Memory from 51st Street, #18

One summer evening, in the den of the 51st Street house, I was studying the spines on my parents' book collection, wondering how it could possibly be that adults had so much to say that they could fill so many pages in so many thick books with nothing but tiny words.  My brother was practicing piano in the front room, as he did every day around that same time, sunk so deep into concentration that it scared me.

I smelled the sweet scent of cigarette smoke and went to the front door to see, sitting on the top step, Mrs. R, her back to me, a cigarette dangling from her fingers.

Mrs. R must have sensed me standing there staring at her because without turning around she said, "Ask you brother if it's okay, if I just sit here and listen."  Mrs. R lived two doors down from us.  She was thin and tough skinned and kept her hair short and unadorned.  She always wore jeans and walked like a man.  Two years before, her husband had put a ladder up to scrape the flaking paint from their house but never got around to taking the ladder down.  So it remained, chained to a column on the front porch.  When the weather was warm, we could hear yelling coming from their house.  They had two very sweet children.

I silently faded back into the den where I could watch, through the window, Mrs. R smoking, her hard cheek bone hiding the sharp edge of her nose.

And then suddenly, my brother stopped playing and went upstairs.  My heart seized, afraid that Mrs. R. would think he stopped playing because I had told him she was listening.  And before I could figure out what to do about it, she stood up and walked back home.

Years later, after I had moved on, my parents told me, amid other news from the block, that Mrs. R had committed suicide.  And now that fact illuminates this memory of mine with unanswerable questions.  What was it about that evening that made her come sit on our porch and listen to my brother practice?  Did the music allow her to escape, for a few brief minutes, those hardships that continually plagued her?  Was she working through some unsolvable dilemma?  Or did she feel light enough that day to do something daring, something out of the ordinary?  Was the music familiar, conjuring up memories from her own childhood?  Or was it simpler than that: A mother stepping outside her own gate to hear what was beyond the din of her own family.


  1. Don't we all have scraps of memories lingering in our brains from long ago?Why do they stay there, stored away, quietly waiting sometimes for years? Why do they jump, uncalled, out of our heads at unexpected moments? I've been wondering why you have a terminal case of whimsy? Good ideas....good work! Thanks for sharing them with others.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Anonymous. These are good questions that I've been asking myself too. Why do I have a terminal case of whimsy? I will have to think on that and get back to you. . . Possibly a topic for a future post.