“I’m coming with you,” my mother says.
I’m surprised at this and a little dismayed. It’s the last day of my New York visit and I have this idea in my head: I have to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. For some reason not entirely clear to me, it’s important. And I’ve decided that today is the day that I will make the walk with my two young sons. My mother is elderly, can’t move quickly, and I know that it’s a long trek; I can’t remember exactly how long.
My mother still lives in the West Village apartment where I grew up, in a neighborhood now totally changed. Streets once filled with corner cigar stores and coin Laundromats now sport shops selling designer shoes in candy-colored leather. Maybe this is why I’m compelled toward a landmark that is unchanged, that still retains its nineteenth century splendor. I want to walk on the bridge I haven’t stepped onto in more than twenty years, though I’ve been back to New York hundreds of times since then. Except for climbing the four fights of creaking stairs in her Brownstone every day, my mother doesn’t walk much anymore; she avoids the subways and prefers taxis. I remember when she used to walk for blocks and blocks around the city, carrying her shopping bags, striding briskly down the uneven sidewalks in high heels.
My boys are excited about walking on the bridge. They want to bring cameras so they can take the pictures home to show to Dad. They’ll add this experience to their memories of previous expeditions to Ellis Island and the Empire State Building, places I never visited growing up. My mother seems determined to accompany us and spend time with her grandsons, but neutral about the Brooklyn Bridge itself: declaring with a strange sort of pride that she has never walked across it, although she has lived in New York since 1948. This is the only day this week without scattered thunderstorms. It’s staggeringly humid.
We emerge from the air-conditioned subway into the heart of downtown Manhattan. All that concrete is radiating heat. The ramp entrance to the bridge is right in front of us. Cars whiz by deafeningly on either side of the pedestrian walkway. The air smells like hot metal and gasoline. It’s a Saturday and tourists in shorts and white sneakers swarm around us. My mother is wearing black slacks, black low-heeled shoes, and a tailored blouse. The boys jump up and down, loving every minute. It’s 11 a.m, without a breath of wind, and the sun is unforgiving. There is nowhere to hide, no shade. My mother is without hat or sunglasses. She’s trying to be cheerful, but I see her peering curiously up the long, hot incline with a slightly furrowed brow. I know that she wants to share this experience with us, but I’m disturbed that she hasn’t thought ahead, that she’s found herself unprepared. I don’t want to rush her. I hope she can make it, at least part of the way.
I fumble in my purse for the sunscreen. To my relief, there’s a hot dog cart right at the start of the walkway. We buy bottled water. I ask the elderly hot dog man how far up the bridge the benches go. I know that my mother will need to sit down. Often. He looks at me with rheumy gray eyes and mumbles something. I can’t hear him over the roar of the traffic, though I ask twice. I’m too embarrassed to ask a third time. I begin to wonder if this whole idea is a mistake. Then I look up at the twin gothic arches looming ahead in the hazy air. They’re something I must reach, like the Emerald City. I’ve got to get up there. I tell my mother that she can wait for us on the bench next to the hot dog man, but she says no, she’ll try. She will just be a little slow.
It’s very hard for me to walk slowly. I’ve always been a brisk walker, like my father. I inherited both his long legs and his general restlessness. My younger son, who bounces off the walls all day, joins me in my purposeful stride. My older son — the sweet, solicitous one — walks behind with my mother. He’s much more patient than I am.
This idea about the bridge had begun to gnaw at me like an obsession back home in California. I’d even logged onto the Brooklyn Bridge web site, filled with historical facts I didn’t know or had long forgotten: the thirty men killed during its construction; the caissons with lifts that descended into the depths of bedrock beneath the East River, specially pressurized so the workers wouldn’t get the bends.
Then of course, there are my own associations with the bridge. For a city kid, it was a place of escape, of openness, a place where I could scream and laugh into the wind without being told to pipe down. A place of kisses given and received under its cathedral-like arches, lower Manhattan looming to the left, glittering shamelessly every night, in all weather. A stroll over the Brooklyn Bridge was a cheap date, even cheaper that the 25 cent Staten Island Ferry, and twice as romantic, at least to me. It was a place to escape without running away completely.
Several times, I stop and look back at my mother and my son, disappearing behind other, more vigorous walkers. The heat radiates off the wooden promenade, causing their small figures to shimmer in the distance. Crowds of young people advance: girls and boys wearing shorts and tank tops. Their skin is creamy and glistening with sweat and youth. They can’t even imagine having trouble crossing the bridge.
I’m hesitant. I feel I should be waiting for my mother, taking better care of her. A few minutes later I spy her again, valiantly baby-stepping next to the railing. She has sent my older son along, and he comes trotting up to us. When she sees me, she flags me with a wave of her hand to go ahead. She sits down in the first shady spot we have seen, on a bench in the shadow of the first arch. I feel less guilty because I know she’s sitting next to a tourist couple with whom she’ll most likely strike up a conversation.
The boys and I hasten ahead under the first set of tapering arches. They’re much bigger than I expect them to be, when viewed from directly underneath. The grandeur of the bridge has been compared to the ancient abbeys and churches of Europe, but there’s still something uniquely American about it. The sheer scale of the structure and the industrial flair of the net of cables are quintessential New York. It’s almost too large and imposing for its own good, but beautiful in spite of itself. The stone gives off coolness on its shady side, and the breeze from the river is sudden and glorious. The salty almost-ocean smell of the Harbor washes away the city summer stench up here. The vast spider web of black cables forms impossibly elaborate overlaid patterns. As we walk, the patterns change, but retain a mathematical perfection of design.
“Just a little further,” I tell the boys, “and we’ll be right in the middle of the bridge.” They jostle each other for the best view, their voices disappearing on the breeze as they lean against the railing with their little plastic cameras. They’re photographing the Empire State building, which has just come into view, a glimmering silver needle in the haze.
Down on the water, brutish little tugboats chug purposefully along, trailing white spray. I look back to find my mother, but she’s lost behind the sea of walkers, cables, and noises from the river. We continue on, all the way to the Brooklyn side, where we turn around and see the skyline of Manhattan suddenly looming. It looks bigger than it should from this angle: strangely magnified, even now, without the once familiar towers of the World Trade Center.
I still haven’t spotted my mother. Where is she on this giant span? I think of how in control she always seemed to me as a child. I recall her firm grip on my small hand whenever we crossed a busy street, the jangle of her thin gold bracelets. I try to remember the specifics of my own past excursions to the bridge, but they all run together now in my mind, the clarity of the memories flowing away like the river.
When the boys and I head back toward the Manhattan side, I see her standing under the first set of arches, reading one of the bronze plaques describing the construction of the bridge. She made it all that way. The boys run toward her, their voices ringing out, “Grandma! Isn’t this awesome?”
To my relief, she’s smiling. She looks at me, laughs her strangely girlish laugh, and casts her eyes up into the shadowy vastness. “It really is something, isn’t it? ” she says. I know that she couldn’t make it any further, but at least she got this far.