All the Places I Am

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Last April, I went back home. I had a business meeting and piggybacked on it a visit with my family. Only going a couple of nights, I packed my clothes in my laptop bag. I ended up washing socks and underwear in my Pod39 hotel-room sink after extending my trip a few nights. Seeing my family in person at an impromptu dinner in a Forest Hills Friday’s wasn’t enough. I knew it was time to connect with the ghosts, too.

The plan was to visit my brother’s grave with his widow, my sister-in-law, Barbara. But I called her from the cemetery and told her I’d see her for lunch in Kew Gardens, instead. After 20 years apart I needed to connect with John alone. His death brought the family back together in 2015. He was the last of my siblings, neither of whom I spoke with from our mother’s funeral in January 1996 (and honestly, I don’t think Patricia and I had spoken since 10 years before that), to the days they both died.

I took the 7 to Jackson Heights and the Q29 to the cemetery. I looked for the weird tree Barbara told me she uses to remember the grave’s location. When I found it, I crouched down and had a long talk with John about where I’ve been over the past two decades, and why neither one of us bothered to reach out. That’s often the problem with my family—we leave well enough alone when it’s not well enough yet to begin with. John introduced me to Star Trek and Devil Dogs, two of my most cherished childhood memories. It was my first time in a Christian cemetery since converting to Judaism in the mid-2000s, so when I left I marked my adopted Judaism with a rock left on top of John’s gravestone. And I marked our family history with a Devil Dog left beside it.

Later, Barbara and I reminisced about the bad-good old days while the child from hell upstairs had a punching-kicking tantrum on the floor above our heads. She’d move, but she’s been there for 40 years. In New York terms, it’s not the family history of those 40 years keeping her there. Having been a tenant for so long, it’s the irreplaceable 1980s-ish rent she pays. She walked me through Kew Gardens for lunch at the diner on Lefferts Bouelevard near the Homestead, where Patricia used to go for specialty salads on the weekends to soak up all the vodka sloshing around inside her from the previous week.

But it was Friday, and I should have been back in Chicago already. After extending my trip to see John, my fall-back plan was to mark Shabbat at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Luckily, I realized the stupidity of that idea on the bus to Barbara’s, and made plans with my nephew, Sean, and his wife, Jennie, to spend Friday evening with them, instead. Jennie’s mom is Jewish, though growing up they observed her father’s Christian holidays. And I had yet to meet my little great-niece, Simone. They’re letting her choose her own religious way–and now a potential role model was back in the family. At Sean and Jennie’s as evening fell, we settled into the kitchen for blessings and wine on the counter. A moment before I lit the candles, Jennie, sitting on the floor with Simone in her lap, told me it was the first time in her life she had ever welcomed Shabbat.

Which became the first moment in my life I had ever felt needed by my family. Loved, yes. Wanted, of course. But truly needed in the grand scheme of mundane everyday things? Like I fit like a puzzle piece, and really always had? I may still be in Chicago, but Jennie saying what she said whas the moment I knew I was already home.

I’ve spent so much of my life running away from my family and taking refuge in adopted traditions. How many people get to say they accidentally brought a religious tradition back into their family? I’ve spent so much time trying to forget where I came from. How many people have their pasts come and embrace them?

The question was, how much embracing was I willing to do of my past in return?

I hadn’t walked on Kew Gardens Road, the street on which I grew up, since the day of my mother’s funeral. Even then, I had already been living in Brooklyn for six months. A friend drove me over to our old house, I poked through the debris of an imploded family for the last things I knew I’d ever be able to retrieve from it, and back we went to Brooklyn. For the next two decades, I avoided the street almost entirely.

On the spur of the moment last April, I decided to go home again. The moment I got off the E train at Jamaica-Van Wyck, I had the feeling of falling through an unexpected emotional time warp. Walking with me down the platform was my teenage self, coming home bleary-eyed from the city at 4 a.m. after dozens of weekend GLYNY meetings.

At the top of the escalator out, if I squinted, I could imagine the J train still barreling by above Jamaica Avenue, roaring past the check cashing place where my homebound mother would have to go to collect her benefits. I trembled a little when I saw the place still there after all this time, remembering the childhood feeling of standing next to her in line, being ashamed of our finances, our house, my origins.

The Van Wyck Lanes where my mother was a champion bowler in her thirties was a Walgreens now. The grungy car shop on the corner of Metropolitan over time had managed to find a way to become even grungier. I was at the inglorious Richmond Hill end of the much-snazzier-in-Kew-Gardens Kew Gardens Road. Half a block from my house.

I started walking, the semi-detatched houses of my own block passing to my left, the two-story brick apartment buildings across the street to my right. There’s the red house where the kid who looked like Etan Patz lived. His mother was crazy, probably from all the times she had to tell the police at her door that her little boy really wasn’t the missing kid from Manhattan. Sometimes I wondered if he really was.

