Sunday, February 28, 2016

Giving Thanks to Tenement Moms

So I walk into the house in 1964, I’m 10, and the first thing I see is a pair of bare legs on the inside of a closed window and the rest of the body isn’t in the apartment. I’m praying to God whoever it is doesn’t fall, the soapy glass prevents a clean identification of the person sitting on the outside sill, but I kind of figure it’s my mother by the unmistakable fluffy slippers dangling from her toes. Now I’m flipping out because I’m scared of heights. She’s four stories up, 50 feet smack over the concrete backyard. My heart’s outside my chest doing a Mexican Bean dance on my T-Shirt. Finally an arm starts swirling away the soapy water and I see Mom’s face through the glass and she smiles at me. I love that smile, and for a brief moment I was not frightened for her I was just amazed at how hard she worked to keep our small apartment clean.


When I was boy right through my teens, if I was away a day or longer from the house she’d surprise me and cleaned my room like something out of a movie. It looked so good I thought I was in Beaver Cleaver’s bedroom. This blew my mind, I’d run through the apartment and grab my mother and kiss her over and over saying, "thank you, Uncle Mommy, thank you." All Mom said while being tackled, “Watch my head, I don’t like people touching my head.”
Mom thanks the photographer with a look

Yesterday, I washed eight windows. When I got to my daughter’s room I felt Mom’s spirit sweep through me, she made several passes. As I cleaned my daughter’s space (dusted the old knick-knacks, too) Mom stayed with me for two hours. I began to feel the love and enjoyment she experienced doing this for me countless times many years ago.

Growing up, my family and all my friends lived in small spaces, most with two or more kids. A New York tenement mother has a wicked tough job. Keeping a home when the challenges to clean and organized it are near insurmountable. I don’t know about you, but from what I saw, I think most tenement moms had a brittle grip on their sanity. But their love was so sturdy it never left.
Dish towel attached to Mom's shoulder

When I was I polishing my mother’s bone china pieces and her Aries figure, behind me I felt that same smile I saw through the soapy window when I was 10. Thank you, Mom.

Mom with the Smile I love

An injured mouse receives visitors at his hospital bed

Work to do

Daughter''s room cleaned.

My room after Mom cleaned it.

Starting March 30th, I'm working with the New York Public Library's Neighborhood Oral History Project, "Upper East Side Story." Details on this project in the next few days. If you lived on the East Side between 59th St. & 96th St. for 25 or more years (the longer the better) and you would like me to interview you about your history in the neighborhood, please email me at An easy conversation where I listen to you talk about where you came from. Your recollections will become part of the permanent record at NYPL, available for the public to hear.

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