Finding Mary

A visit to a cherished next door neighbor, fifty years later, revealed a surprising revelation; you can go home again.

The simple days of summer and backyard swimming pools Jackson Heights, Queens NY 1967

When my father died, the memories that encompassed me, swirling in and out of my consciousness in the futile hope of comfort, were not of the time and place I spent the majority of my life with him. Rather, my mind returned to a tidy, brick row house where we lived my first six years and whose address remains forever etched in my mind. 34-52-73rd Street, Jackson Heights. It was not so much my childhood home in Queens to which I longed to return but instead to my next door neighbor, Mary Balducci, an Italian-born seamstress who made a lifelong impression in my heart.

She would be nearly ninety years old I calculated.  Her husband Alfred had died unexpectedly shortly after we moved and her only son Johnny, had long married and moved away.  We had not kept in touch after leaving Jackson Heights though in the weeks and months shortly after, while driving home from New York City where my father worked, would make impromptu visits.  On those trips I would recall my father suddenly announcing in a jovial voice “Who wants to stop and see Mary?” and as my two sisters and I shrieked in excitement he would turn the car around for the short detour to 73rd street.  While my father sat curbside, we would race to her front door, ring the bell then wait hopefully, but she was always home.  She would embrace us with the same two words, repeated again and again “my babies, my babies.”  Over the years these visits became less frequent and as we settled into the rhythm of life, eventually ceased all together.  And I tucked the memories of 73rd Street and Mary Balducci neatly away.

The search was simple really.  No intense sleuthing, no years of tracking down leads on where she had gone.  No heartbreak in discovering she was no longer alive.  Just a google search revealing her address, followed by a phone number.  A chance to return to a past lifetime suddenly lay before me; Maria Balducci, 34-52-73rd Street, Jackson Heights.  She answered on the eighth ring, in the warm, lilting Italian I accent I recognized immediately.  “Mary?” this is Kathy your old next door neighbor. My father died.  Can I come see you?”

They say you can’t go home again…

She greeted me in a simple faded housecoat and pink slippers, her black hair still thick and luxurious, defying her ninety one years.  “My baby, my baby,” she repeated over and over.  “Come! Walk around! Go upstairs! Look! Remember!”

I tentatively entered her dining room and stood before the breakfront. I recall the bottom drawer always being filled with Juicy Fruit gum which Mary gave to us in abandon.  I approached and as she nodded, grasped the drawer which slid open easily, gratefully, as if all these years awaiting my return. It is said that the sense of smell is probably more closely linked with memory than any of our other senses. The aroma of Juicy Fruit gum filled the air.

They say you can’t go home again.

I walked into the kitchen where I had sat countless days at her table eating bowls of “skinny spaghetti” on top of which she painstakingly grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese bought from a market in Little Italy. Gazing out the window I spotted across the way, the neat line of row houses and then the one I most sought out, my childhood boyfriend James Latieri. Years later after we had we left Jackson Heights, I encountered Jimmy quite by accident, at a Chaminade High School dance in Mineola, Long Island. We sat in an outdoor pavilion, smoking cigarettes swigging Budweiser from a quart bottle and contemplating life. We were all strangers but being teenagers that little mattered. And then the conversation somehow evolved to where everyone was born. The next few moments remain in my memory jumbled but I recall hearing the words “Did you say Jackson Heights?”repeated by a lanky teen seated next to me. “Whoa! My best friend Jimmy was from Jackson Heights and he is on his way here right now!” And then as if in a dream seeing Jimmy Latieri, my six year old crush, materialize before my very eyes. Sauntering up to us, cigarette dangling from his lips he flung back his mop of long black hair and listened silently to the story. Trying to maintain his aura of cool, he lost it for a minute when he excitedly asked: “Kathy, is it really you?” We laughed together that balmy night transported from six to sixteen in an instant. His family like mine had moved to Long Island though he would never return to Queens or to 73rd Street. I imagined because Jimmy never had a Mary Balducci living next door.

Gazing out Mary’s kitchen window, I noted the tall looming high rise apartment building still standing adjacent and in that moment, remembered the terror of “the gray-haired lady.” As we played in the garden below she would appear at the window, ten stories above, fling it open and then toss an empty Vodka bottle out which always seemed to miss us by only inches. It was not being hit by the bottle I feared, but the strange, calm smile that would appear on her face right before she threw it. I dreamed about the gray haired lady for years after we left who unlike Mary represented a dark side of life during my short six years in Jackson Heights.

I asked Mary about the turtles. Could we walk out back to the garden? The row houses each had a tiny, fenced in yard behind each home. Mary’s husband Alfred tended to several Box Turtles which he kept in a beautiful pond he had created in the corner of their garden. As a child, I loved to help him feed them and attribute my lifelong love of turtles to this early introduction. As Mary and I entered the garden and stood before the spot where the pond now dry and overgrown once lay, I felt Alfred with us in spirit and hoped he was once again caring for his turtles in another place and time.

