Time changes the places that knew us

March is such a welcome month. There is the quickening that glows with promise, life triumphant. The first migrant robins and red-winged blackbirds arrive, and soon the returning birds will sing their ancient songs. Blue deepens in the sky, and a violet dusk folds gently over the earth and fades slowly. A line of geese is likely to be seen returning north. Another spring begins.

Yet, almost three months that make up this year have already passed. I believe we are allotted a certain period of time in this world. “And in Your book were written all the days that were ordained for me” (Psalm 139:16). As we get older, the days seem to get used up quickly, one by one. If I could stretch out the days like a rubber band, I would pull them out and out – and out!

How small a period time we share. This drums the certainty into one’s mind—the unique treasure of each moment; to take each day and treat it carefully; to savor the moments.

For me, March and Spring are times when the past comes to life again, vanished places, faces and voices. A while ago, to test my memories against the reality, I went back to my old block and neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. My home was a four-room flat. The rooms led into one another and thus were called railroad flats. There were six such flats in my building which was three stories high.

That flat left memories of pleasant excitement, of happy adventures, of warm sleep on howling winter nights, and joyous awakenings on summer mornings. I wonder about all the lives that have been in those rooms. How many lives have the rooms sheltered down the long years before welcoming my family? Who lived there since we left? How many? Were they happy there? I’ve prayed that things went well with them. Those railroad flat rooms were rooms in which some of the best things in my life took place.

There are the names of streets that marked the boundaries of my youth—Stockholm, Onderdonk, Gates. From Seneca Ave., one could see the distant spires of New York City. I walked to school every school day, and I can remember store by store, home by home, on those familiar streets I walked.

Time changes the places that knew us. I think everyone revisiting any scene of childhood invariably feels how smaller everything looks. The tree my brother and me used to climb is no longer so tall. The little grocery store my mother used to send me when she discovered she was out of butter, or rice or baking soda is gone. The vacant lot where I played fungo has apartments on it. Today, the kids on my block are Black. “Things are all changing; the world’s rearranging” (Willie Nelson duet song)

I recall those dear friends of childhood who were my elementary school classmates. To think of them can bring tears to my eyes.

I find myself remembering small events, so small I’m surprised to remember them. Katie sitting on the stoop; the girl with the mouth that turned up at the corners when she smiled; a drizzly November day; jump-rope chants; sounds of boys playing punch ball in the street.

There’s those giants of my childhood, the people who loved me and shaped me, who taught me things. How they live on. Above all, it is my mother who lives on in me.

How well I remember the melodies of my childhood:

Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu
When the clouds roll by I’ll come to you…
So wait and pray each night for me
Till we meet again.

“Night and day, you are the one, only you beneath the moon and under the sun.”

That Brooklyn neighborhood had become my place, that spot on earth which, as Horace says: “above most others ridet mihi.” It was the spot that nurtured me.

The years have spilled since Brooklyn. We move on, but the past is always with us. When I dip back into the past, I have a sense of something hidden at work—a God who works secretly and humbly. I believe a benign Providence was at work, a mysterious love and protector.

Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

There was God’s hidden but attentive care. “I greet Him the days I meet Him,” wrote Gerard

Manley Hopkins, “and bless when I understand.”

Oft, in the stilly night
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me:
The smiles, the tears
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm’d and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
(Thomas Moore, “Oft, In the Stilly Night”)

I sigh for lost years, its vanished summers. Those dear, dead days.