Point of View: 5649 Northumberland

“That’s where the Chinese-red American Flyer bicycle was on Christmas morning.”

So there we were in Pittsburgh, my eldest daughter and I, and she said why not go by the old house I had told her my mother and I had lived in, when I was 10 and she was 34, beginning again after a painfully sad divorce.

Three families lived in that house, at 5649 Northumberland, in 1950, the Bonavoglios upstairs, the Busicks downstairs — I think he was the super — and my mother and I in the middle, at the head of an impressive staircase, my bedroom on the landing side of some Japanese screens behind which my mother took refuge. 

Those were parlous, betwixt and between, times for her, literally, though that never dawned on me until I was much older, until Mary enlightened me. She had no skills to speak of, and had to make her own way, taking typing and stenography courses, the child support being meager, though I, oblivious, as usual, and preternaturally happy, perhaps obscenely so, have always thought of those days fondly when I had her all to myself. 

I looked across the street at the broad dark brick house with its high-set gray front porch, and said to Emily, yes, that was it. Rather than go up to the front door, however, we went down South Negley a ways and came at it through the alley (Pittsburgh has many of them), to three people working away in the back, a couple and an older man, who were instantly welcoming when I said I’d lived there some 70 years ago.

Come on in, she, Lauren Grim, said, and so with no further ado we did. All the partitions on the bottom floor were gone, it was opened up, though the stairs with the landing were as I remembered them. What had been the door to my bedroom was walled over, the bedroom in which I had imagined a dark figure standing in the corner all one long night, the kitchen in the corner was gone. . . . The configuration of the rooms wasn’t entirely as I’d remembered. 

“I think that was the living room there,” I said, pointing toward the left streetside corner where there was no longer one. “That’s where the Chinese-red American Flyer bicycle was on Christmas morning.”

Lauren and Will Oberman, who had bought the house two years ago, just before it was to be condemned, and who are well on the way toward giving it new life, had us go through some old black-and-white photos from the period, photos they’d found in a cranny, hoping that I might find that they were of my mother and me, or of people we might have known, but they were of another family, no one I knew.

We weren’t there long: My mother and I moved a lot in those days, beginning on Howe Street, with my aunt’s parents, then to Linden, then to Northumberland, then back to Howe Street, 5712 — where Robert Gwathmey told me he too had once lived when he taught at Carnegie Mellon.

I felt blessed then. I still do.