The Late Great Northeast

Growing up in Northeast Philly, I desperately wanted to escape its marshmallow blandness. Now — 40 years later — my old neighborhood has radically changed. Figuring out why I find that so upsetting just might open a new window into the most mysterious swath of the city

Of course, I’m part of the problem — I didn’t stay, my brothers didn’t stay, my cousins didn’t stay — so I probably have no right to say a word about any of it. But it’s not so easy to shrug off proprietary ownership of your past. Even if you suspect you’re no longer entitled to it. 

“LET’S LISTEN TO your CD,” Mom says, slipping it into the player below the dash. I burned it for her a few birthdays ago. Of the two of us, I’m the emotionally demonstrative one, the one who sits at weddings sniffling as she, wanly interested and dry-eyed, wonders if there will be stuffed capon at the reception. Dad is more like me, sentimental, the deep, languid recesses of his heart evidenced in every line of his 78-year-old face. She has this side, too, but hers is hidden, tucked into old drawers and dusty cedar chests that contain the cards, letters, matchbooks and photo albums that tell her life story.
We’re on our way to Ocean City, to spend a weekend with Pat and Jean and their boys. I’ve come to treasure these weekends in the middle of my middle age, as I look at my graying parents and realize, ever so briefly, every so often, that I don’t have an infinite number of such weekends left with them. It’s these weekends that my vanilla, unadventurous, unexciting upbringing in the Northeast made possible.
We’re on the Garden State Parkway when Connie Francis starts warbling. The song is called “Among My Souvenirs,” and it came on WPEN one ordinary afternoon in years and years of ordinary afternoons, as Mom rotely made dinner. She sang along — she always sings along — filling in forgotten words with appropriate la-di-das and la-di-dees. “There’s nothing left for me … of days that used to be … they’re just a memory … among my souvenirs. …
I have no idea why, of all the songs I heard in all my years growing up, that one stayed with me. But Connie’s haunting, hollow ballad about unpacking her trunk full of tears became a theme song for Mom and me — an odd song to share with your mother, but then, these things tend to just happen.
I turn off Exit 25, Mom listening to Connie, Dad lost in thought in the backseat, and me lost somewhere in the fog of 1973, in the kitchen on St. Vincent Street. The kitchen where Mom taught me to dance the Highland fling, the kitchen I charged into to announce I had gotten my first job, the kitchen I still stand in, every Christmas Eve, to sing, with appropriate brio, “The 12 Days of Christmas” alongside my brothers, Tom belting out the lead. It is in these flashes, these random moments when a memory flickers through my head like a home movie projected onto an old bedsheet, that this — this churning, messy brew of sentimentality and emotion and something that smells like regret but isn’t quite — is at its most pungent. This isn’t about Connie Francis, or my parents, or even me, really. It’s about home. Not about leaving home. But about what happens when home leaves us.

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