New York Neighbors Image courtesy of Amy Phillips Penn
By Amy Phillips Penn

I have always felt a bit “glass half empty” for not really knowing my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather died in his thirties, and my maternal one moved on when I was two and a half; my mother said that he adored me. Being loved at two and half is still being loved, even when we don’t recall all the players.

Two and a half was a big year for me. We moved from Sutton Place (all that I remember is a yellow room, but who knows?) to an apartment on the Upper East Side. I had ruled my not quite 3-year-old empire as the first and only child. This status was beyond “fine with me.” Then along came my baby brother. I asked my mother when we were sending him back. I’m not sure how she handled that one. All I knew was that he must not have come with a return receipt.

If you’re lucky, life will lend you a surrogate grandfather; in my case it was our neighbor, “Uncle” Sol.

There were two apartments on our floor: our neighbors were Sol and Muriel, and their children Jane and Charles. Our apartments all but merged. Sunday evenings were reserved for dinner next door. My Uncle Sol would carve a roast beef and present each piece as if it were an award. “Does this one look good to you?” he would ask me every time, as if he was always saving the best one for me.

My “Aunt Muriel” soon became friends with my grandmother. Jane became a figurative big sister, while Charles, a stereotypical and often annoying big brother. I was the proverbial little sister, pinching for attention from the boy next door.

Charles spent a year away from Horace Mann on an exchange program in England. He came back with an English accent that was more British than Britain. I waited for him to return to “New York Charles,” but he never did, as far as I can remember.

Jane could do no wrong. When she and a friend took me out to dinner and a movie, I felt that I had entered her grown-up world.

Uncle Sol would ring our doorbell each weekday morning; he and my father shared a cab to their perspective offices. Some rituals that are merely filed as routine can surprisingly age into symbols of stability that can never be cloned, imitated, or replaced.

One morning when Uncle Sol came to get my father, I backed off from our customary good morning hug. His face was a scary shade of ashen.

He died a few days or weeks later — childhood calendars have a barometer of their own. It was my first tangible loss that aimed a wounded ripple into my young universe. Over time we regrouped, and roles were redefined.

My father saw Jane in the lobby, and told her that she was wearing too much makeup. She went upstairs and washed it off. Jane’s makeup and dating rituals were mesmerizing to me. We scrutinized her boyfriends to make sure that they were good enough for her. One was. They were married in our apartment, while the reception was next door. I was a flower girl, an honor that I took quite seriously.

Jane extended the compliment by naming one of her three daughters after me. She and her husband moved across the street, my Aunt Muriel moved on, and new neighbors moved in and out. The apartment seemed dark and uninviting.

My father now shared a cab with an upstairs neighbor. Our new neighbors had two daughters who were quite glamorous in my “hungry for glamour” teenage eyes. One had gone to Hewitt’s and was off at a girl’s boarding school; the younger went to Chapin. Their mother gave me her eldest daughter’s riding jacket, a green and blue madras “tight fitter.” “She doesn’t ride any more, since she discovered boys,” she explained. I couldn’t quite figure out what one thing had to do with another, but eagerly accepted the jacket and the neighboring odyssey that flirted my way.

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