Thursday, November 1, 2007

My Mother and the Brooklyn Bridge

Elizabeth Zelvin

I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge one recent bright October day. It was my first time and long overdue. I had spent the afternoon serving as a volunteer facilitator for a group of caregivers at the annual conference of the Lymphoma Research Foundation, which happened to take place in the shadow of the bridge on the Brooklyn side. My husband had warned me when I left that he would be watching an “important” football game when I got home, so I was in no hurry. A friend and professional colleague, also volunteering, offered to come with me. It was a golden opportunity.

When my mother, who graduated Brooklyn Law School in 1924, was a very young attorney living in Brooklyn, she used to walk to work across the bridge every day.

Here’s my poem about that, which first appeared in my 1999 book, Gifts & Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship.


my mother has always been larger than life
the pared-down version you see
the little old lady in the wheelchair
the only ninety-six-year-old on the beach
fretting as the glinting sea winks back at her
because she can’t go for a swim

is just a shadow in the Platonian cave
the ideal, the real Judy is a girl of twenty
first lawyer in the family
striding in a cleaner sun
across the Brooklyn Bridge to work
cheese sandwiches in her pocket
severe Etruscan profile
so much more beautiful than she imagines
lifted to the dreaming morning towers
like Manhattan reaching for the sky

The building of the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1870, and the bridge opened in 1883. Quite a few people died in the course of its construction, including its designer, John Roebling, whose possibly apocryphal references to his “great erection” were made much of in the movie Kate and Leopold. At the time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, and for a while, its towers were the highest manmade structures in the western hemisphere.
The Gothic stone arches, so different from the steel cables of most suspension bridges, give it the grandeur of a cathedral.

My cell phone took this snapshot of me on the bridge. It’s not art, but you can see the wooden walkway, the spires of lower Manhattan, and the crowd of pedestrians who had the same idea on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Many were speaking foreign languages. I suspect that the walk across the bridge, like the walk around the Central Park Reservoir, figures in a lot of guidebooks as a don’t-miss New York attraction. It took us only half an hour to cross the bridge, chatting as we strolled and stopping to take pictures. My guess is it’s less than a mile and a half across from the pedestrian’s perspective, an easy walk in this walker-friendly city. I can hardly wait to do it again.


Clea Simon said...

What a lovely post! I, too, finally made that walk a few years ago (when a Manhattan-based friend started dating a Brooklyn boy and he was appalled that she'd never done it). The bridge itself is beautiful, so gorgeous that we kept stopping to look up (and occasionally, stepping into the bike lane and getting beeped at ). And the view!

I told my mother, who is now in assisted living and reliant on a walker. She was amazed I'd never done it. I think sometimes she forgets that I grew up in suburban Long Island, not Brooklyn as she did. But at least we could touch base on this one point.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for sharing that, Clea. I cherish that vision of my mother as a young woman. Now I'll think of your mom walking the bridge too.