I was happy there in our big three family house. I didn't understand what it meant that the house wasn't ours. It certainly felt like it was ours. I didn't understand what it meant when my mother said she wanted a place with our own backyard and no one saying her children shouldn't step on the grass. I stepped on the grass all the time. I want a place of our own, she said, with no mouse in the kitchen.
We moved in February. February 23, 1960-something. Before we left I stretched my skinny arms as far as they could go around my sycamore. I made it more than halfway around but not all the way. It was a cold, misty morning. I was crying. I rubbed my face against the tree's pale grey bark, felt its roughness in the wetness of my skin. My mother called my name then, told me to get into Tommy's car. My brother Michael was screaming. Wailing. My cousin Tommy and my Aunt Jo needed me to help quiet him. He was only a year old, but he knew something was going on. I hugged the tree and kissed it twice. I promised it that I'd come back, and then I left. The only way to leave was to promise to come back.
In New Jersey, my father found a lifeless butterfly perfectly preserved. He took her inside to show me. She was beautiful. Black velvet wings dappled with pink and blue. A light spray of green on the edge of her wings. I wanted to keep her. My father said he would take the butterfly to his office in New York. He would mount her and put her in a frame for me. Then I could keep her forever. Where's my butterfly, Daddy, I'd ask. She's somewhere, he'd say. I promise you, I'll get her mounted.
I grew up. My father grew older. He moved from his large office on 49th street, in the shadow of St. Patrick's Cathedral ~ the office I loved, the office we all loved ~ to a smaller, neater office overlooking Times Square. I wondered if he took the butterfly with him, but didn't ask. I was in my twenties then. I knew better. Maybe the butterfly was already dust. Nothing lasts forever.
Still, not every broken promise leaves a crack, a breach, a gaping hole. Sometimes a broken promise is barely discernible. Sometimes it becomes something even greater than a promise fulfilled and forgotten My father wanted to give me something beautiful, something that I could keep forever. And he did. His broken promise was buried by a thousand other small acts of kindness, untold, immeasurable acts of love that folded over it like a pearl at the bottom of some primeval sea.
I never went back to Brooklyn to live, but I do return to that spot where I waited for the Good Humor man to come by on his bicyle with the freezer in front. I often think about my tree and can still feel its cool, jagged bark on my face. I've learned that there is more than one way to go back, more than one way to never leave.I cannot recall that my father ever let me down in any way that really mattered. I half expect that when I die, he'll meet me at some celestial city corner in the shadow of a heavenly cathedral. He'll open his arms to greet me, and I'll finally receive my butterfly, velvet-winged and gloriously unmounted.