It was early on a Sunday morning last spring and I was ironing clothes in front of my opened kitchen window. We had recently moved into an apartment on the corner of Catawba and Townsend St. in the North side of Syracuse. My gaze was fixed on the sight of spring bursting out over the hills which seemed to extend forever into the distance. It was one of those first spring mornings, quiet and sleepy, the only sound being the occasional chirp of the birds beginning to awake and greet the new day. A familiar aroma began streaming into the kitchen sparking memories of the days gone by. Somewhere someone was cooking spaghetti sauce.
My life journey began in the North side, on the hilltop of Prospect Ave. I was born into a catholic, Italian immigrant’s family and life seemed to be simple. I remember huge, green trees lining the streets, and flower gardens with roses, lilacs, tulips, peonies and lilies; all kinds and colors. Vegetable gardens and fruit trees filled the yards, the neighborhood was beautiful. Most of the homes were multiple dwellings and it was not uncommon to be surrounded by extended family, and sprinkled in were a few single family homes. I used to wonder what it would be like to live in an “up and down” house with only my mom, dad, dog and me. We had no car and walked almost everywhere we needed to go. There were small, corner grocery stores peppered throughout the neighborhood and you could sometimes savor the smell of fresh bread coming from the nearby bakery. We would walk downtown for most necessities: clothing, furniture, drug stores and movie theaters. On Saturday mornings the streets would be packed with people either window shopping or making purchases. No one used credit cards back then, at least not the people I knew, it was “cash money” or store credit.
My mom stayed home and took care of us; she cleaned, baked, and cooked. There was always a neighbor or two we delivered a batch of her cookies to. My dad worked at New Process Gear on Plum St. and left the house at 5:30 am, most of the time on foot, no matter how the weather was. Sometimes a co-worker would cross his path on the way and give him a ride and just about every day I would wait for him at the corner after school, watching him climb up that huge hill from State St. which seemed more like a mountain to me. He would be carrying a loaf of crusty bread in his hand from Columbus bakery that he would later let me dunk a slice of into his bowl of milk, sugar and coffee.
Life revolved around family and neighbors. Endless hours were spent sitting on hand- made benches under the grape vines or on the roof covered porches, and quite often we would be gathered around the dining room table, breaking bread and sharing life’s burdens, joys and sorrows. These were our friends. When I left Syracuse for college, it felt like I was traveling halfway around the world and I never returned to life as I knew it then on the North side of town, or so I thought!
Over the course of the past two years I began to really understand what “serving God”, the answer to my catechism question, was all about. After being away from the North side for almost thirty years and with 7 of our children grown and on their own paths in life; my husband, our youngest daughter and I decided to use our time and talents to help out the church we had been attending. The building was in much need of repair and we quickly became aware of how overwhelmed many the people in the neighborhood seemed and how deteriorated things had become. We sensed that there was little hope in their hearts, and it could be seen on their faces. While most were just waiting for the chance to move on and away, we began to sense that right here was where we belonged. We began restoring the abandoned living quarters above the church. The views from the apartment were amazing and the majestic, twin lit domes of the Assumption church, a symbol of faith, seemed to watch over us. At night, we could overlook the city sprinkled with luminous lights below and glowing stars above. I loved our home. Once again I found myself living on a hilltop in the North side.
Summer nights would find us sitting outside by the bocce court that my husband, friends and neighbors designed and built. Sometimes people would stop out of curiosity and be drawn into a game. Other times our neighbors would come by and serenade us with a song and guitar, sitting perched on the back of a parked pickup. The people from the Assisi Center across the street would always stop and encourage us in all that was being done and made us feel included and welcome. Others helped create a small garden by bringing some of their own clippings to share. Some would stop for a cup of coffee and to unload some of life’s heavy burdens. The alley behind us bustled with the sound of kid’s playing, watching for my daughter to come out with us so they could share their dinosaurs, dolls or play under the sprinkler on a hot day. One neighbor would always call out my husband’s name from his bedroom window just to say, “Lou! Hey Lou! I love you Lou”. One family brought a whole dinner over to share with us on one of their birthdays, and yet another neighbor was always along side us with tools in hand and words of encouragement. Friday nights would find us all sitting out on the corner sidewalks, playing chess or singing songs, visiting ‘till the wee hours of the morning.
This was the type of community I remember as a child; and the one I longed for. Although things had appeared to be so different at first, the longer we had lived there the more I could see so many similarities to life as I knew it. There were still the small corner grocery stores; the only real difference was some of the Italian stores were replaced by various other ethnic ones. Walks to Café Express with my husband for some espresso replaced the bowls of milk, sugar and coffee with my Dad. The mall was the place to be now on Saturdays, rather than Downtown, and most of the people were still walking to get where they need to go. Each day had brought new people into our lives whose names we had gradually come to know. There was still so much left to do, yet so much we had already done. In such an unexpected place, at such an unexpected time in my life I realized that to “know God” is taking the time to really know each other and to be able to call our neighbors by name. To “serve God” is to serve each other in our needs.
We were asked to leave our apartment that I love this past winter. In my quiet times alone, I began to reflect on how my husband’s mom would say, “Always leave a place a little better than you found it”. I guess we had done that and yet the faces of my neighbors began to flash before me, along with all the memories of their many words of encouragement and acts of kindness. I have been truly blessed with a like-minded husband and daughter, who upon receiving the news of our having to move out both agreed that leaving the North side was not an option for us. So my husband bought me my “up and down” house for the three of us to live in along with our dog. This is where we can minister from and where we will continue to renovate and restore, sit out with neighbors, share meals and sing, play bocce, plant flowers and make sauce on Sundays!