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Saturday, February 13, 2016

A GENTLE SOUL


The 37-year old son of Italian immigrants, he would lean in the doorway, which overlooked the three step grey stoop. He would stare out into nowhere, not noticing the people going by. He could hear the cadence of a little girl as she bounced her rubber ball, and every once in while swing her leg over the ball as it descended, then abruptly ascended back into her palm, only to begin the process allover again.
In the 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 sky, 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.
His 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, Henry. Marianne went on to become a nun.
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. Having a child of my own with mental disabilities, I know first hand now, their pain. 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

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