She had remained in her home on 73rd street, at ninety one years of age, a testament to her will and independence. She still left her front door unlocked and insisted she was not going to any “old age home” as her relatives urged. She continued to take the subway to Little Italy to purchase the finest ingredients for her Italian recipes. She told me of old neighbors on the street, the ones who had gone and the few that remained. I told her about the lives of my sisters and how we had remained as close as ever but it was an unspoken understanding that she and I had shared the closest bond. I expressed to her the heartache of losing my father; she told me she never quite got over our leaving. And then it was time for me to leave her once again.

Six years later, my mother died. I had no contact with Mary since our last visit but once again felt the need to see her. She would be ninety seven years old now. What were the odds? I waited for weeks then picked up the phone. After several rings a recording. The number had been disconnected. I was not surprised but nonetheless felt the need to have an end to this story. I pondered my next step. And then I recalled that Mary’s only son Johnny lived in Bayside Queens. As a child living next door I had met him only a handful of times. I searched for his name and found the address. But instead of calling, I wrote him a letter. Maybe because I did not want to hear of Mary’s dying through an impersonal phone call, maybe to buy a little more time to process she might be gone. I wrote him of my visit with his mother six years ago. I described how I sat in his childhood kitchen eating tri color ice cream at 10AM in the morning from a china bowl. I shared the indescribable feeling of walking around his home and how it had felt exactly the same. I told him about the still faint aroma, fifty years later, of the juicy fruit gum. I wrote of my memories of feeding the Box Turtles with his father. I told him how much I had loved his mother and my need to know what happened to her. I ended my letter to Johnny with the simple words “you can go home again.”

Johnny called back two weeks later. I was strangely relieved not to be home that day, as if to be spared the dreaded news. He spoke to my husband and told him how much he enjoyed my letter. He loved the part about his father and the turtles, he had not thought about the Box Turtles in years. He recalled how much his mother and father loved our family and Mary’s heartache when we moved away. She never quite got over it, he said. Yes, she was still alive but they had sold the house on 73rd street and had moved her to a nursing home just last year. It was unsafe for her to live alone and she had experienced recent dementia. He had the address if I would like to visit…

There is a portrait which hangs in the family room of my home. It shows myself and my two sisters as children, alongside my beautiful and then youthful parents. A picture that if I brought to show Mary in the nursing home, would be easily recognizable. Her babies. Three smiling girls, frozen in time. I have taken the picture down off the wall so I can easily place it in my car. It sits waiting in the corner of the living room. Waiting. It has been there for a while now but next week, yes next week for certain I will visit her.

Maria Balducci died in 2016 at the age of 99 years.

Published by Kathy Simmons

I am an ex New Yorker who still misses the vibrancy of the city. I seek out the humor in every day life and relay it through my stories in the hope others will appreciate as well. I love to write about growing up with my fantastically unique Irish mother whose memory inspires me every day. Although she is no longer with us, her antics are an endless staple for my tales. I currently live in Connecticut with my husband, two sons and toy fox terrier Anabel.

16 thoughts on “Finding Mary

  1. So touching. I had an old neighbor, an Italian Mary!, who was like that for me. I’m sad to say that after I was about 18 and gone from that house, I never really saw her again. I admire your effort to go see your Mary once again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A wonderfully told and touching story. I’m so glad you were able to reconnect with Mary that one last time, and through her also to reconnect with your childhood. I think it’s often the case that when we lose our parents it’s the early years with them we find ourselves remembering the most, perhaps because that’s when we felt closest to them and most in need of them?

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  3. This is such a delightful, moving story and recall of past times, Kathy. Mary sounds like she was a wonderful woman, and I’m not surprised you have/had deep feelings for her even though she isn’t here any longer. I’d admire your perseverance in finding Mary again. It’s so hard losing people we love, isn’t it? I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost both your parents – I have too, so I can identify with this – my father died in 2012 and my Mum in 2016 (the same year as Mary). I’m looking forward to catching up on some more of your posts. Ellie

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    1. Thank you Ellie! I loved her so much and just couldn’t forget her. Loved my parents too and I am sorry for your loss. We are very lucky to have had that as many people do not share that good fortune. Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Bonjour mon Amie

    Les jours se suivent mais ne se ressemblent pas
    Chaque journée porte en elle un espoir
    Profite de cette journée, de cette semaine, des jours à venir
    Profite de tes proches de tes amis enfants petits enfants Sois sage, simple
    Reste le même ou la mème du matin au soir
    Ceux qui t’aiment sauront t’apprécier
    Bise ton ami Bernard

    Liked by 1 person

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