. Ah ...Memory Lane ... take trip down there sometime.
(BTW HE arrived and we've met but out of respect, I'm not going to talk about it!!!!)