There’s the rickety house where Cookie and Sammy lived. My Venezuelan-American mother always turned her nose up at their Puerto Rican heritage, probably because until I was 24 she was too ashamed to tell me that my real father shared their heritage, too. But my nephew, Little John and I loved playing with them–mostly because they loved playing with us since we had a bigger back yard.

Mom’s best friend, Fran Arci, lived further up the little hill of my block, in the house with the nice stoop and little front garden. I never forget her furniture covered in plastic, or the welt I got from picking up a hot sparkler in front of her house after one of our street’s 1970s July 4th illegal fireworks shows. Mom was devastated when diabetes took her, but Fran had so much trouble getting around that we all knew it was coming.

Laura Bowman’s house came next, but what do I really remember about her, because she kept to herself. There’s always someone too aloof for their own neighborhood. (I should know.) Then the house where the Begleys lived with their alarmingly fluffy dogs. Mrs. Begley always had a kind word for me until Alzheimer’s took her words away. I remember being very little and feeling very sad for her. Mr. Begley didn’t leave the house much after that.

Across the street from the Begleys, I celebrated my first birthday in the front yard of my “Aunt” Ethel and “Uncle” Red. It was paved over now, but in 1971, by Queens standards, it was a field–with mowable grass and a tree in the middle.

On the corner of their block was Artie’s body shop. In a tiny triangle of a building, he managed to fit his business on the first floor and his wife and 12 children on the second. His kids didn’t leave the house much. He eventially turned the roof into a fenced-in play area. Whenever I felt bad about my own family’s poverty, I remembered his 12 kids sleeping in sleeping bags in two rooms, often peering out but rarely stepping beyond the front door of their own home.

And we lived across the street. When I got to the top of the hill, my old house took my breath away. Whoever owns it now keeps it in perfect condition. I’m pretty sure it no longer sways in a strong wind, nor has the ceiling of the second floor bathroom ever suddenly collapsed again in a gigantic, “Oh no, what was that?” whoosh. But the trees and sloping front lawn are now a forbidden concrete patio locked behind a security gate—as has become of most of the front yards on my old block. Still, I was glad to see the house again again, and to know that life goes on for it, even if it’s in a different way in a different neighborhood than the way things were in my memory.

I took the photo at the top of this post and went on. Across the street and around the corner on Hillside Avenue, past Shrimpy’s old grocery store where I spent an entire childhood being sent for Salem Lights 100s and Diet Pepsi by my mom. Up 136th Street, past the former Our Lady of the Cenacle Catholic elementary school where I was sent to learn how to be a good Catholic (a lot of good that did!), as were my siblings 20 years before—and the O.L.C. church where my brother’s funeral service was held, just as my mother’s was, 20 years before.

It was my first evening in town and I had to meet my family at that Forest Hills Friday’s. So I kept going, on the long walk up the Van Wyck service road towards the original Van Wyck subway station I had to use before the new one down my block was built in the 1980s. To the secluded subway entrance next to Maple Grove Cemetery, where I was mugged one night coming home from a GLYNY meeting but saved by some guys from the neighborhood who came chasing my muggers with baseball bats. The station has a transit-police headquarters now, any muggers would have to make their way through all the police scooters parked on the sidewalk now like I had to.

And I walked down the subway stairs I’ve known since my grandmother started taking me into the city in the early 1970s to meet her friend in the city, and got on the E train, and knew I was free. I spent 20 years afraid to take that walk and remember where I came from. But I didn’t really put the ghosts to rest. Instead, I remembered they’re a part of who I am.

Way back in the age of the dinosaurs, my mother named me Michael Thaddeus, after Jude Thaddeus, the Catholic saint of hopeless causes. Pregnant in her forties, she was afraid for our combined health, hence the bet-hedger of my middle name. But when I converted to Judaism, I no longer felt comfortable having a Christian saint as a middle name. Instead, I began using my Hebrew name, Michael Benami. Benami means son of my people. As a stand-in middle name, it fit well for a Jewish convert estranged from his family but embraced by his religious community. For a while, I thought it fit even better for a Jewish convert finally reunited with his family.

But there’s a reason my nephew, Little John, looked at me with that “I ought to smack you in the head” look of his when we reconnected in 2015 and said, “You know your middle name is THADDEUS, right?” Because it is. And if I can embrace the ghosts of my childhood, I can certainly embrace my middle name. After all, Michael is still part of my Hebrew name. But Thaddeus is part of my family story.

So I’ve decided to let Benami be for the bimah and for my business name. For myself, I’m choosing the full name I didn’t get to choose myself the first time, Michael Thaddeus Doyle. In re-embracing my full family name, I am mindful that Judaism embraces the past of converts as an important source of added strength and meaning. It’s a recognition that the places you have been will alway be a part of the person that we are.

You can hide all the maps that got you here, or you can dust off all the postcards you’ve collected along the way and put them back on your refrigerator. Me, I’m looking for more magnets.

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