John McKenna stood looking towards Prospect Park, straight down 12th Street. His mind exploded with memories starting with his grandfather Patrick teaching him to ride his first bike, to coming home from school proudly showing his mother his grades, to watching his father marching away as he left for Britain, only to die during the Battle of the Bulge, and finally 4 months ago when his mother passed in her sleep, leaving him as the current owner of the small apartment building.
Now, the red brick structure stood empty. Well, empty of furniture, household goods and even windows. John held the McKenna Boarding House, Established 1895 sign in his unsteady left hand. The last thing he took down, and the one with the most memories as it swung above the arched doorway he used to call home.
John’s great grandfather Sean McKenna left Ireland after suffering through great hardships and poor conditions with little money, an education, a wife, their infant son and a lot of hope and optimism. After arriving at Battery Park/Castle Garden Immigration Center in 1886, they settled in the Park Slope area close to the newly open Prospect Park. Sean worked hard for several years, using his knowledge of numbers and banking to secure a good job and finally a good salary. The family settled into their new life and started to live the American Dream, but never forgot where they came from. Then, after almost a decade, Sean realized other Irish immigrants needed a place to stay after arriving in America so he built a small 8-bedroom boarding house next door to his own home. Pay it forward he told his wife, help others live the dream.
Not only did Sean help other Irish families, he used the time to talk with the occupants about his beloved homeland, a place he missed dearly, but knew he would never return. His wife would cook meals and the boarders and the McKenna family would sit, eat, talk and reminisce. For the newly arrived immigrants, this helped ease the transition, provided some semblance of normalcy and continued time-honored traditions from Ireland. Additionally, they learning about America, New York, where to find a job, the right place to get a good meal, and, most importantly, what stores took advantage of new immigrants. For the McKenna family, it both made their memories set into fond remembrances as well as deepened the chasm of their soul, reminding them they missed their homeland as their boarders spoke of the countryside, the sweet smell of rain, the feel of lush green fields under your toes, historical places of wonder and old-world charm.
As John’s father grew up, he listened to the stories told at the dinners. The mystery and glory of Ireland grew for him, and he too dreamed of visiting his ancestral homeland. Then, news from Europe turned dim, followed by the horrors of World War I darkening conversations and soon, the McKenna family dinners stopped. Food occasionally grew short, and boarders would be late with rent payments. Times were tough. Families received word their fathers and sons died in Europe and the McKenna Boarding house could only grant a 3-month grace period for families to move or start paying rent again. Most families moved. The mood soured but John’s father did not lose the desire to visit Ireland.
In fact, around 20 years later, after 2nd Lieutenant Patrick McKenna Jr. earned a 48-hour pass while in Britain, he and a friend hopped a ferry and visited Ireland. John remembers his mother showing him a picture of his father in uniform standing next to a road sign in County Meath, Ireland, a wide smile and bright eyes saying how happy he was to be there. This picture was the last photograph they received of John’s father. Soon afterwards his regiment deployed to the continent and his father died during the Battle of the Bulge right after Christmas 1944 somewhere in the Ardennes Forest. A German sniper caught him early in the morning running from foxhole to foxhole checking on his men after a cold night.
John remembered the day his mother found out and shut herself in her room. John could hear her crying, but didn’t know why until the next morning. As a teenager John was barely older than his father when hearing about death and destruction. John buckled down, knowing he was the man of the house now, tried to look forward and plan to make a better life for his mother. After high school John attended college, and finally received word he’d been accepted into Law School. His mother beamed with pride.
His grandfather, in his late 50s at the time, still ran the boarding house. But he slowed considerable in the 1950s and John’s mother stepped up to help, until finally taking over in 1956. John, still away at the fledgling Seton Hall Law School at the time, helped when he could, but that was not enough. Soon, Irish immigrants stopped using the McKenna Boarding House. Other options became more inviting and modern. Park Slope continued to modernize but John’s mother did not have the resources to update the building.
John’s grandfather sold the house next door right after World War I to consolidate and focus on the boarding house. Maintaining only one residence helped during the Great Depression, but barely enough. During World War II, the house grew busy again, as families needed a place close to New York’s harbor to send off and receive fathers and sons. Most residents were transient, not long term, and sometimes a few rooms stood empty. After the war, the structure, built before the turn of the century and only occasionally updated, started to deteriorate. The pipes rusted, the roof leaked, and the electricity never worked right. When John’s mom passed the boarding house’s only other tenants were a middle-aged couple with no kids. John, now established in a law firm in Elizabeth with his own family, could no longer manage the building.
The destruction team, sipping morning coffee, stood around waiting and ready to demolish the building. A big wrecking ball hung silently ready to breach and destroy the walls. A real estate firm offered John too much not to take the offer, even though he nearly cried when he signed the paperwork. The land was worth so much more than the building, to some. John closed his eyes and tried to see his mother and father again, tried to hear the creak on the fourth step leading upstairs, tried to smell his grandfather’s pipe and finally tried to taste the family stew. Time moved on, and unfortunately John could no longer find those memories easily, or at all.
Then a small hand interlocked John’s right hand. He looked down, seeing his teenage daughter Anna Rita looking up smiling with her crooked smile, brown curly hair and green eyes, almost an identical image of John’s mother.
“Daddy, it’s OK. Grandma may no longer be in there, but she will always be in here” pointing to John’s chest. “We don’t need a building to remember loved ones who passed. We have pictures, stories, memories and each other. We are their memories made real, not bricks, stone or wood. You keep telling me sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you. Well, the opposite is true too. Names and memories may break your heart, but stones and bricks will never replace them.”
John looked at his daughter and smiled. Optimism won again. Yes, things were going to be alright. Time does move on, but time also heals the broken heart.