I can't count the number of times I've passed the six-story apartment house where my father was born on Sept. 12, 1907, on East Sixth Street in the East Village.
I never thought I would get the chance to enter the building -- much less set foot in the room where he was delivered by midwife.
I met my cousin in midtown Manhattan for brunch. The talk turned to our shared history. She had never seen this building where my father and his siblings grew up, and where his younger sister -- my cousin's grandmother -- was born in 1911, also delivered by midwife, as was the custom of the day.
I knew my dad was born in Apartment 18 and that it was on the fifth floor. My cousin and I wondered if the apartment faced out onto Sixth Street, or had a view of the brick wall of the building to the rear.
We peered through the glass of the front door just as a tenant was leaving. My cousin suggested I tell this man the link the building had with our family's past. Coincidentally, the tenant was especially interested because he had just returned from the West Coast, where he had a similar experience of coming face to face with his parents' past.
He asked us which apartment our kin had lived in. Then he scanned the list of names running down alongside the doorbells. He knew the current occupant. "If this guy's home, he probably wouldn't have a problem with you peeking in, considering the connection," he said. "And if he isn't home, at least you get to see the inside of the building."
The occupant was home, and after explaining my cousin's and my interest, we were invited inside: two small, spartan rooms, a bathroom and a tiny kitchen added almost as an afterthought. The bathroom was installed after my dad and his family moved out before World War I. When they lived there, there was one shared bath per floor in the hallway.
My cousin at window in room in which my dad and her grandmother were born
In these tiny quarters, my father's father, a janitor, and his mother, a housewife and seamstress, raised a son and daughter. Another sister would be born when the family moved uptown to the Bronx to escape this cramped, noisy, dingy neighborhood where ethnic gangs ruled the streets.
Looking into the room that must've been my grandparents' bedroom -- it was set back from the street and would have been farther from street noise -- I felt time stop and then reverse.
View from window in that room. The biggest change to the skyline is the absence of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, which dominated the vista until Sept. 11, 2001 -- one day shy of what would have been my dad's 94th birthday.
I could hear the midwife deliver the birth slap, hear the first cries of life and consciousness, hear the congratulations on the birth of a son and, four years later, a daughter.
These sounds oozed from the walls.
I've never felt so deeply, thoroughly connected to history.