October 11, 2020
Known to everyone as Baby Mary, she was my dearest friend for three fleeting years, from age four to seven. Nearly six decades later and I can still picture her heart-shaped face the color of warm caramel framed by waves of chocolate-brown hair, her wide eyes glistening shyly.
At the time my family occupied the corner house of a row of two-family homes on Eastchester Road in The Bronx. Baby Mary and her large family, the Romanos, shared one house. She lived on the ground floor with her parents, maternal grandmother and older brother. Her aunt, uncle, cousins and paternal grandmother lived upstairs. We were just three houses away – close enough for little girls to run giggling back and forth multiple times a day. We spent all our time together, busy with important little girl things.
The residents of Eastchester Road were immigrants; they were not partisans but adhered devoutly to their Italian heritage and love of family. They were proud to be living in the United States and strove to become citizens; some passed the test, others didn’t. We delighted in celebrating all the traditional Italian holidays and festivities. Christmastime was a veritable light show, everyone in friendly competition for the most impressive decorations.
I was fascinated by Baby Mary’s mother and grandmother. They did piecemeal work from home, sewing little bows onto ladies’ panties. Their hands moved like quicksilver as they sat in their crowded living room watching soap operas and sewing. I rarely saw Baby Mary’s father; he worked in New Jersey in his cousin’s shoe repair shop and only came home on weekends.
At the age of five Baby Mary and I started kindergarten. Every morning my mother would walk us to school and pick us up in the afternoon. The best times were when she came to get us in her car. My mother was one of the few women in our neighborhood who had a driver’s license. We would gleefully hop into her Ford, begging she take us to Carvel for ice cream. Sometimes we’d stop for gas and my mother would complain about the price being 30 cents a gallon, calling it highway robbery.
When it was time for us to go to first grade, my parents decided to send me to a different school. It was the first time I was going to be away from my dearest friend and we were heartbroken. We would run to meet each other after school and we played together as much as possible but it wasn’t the same. And our trips to Carvel were few and far between.
One day after school Baby Mary didn’t run to meet me. I looked up and down the street but she was nowhere in sight. My mother brought me inside and told me the saddest news I had ever heard: the Romanos moved away that day. She explained that they went to live in New Jersey where Baby Mary’s father worked. I cried for days and couldn’t understand why she had to leave; now I felt so lonely. There was no one to tell my secrets to, play with my dolls or happily share ice cream. I had to see my dearest friend, even if it was for an occasional visit. I pleaded with my mother to drive me to New Jersey but she never did. There was always some reason why we couldn’t go. When a young couple moved into the Romano’s house it was as though Baby Mary never existed.
Years later I learned the truth: Baby Mary’s father was in The States illegally, a fugitive hiding from immigration authorities. He had committed a terrible crime before fleeing to America. He was apprehended in New Jersey and deported; the whole Romano family returned to Italy. I never saw or heard from Baby Mary again. I think of her often and wonder if she ever thinks of me, her dearest friend.