City of Seven Hills by Chris Parent


Ukrainian Immigrant Wedding, Yonkers, New York, 1920s
Wedding of the author's grandparents', Anne & Mickey

We open the door to my mother’s car, an Audi 5000, perched precariously on the side of one of Yonkers’ steep hills, its tail sticking out into traffic. It’s the nicest car in the down at heel neighborhood, the centerpiece of which is the Father Finian Sullivan building, an apartment complex that houses senior citizens, including my grandparents, Mickey and Anne Fedorchak. My mother turns on the ignition and begins the slow roll downhill. She is a cautious driver by nature, but more so here because my grandparents need time to reach the window, wave goodbye and see us off to the “country”, their name for our hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut. It takes Mickey a few minutes to walk to the window, his muscles atrophied from a series of strokes. Anne grabs him by the waist and escorts him like a trainer assisting an injured boxer back to his corner while he shuffles to the spot I still remember forty years later – the seventh floor window on the far left.


To the dismay of the New York drivers behind us, my mother attempts to perform the treacherous stunt with a level of precision she lacks, repeatedly stalling the car until Anne and Mickey arrive at the window and we see their aged faces staring out. Just before the drivers lay on their horns again and start launching curse words at us, they see my mother, brother and me waving toward the two old faces in the window. Perhaps they think of their own parents or grandparents, and in an act of measured restraint, wait for the moment to pass, recalling what Anne and Mickey know well, which is why tears often stream down their faces after an ordinary visit. This is a vivid droplet in the uncharted ocean of childhood time: such moments are fragile. One day we will miss them.


My mother was a better daughter than driver and was committed to visiting her parents twice a month. Our trips to Yonkers became more frequent when I turned eight. We had moved back to Connecticut after a two-year stint in Atlanta. They had claimed that Southern culture had been challenging for two New Yorkers. In reality, my father welcomed the more laid-back approach to life that Atlanta had offered. My mother, however, suffered deep anxiety at leaving her parents behind. She worried constantly about them, especially my grandfather, who suffered his first stroke during our Georgian hiatus.

“Perhaps next Easter we’ll be together again,” my mother wrote to her parents at the time, “God always prevails in doing what’s best for all of us – so we must just wait and trust.”


Upon our arrival at my grandparents’ one-bedroom apartment in Yonkers, just north of New York City, my grandfather would invariably ask my mother where she had parked. Yonkers was only forty-two miles from Fairfield, but was another world when measured in terms of safety and serenity. Whichever street my mother mentioned, Mickey would peer out the window and ponder the security of wherever my mother had moored the car for our brief visit. As the local pharmacy, bakery, grocery and Eastern Orthodox church were all located at the tops of hills, the sidewalks surrounding the Father Finian Sullivan building were typically littered with old, short Ukrainian people walking at either forty-five or hundred and thirty-five degree angles, depending on whether they were ascending or descending on their errands.


Spending a day cooped up in a small apartment that reeked of the stuffed cabbage my grandmother would labor over for hours was a challenging assignment for an elementary school child. I was therefore bribed with bags of baseball and football cards that Anne would buy ahead of our visits. As I opened the packs of trading cards, my grandfather would shift his eyes away from the television that was permanently on and ask, “So, did you get anybody good?” Meanwhile, Anne would pass the time gossiping with my mother about our Aunt Millie, who was prone to acts of misdemeanor larceny and liked to give gifts with a pornographic bent to them, and who would foist upon my grandparents great heaps of dubious publications like The Weekly World News and The National Enquirer which were scattered around the apartment. Visitors would be greeted by the latest “news” gleaned from these august publications. “A Real Hot Head …,” read one headline, “Baldie Can Fry Bacon on Scalp When Angered.” The picture beneath showed an indignant, scowling man, allegedly frying an egg and two scrawny strips of bacon on the top of his roseate bald pate.


Visits with my grandparents could grow stressful for us grandchildren when Mickey’s brother, Jack, would arrive. Jack sported an enormous set of buck teeth, which looked particularly prominent adorning his slight five-foot-three, hundred and twenty-five pound frame. Children of the Depression with a vivid awareness of the Holodomor, the terror famine imposed upon Ukraine by Stalin in the Thirties, Jack and Mickey ate their meals in haste and without conversation, which provided perhaps the only five minutes of silence during Jack’s otherwise loquacious visits, For me, meal time with Uncle Jack was especially traumatic because my brother, Scott, being older and bigger, would usually force his way into the chair farthest from Uncle Jack, leaving me directly in the line of fire. Upon receiving his plate of food, Uncle Jack would attack his meal with reckless abandon, leaving nothing edible in his wake. The problem was that his buck teeth provided an insurmountable obstacle to his grandiose plan of a full belly. I often thought he was either smiling at me, laughing, or in severe pain during our lunches, when he was simply trying to get food from Point A (the plate) to Point B (his stomach) past the obstacle of Point C (his teeth).


