street, a game of stickball would be in progress. Once again a rubber
ball, this one hardened by weather. As the ball came in on one bounce,
and the batter, with a sawed off broomstick, handle taped would
viciously swiped at it. Soaring high into the Brooklyn day, two sewers
or more the ball went in flight, excitedly the boys racing around the
street like it was a Chinese fire drill!
But still he would not
move from his place. Watching everything, yet watching nothing. He never
interacted with people. He had a simple manner that required no
maintenance from day-to-day conversations. He never read a book or a
newspaper, and he never went to school. He was that person who usually
ended up in Willow Brook in those days of the mid-fifties.
name was Henry: and his mother would keep a steady eye on him. From her
bottom floor bedroom window, Lena would bark at him in Italian. Being an
immigrant, she knew only enough to survive in a world that brought both
hope and despair. She had another son, perhaps a few years younger,
attending college, and kind of a mentor to me. His time was spent away
from the house, and the stoop, using it only in passing. That other son
taught me to catch a ball! Coming home from college classes one evening,
Manfredo saw me with a ball and glove, and no one to play with. He laid
his books down on the stoop, and gently gave me instructions on the art
of catching a ball!
But Henry stood and watched. Not moving, not
saying anything to his brother or me, Henry was the silent sentinel at
the gateway to my home.
There was a sister, many years younger, a
late in life baby as they used to say. Her name was Marianne. Marianne
was cheerful girl and full of song. She played with all the little girls
in the area, and was the apple of her mother’s eye. The kids in the
neighborhood looked out for Marianne, she was there with her smile, and
that was all that mattered. That is to everyone but her older brother,
But Henry watched and he listened, and he never spoke,
unless you spoke to him. He once saved me from a terrible injury, when I
fell into a gear shaft moving up a cellar elevator. When it was about
to clamp down on my leg, the pants being ripped in the process, he
pulled me away, just in time!
Henry stayed with me all my life. I
often think of Henry, and the fact that I now deal with people with
mental disabilities, and I am trying to help them. I see that man,
leaning in the doorframe of the apartment building, my apartment
building. I wonder if he is still standing there, watching me, posted
there to teach me, that life has many sides, and it is not simple or
fair. I sometimes wonder if Henry was put there, just for me, to teach
me that we are all one, no matter to what degree, we will all be born,
live and die. And as we live, we will hold no title, own no
principality, or be truly superior than the man next to me. That man
always was, and always will be Henry.
But this immigrant family,
these simple, wonderful people, who were building their lives had one
thing in common. They had each other, loved each other, and were not
ashamed of what and who was in their family! They were my first true
lesson in life, and it all centered on a gentle soul: Henry.
“Only a life lived for others is worth living.” [Albert Einstein