782 ellicott street
buffalo 2, n.y.
Slowly, over the years,
From Labor Day to Christmas,
Easter to Memorial Day,
The trees gave way to the sky–
We barely noticed
Above so many comings and goings,
The gradual thinning out,
The gentle dying down,
How less and less limbed shelter
Bent above our gatherings,
How the familiar shadows
The seasons cast across the lawn
Were growing thin and separate–
Now, returning, I’m completely lost
When I see sunlight falling unprevented
Flooding the street for the first time in a hundred years,
The asphalt slope as clear today
As it would have been that first bare year
When my great-grandfather, leaving behind
The rooms above the store on Genesee Street,
Seized the immigrant dream
And bought a house bigger than he needed.
Under the turn-of-the-century August sky,
He climbed the modest rise of his ambition,
Stocky, confident, and overdressed.
The trees were only hopeful saplings then
And the houses rows of bright new carpentry and brickwork
Going upwards in a litany of meaty German names:
Schultzes, Goetzes, Grabaus, Schunks.
He’d built a solid business out of trunks and coffins,
Earned a seat on the Mission Board,
Then a house with seven bedrooms,
A grand staircase, and double entrance doors
With oval windows that gathered green/plum/ruby light
In the profiles of Mozart and Longfellow,
Twin heros of the old world and the new,
Regarding each other through the years
In mild puzzlement.
“I am more in love with our new house every day,”
Wrote Theophile to his eldest daughter
That first summer, sounding like a girl himself,
Not the small, stern, watch-chained man
Held down by four black corners to the album page.
How he would nod in measured satisfaction now,
If he knew his house, alone
Of all the houses on the street, was spared,
Embraced by time instead of felled by it,
A Victorian Gem gone out to service in her old age,
A place of solace, good works, reproduction wallpaper,
And fundraiser teas in striped tents on the lawn.
It’s been pulled straight, braced up,
Repainted in four authentic colors,
Declared officially charming by the Evening News,
Yet it’s no longer the house that I remember
From a childhood on hands and knees–
Huge, shadowy, and faintly gritty,
Long, cold hallways mined with carpet tacks,
A Turkish cozy-corner tucked beneath the stairs,
High pantry cupboards fragrant with cookie tins.
(Though even after everyone was gone,
The smell of my grandmother’s German baking
Lingered in the woodwork twenty years.)
And there’s an unaccustomed gap beside the porch
Where the magnolia tree, dependably in glorious bloom,
Verified Easter Sunday morning
In generations of family photographs.
Such small essentials fell away somehow
As time drove up and down the hill
In every kind of car,
And then the entire neighborhood,
Leaving the house finally alone
With only memory lapping softly
At the small surviving lawn
As it grew reacquainted with the sky.
There’s so much light on the street, now,
And so much empty air–
Yet the past is never truly over
Nor emptiness the only thing that’s there.
There’s something left of all our arrivals
In the gentle lift in the rise of the hill.
Memories linger and are what we bear
In the rhythm of homecoming
Worn like a path through time and thin air;
Template on template,
Everything happening over again
And all of us unaware–
Someone will plant the magnolia again,
In the same patch of light of another spring,
Because it’s what flourishes there.