It’s a quiet morning here under a cloudy sky; dull and bluish gray like an old lady’s hair. I’d say, ” like my own hair,” only that’s white. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, had the same color hair as this morning’s sky. Funny that I’ve never thought of Nanny (that was the name she had from my brother) as having sky colored hair.
Nanny also had crippling arthritis in her hips. Long before there were such things as hip replacement surgery, Nanny spent most of her day sitting in a chair in her living room, a heavy blanket on her lap, rosary beads in her hand, praying. She had a view out of a small window to the west, towards Riverdale, a neighborhood in the Bronx. She lived in a small apartment on the top floor of a four story walk-up at 3411 Fort Independence Street. The street was named that because of a Revolutionary War era fort on the height above her street. That was named Cannon Place. Years later I moved into my first apartment on Cannon Place.
Just a few houses north of Nanny’s apartment house was an old colonial era home, still occupied, in which I was told General George Washington spent some time while retreating from New York. It was a dark looking thing lourking under large trees, scary. I figured Washington had good reason to retreat if he’d spent time in that place.
Nanny walked, when she walked, with a limp on both legs, a kind of rocking shuffle. She’d get up slowly and take the few steps from her chair to the kitchen for a cup of tea. The kitchen was the most airy room in the little place, with a stove and oven, yellow enameled metal in one corner and a table, white enameled metal in the center. It had two windows, one looking west toward Riverdale, on the other side of whose hill was the Hudson River.
The other window looked South, down on Bailey Avenue and toward the island of Manhattan and the low hills of Inwood Park, the southern end of the Henry Hudson Bridge was anchored. It spanned the Harlem River where it joined the Hudson. I spent a lot of time on, under and around that bridge and in that park. From both of her kitchen windows you could see and hear the IRT elevated trains which ran along Broadway from 242nd Street all the way down to South Ferry at the very end of Manhattan.
I used to think Broadway was the longest street in the world. I knew New York was the biggest city.
On Sunday afternoons when we were small, our mother would send my brother Tom and me up to Nanny’s house for a visit. She could not come to us, so we went to see her. She lived with my mother’s sister who was our favorite aunt. She also was our only aunt, my mother’s younger sister Violet, who never married. (That may be the subject of another story, someday.) I have never come across another person named Violet since.
Riri was how we knew her. Again, the name was given her by my brother when he was learning to make words and couldn’t get his mind around the grown up sound of Violet. I have no picture of Nanny to share, but this is a picture of her two daughters. My mother, Nell (Eleanor) is on the left, and Riri is on the right. She was younger and smaller, and quite pretty, don’t you think. All in all, she was a lady, delicate, petite; made of china and silk, and quite out of place in the world which was to come very soon after 1937.
That’s my mother’s printing on top of the snap. Riri was just about thirty I think in the picture and the summer of 1937 would make it about six months before my parents got married and about a year and a half before Tom was born.
Tom and I walked up to Nanny’s house from our own each Sunday afternoon for a few hours visit. She and Riri had stocked the house with some toys, the kind little boys would like. Soon the whole living room was covered with battalions of soldiers and their gear, tin tanks, trucks and cannons while the great battles of the very recently completed war were played out on the old well worn oriental rug. I remember one old metal P-51 Mustang fighter; the wheels would fold up into the wings with a reliable snap. It was our whole air force, bombing and strafing the front lines and flying high over and into enemy territory, the Land of the Rising Sun and the Third Reich at the same time, to cripple the enemy at home. Both of those places were located in the bedroom off the living room behind the curtained french doors where Nanny and Riri slept on metal framed beds.
That old tin plane must have flown a million miles in my imagination. The enemy soldiers we defeated became very good at falling from the tops of beds and bureaus when they were shot by the advancing Americans. There were only Americans in our armies.
I have the mantle clock in my basement now that was in another room at Nanny’s house. It sat on an old highly polished wooden Victrola the size of a small chest of drawers. Riri would tell me of the music she and Mom and my uncles played at their parties a long time ago.
Both it and the clock never uttered a sound while I was there.
I liked looking at some of the pictures hung on the wall of the living room. I remember two very well. One was of a Native American looking off into the distance, an heroic pose. The other was the one which captured my attention and held it for what seemed hours as I sort of entered it and imagined what might be going on. It was a copy of course of a painting of the Grand Canal in Venice.
The photo below is of a painting by a fellow named Guardi, I think, which hangs in the Art Institute in Chicago. It is of the Grand Canal, of course, as it looked on a day in the late 18th Century, and on every day I saw it. Nanny’s Grand Canal is every bit as grand in my memory of it high on the wall of her living room. When I walked the past painting in the museum I stopped short and became the young boy I was once long ago and am, somewhere, still.
We’d leave Nanny’s house before it got too dark to walk home. On the way out the door she or Riri would give us a quarter each, a great sum of money with which to by a Pepsi cola and some candy. We tumbled down the creaky wooden flights of stairs and on the ground floor looked up to see both of them up there looking down at us smiling.
I haven’t been back except on days like today before the snow starts to fall and the light, as you can see, is bright in Venice where all of my memories live.