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Genealogical journey to Brooklyn

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April 11, 2012
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Carly Silver

The author’s grandparents, William and Elinore Silver | courtesy of Carly Silver

“Sometimes, the past is just the past.”

I sat under the scant shade of a striped umbrella in the relentless July sun, sipping from a warm water bottle. Next to me, my dad plopped a cardboard pizza box down.

“You excited?” he asked me.

“Yeah. How could I not be?”

That summer I worked at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, where, among other tasks, we interns composed ten-page essays on our family histories using the research skills we had acquired. After years of scavenging information from any free genealogical services I could find on the Internet, I could finally explore my own history in depth. I decided to focus on my paternal lineage, gathering as much data as possible on their lives from family documents and census records. Then I persuaded my father to take me back to his childhood home: Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Like any good Jewish family, we began our journey with a good meal, this one at a neighborhood institution – and home of the square pizza pie – Spumoni Gardens.

“Where are we off to first?” he asked me.

I checked my list of Silver-related locations, each of which had, at one time, housed a family member’s home or business. “We could go to Poppy’s old building on Avenue U, but it’s now a store called Dimples Baby.”

My dad shook his head. “Nah. Let’s go somewhere better. Let’s go to my grandparents’.”

We finished our pizza and got into the car. “You spent most of your time there, right?” I asked him.

“Where?” my dad asked. “Nanny Kate and Poppy Max’s? Sure. Weekends, afternoons, all the time. The whole family revolved around them, Nanny especially.”

“I wish I could’ve known them,” I said wistfully, gazing out the window at the brick buildings that whizzed by.

“I wish you could’ve, too.” He leaned forward and squinted into the bright light. “I gotta figure out where we are. Hold on a sec….”

As he navigated the intersection, I opened a manila folder with “Family History” scrawled across it. Pulling out a sheaf of papers, I rifled through the official documents-my grandfather’s army records, birth certificates-until I got to the photos. Over the past two months, I had collected as many photos of family members as possible. Now, I held them all in my lap, a treasure trove of memories.

Looking through these photographs – some black and white, some stills taken from old home videos: Each figure came alive before my eyes. Nanny Kate, my paternal great-grandmother, her tousled, short black hair streaked lightly with gray, looks affectionately at her only son, seated next to her on a wooden bench. My grandfather wraps an arm around his wife, his white smile beaming at the camera from a handsome face, square and broad-planed like my father’s. He laughs lightly and admires my grandmother, her dark hair bound up in a fashionable 1960s beehive and tan skin – so unusual for an Ashkenazi girl – set off in the summer sun by a white dress.

I flipped to another photo, one taken the same day, in which my grandfather poses with Poppy Max. Willy grins at the camera, an arm around his father, while Max smiles, an expression that looks to me equally hesitant and happy. I ran a finger over his receding white hair and quiet face, imagining his demure countenance: quiet on the outside, but full of pride at the generations of his family before him, the epitome of the American dream.

Suddenly, the car jerked to a stop, breaking me out of my reverie. “We’re here,” my dad announced. I hopped out of the car, still in a daze. The small brick building, complete with an open front porch, was charming. I began to climb the stairs to knock on the front door, but my dad grabbed my arm. “No, no, no. You’re not gonna do that.”  I attempted to protest, but he persisted. “We’re not about to disturb whoever lives here. We can stand and look, but that’s it.” I eyed the door, imagining generations of Silvers opening it and going inside….

Then, I spied a small alleyway behind the house, blocked off from the street by a wrought-iron fence. I hurried over and peered through the bars. It was gray and dirty: The only object of interest was an old tricycle turned upside down amidst a heap of garbage. “What used to be back here?”

My dad came over. “This was the kids’ hangout place,” he recalled. “Poppy Max built the grandkids a tree house. We’d play up here for hours.” He pointed out where the tree house used to sit, now obscured by overgrown weeds. We stood in contemplation, staring at the backyard for a few minutes, then my dad clapped a hand on my shoulder.

“Ready to go?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

I cast a lingering glance at the house, full of memories only accessible to me through other people’s words, full of specters of family I’d never meet.

Over the next few hours, we visited a handful of other locations on my list. The Colonial Mansion, the space where my grandparents got married, was now a mosque; my great-grandfather’s first house was a home goods store; and so it went.

The last stop of the day was my dad’s childhood home. As the sun set, we parked outside and made our way up the pathway to the front door. To my surprise, it was open and, before he could say anything, I went inside the vestibule. To my chagrin, I couldn’t enter the lobby because that door was locked.

 “I feel like I can’t get in touch with anything,” I complained aloud. “I want to see, touch, smell what you did, you know?”

“You wouldn’t be touching or smelling anything that interesting. Also, you can’t go trespassing on other people’s property,” my dad told me. “Sometimes, the past is just the past.”

Glancing into the apartment building’s forbidden lobby, I sighed and turned away, but halted in my tracks at something in the corner of my eye. Next to the buzzers were residents’ names and their apartment numbers. “What did you say your apartment number was again?” I asked. He repeated the number out loud.

I grinned and pointed at one name on the roster. “Take a look at this.” Next to my family’s old apartment number, where they hadn’t lived in more than thirty years, was “Silver,” neatly handwritten in all capital letters.

“That’s so funny,” my dad mused. “I can’t believe it’s still here after all this time.”

“I know, right? What’re the odds?” I smiled. “See, sometimes you’re wrong. Sometimes the past and the present aren’t so far away from one another, right?” My dad rolled his eyes, but I pulled out my camera. “Here, let me get a picture of you next to it.”

I put my finger on the camera button, but, before I snapped a photo, I paused. Right here was that conduit between past and present I was searching for. Smiling, I pushed the button. This one would go in my photo collection, for sure.

Carly Silver is a senior at Barnard College, Columbia University, majoring in religion and minoring in ancient studies. She is a New Voices Magazine national correspondent.



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