My grandparents lived in a modest apartment in Queens, New York, for over fifty five years. My mother was raised in its quiet rooms with soft carpets lined with the shelves of worn book cases and scratched nightstands along with the countless gleaming frames containing pictures of relatives. Those same relatives–most of whom I’ve never met–sat on my favorite spot of the same faded floral sofa with its formidable arms and obstinate buttons that frequently popped, as aging Jews enjoyed coffee and old memories. I am as familiar with that apartment as I am with my own childhood home, which lies across a river and a state border, many miles away among the trees and SUVs of a thriving suburb.
We had visited that apartment about four or five times a year. I remember pulling on my coat and climbing into the car after my brother, nibbling on my fingernails, gazing out the window, playing homemade games like counting license plates and racing minivans in the adjacent lanes. But no matter the weather or season, the industrial buildings and factories lining the highway always spit smoke out into the sky, whose hue alternated between a bright blue and a grave gray.
The apartment itself, in a solemn brick building surrounded by identical ones that were experiencing similar degrees of neglect, held the same dreariness and startle of the buzzing sound of the elderly German couple in 5D permitting us to enter. A tiled foyer decorated with huge mirrors and superficial trees greeted visitors and ushered them into the shabby and slow elevator. Often, in December, a small plastic tree with gaudy ornaments was displayed and plastic lights hung from the speckled ceiling.
My grandparents were content in the decrepit apartment known as 5D. They didn’t mind the disorder of their home, or the dishwasher that never cleaned plates properly, or even the toothpaste that was stuck to the bottom of the bathroom sink. They stubbornly liked their car, which they felt gave them their freedom and their independence, despite their old age. I often wished that they would go to just one of my basketball games or stay with us for a weekend, but more often than not, they were traveling or made excuses that our house was too cold or traffic too cumbersome. They were in control of their lives, perched as smug as the royal on their throne, unbothered by the suppressed desires and needs of their most adoring subjects.
And yet, as life would have it, all things must come to an end; the sixty years my grandparents spent in their comfortable home were swiftly terminated by my grandfather’s heart attack one sunny afternoon on a cruise ship, thousands of miles away from the faded sofa and the lumpy king sized bed and the lace curtains and the bathroom sink that clogged too easily and the icebox containing a carton of low-fat milk. I awoke to clouds and light snow to discover my childhood was over; the days of nonchalant visits in the car and routine conversations sprinkled with the monotony of an incurable age gap were past and an unsettling period of anxiety and palpable concern was thrust upon my small family. The next four weeks were a blur of piling boxes and brushing dust off of trinkets as they were neatly wrapped in last week’s headlines. Soon, the quiet, but not unexpected passing of my grandfather only gave respite to the frenzy of emptying the desolate apartment.
These days, the silent raindrops that tumble down the smudged windows of my grandparents’ venerable apartment no longer peek into my mother’s worn bedroom with the pull-out couch and Lladró china or eavesdrop on my grandfather’s one-liners in between bites of salami in the kitchen. My parents are weary and my brother and I are no longer naïve. Now, memories and family secrets gently roll into my lap, inviting me to whisk myself back in time, back to the blissful days when I slouched in the backseat of the car, huddled in my coat and eager to scamper down a deserted beige hallway to press the doorbell of 5D.