My grandfather, Michael, was a first-generation immigrant from Ukraine. Though he embraced American culture from the start, his parents still spoke Ukrainian at home. Hence, “Mickey” as he became known, was left to immerse himself in the English language on his own. Being good-natured, hard-working and smart, he did well in school and eventually settled into a comfortable career as an accountant for a number of government agencies in and around New York City. His stable office job and gentle personality won over his wife, Anne, who was also of Ukrainian descent, but from a higher rung on the social ladder because she’d been born in the United States. Stricken by polio as a child, my grandmother had spent many of her formative years bed-ridden and coddled by an overprotective mother. Despite being kind and affectionate, she could be demanding, especially on a patient, immigrant middle child like Mickey, who’d grown accustomed to not getting his way.


My grandparents landed in Yonkers in 1921. Geographically, it’s a suburb of Manhattan but by any other standard, it's a provincial city unto itself with under 200,000 residents. It has gone through a sociological rollercoaster over the years, enduring tough times and high crime during the down decades, and attracting young professionals when it was on the up. It borders the Bronx and harness racing at the now defunct Yonkers Raceway was formerly its main attraction. It’s nicknamed the City of Seven Hills, being spread out over the steep hillocks that rise there on the eastern bank of the Hudson River. Its peak is the Sacred Heart Church, the spire of which can be seen from Long Island, New York City, and New Jersey. Religion is important in Yonkers as it’s always been an ethnic city, populated by distinct yet harmonious Italian, Cuban, Jewish and Eastern European communities.


Within their tight-knit community, Anne and Mickey were closest to Anne’s sister, Mary, and her non-Ukrainian husband, Tony Spezzo. My grandmother and Mary were more than sisters; they were best friends. While Anne was domineering, Mary was easygoing. Both were feisty yet good natured though, a combination that made them a powerful duo in a city that rewarded both chutzpah and neighborliness. They would charm and confuse store owners to get deals no one else did, and were generous with their bounty, especially to those in the Ukrainian community, of which St. Michael’s Church was the epicenter. Likewise, Tony and Mickey were close. Tony was a voluble, slap-on-the-back type of Italian guy, while Mickey was a typically laconic, serious Ukrainian. Both couples adored their daughters and each treated the other’s as their own.


On the morning of June twenty-third, 1956, however, their family lives were utterly upended. Tony was searching the streets of Yonkers for his daughter, Rosemarie, who’d failed to come home the night before. It was a most unusual occurrence and a cause for concern in that Tony’s cosseted child, who, at twenty-four, still lived at home, led a sheltered life as a parochial school teacher. Accounts at the time in local papers inevitably referred to her as “pretty”, and from the pictures I’ve seen of her, she was. With her mixed Italian-Ukrainian heritage, Rosemarie had high cheekbones, dark hair and a full mouth that wore an innocent, girlish smile. I could also see for myself what everybody else had always said – that she and my mother looked almost alike. My mother was ten when her cousin, Rosemarie, disappeared. It was an event that she has struggled to talk about for the rest of her life, and which deeply influenced her own overprotective parenting style.


I find it hard to imagine what Tony must have been thinking the morning of Rosemarie’s disappearance, in those first moments when a nightmare wakes into reality. The court documents and newspaper accounts reveal a determined father methodically trying to locate his daughter. With it being 1956, the Yonkers community was tight. It was a time when people looked out for each other, so when a familiar face, Edward Eckwerth, a twenty-eight year old door-to-door coffee salesman, offered to lend a helping hand, Tony welcomed it. He asked Eckwerth, who was married with a little daughter himself, whether he’d seen Rosemarie. Eckwerth was solicitous, replying that he’d seen Rosemarie the previous afternoon, and that she had complained to him of having a headache.


Tony relayed Eckwerth’s story, along with other scraps of information he’d gathered, to the police, who then contacted Eckwerth, who proved to be one of the last people to have seen Rosemarie alive. There is little reported in the court documents or newspaper reports as to how the police tied up the loose ends and put the pieces together but it can be deduced from them that it was Eckwerth’s own missteps that led to his capture. After abandoning his coffee truck, he passed several bad checks, absconded with some of his employer's funds, cashed in his savings and took a train to the City. He resurfaced on July 10, 1956 on the opposite side of the country in Portland, Oregon, where the police there arrested him for the theft of an automobile. It wasn’t until August that Yonkers Police were able to follo up the lead and, on August 21st, arrived in Portland to interrogate Eckwerth about Rosemarie’s disappearance. The following day, an Oregon magistrate ordered his extradition to New York.


Once he arrived, court documents reveal a three day period, during which the investigating officers obtained a confession that Eckwerth would later challenge as “forced”. Those three days were agonizing for Tony and Mary, as well as for my mother, who’d pass by newspaper stands on her way to school and see pictures of her murdered cousin. The usually tranquil Mickey was assigned the task of lending his powerful Ukrainian frame to the task of chasing off photographers and bystanders looking to get a glimpse into a horror story. Shortly after noon on the 25th, Eckwerth agreed to lead police to Rosemarie’s body, if they’d first allow him to speak to his wife and child.


After being informed that neither his wife nor child could be found, Eckwerth agreed to postpone his conversation with them until after he had brought officers to the site of Rosemarie’s remains – in a secluded wood on the easterly outskirts of Yonkers. Following two corroborative confessions later the same day, he was found guilty of murder in the first degree in a jury trial at Westchester County Court in February of 1957. He appealed but the verdict was upheld in May and, in December of 1958, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that his confession was not coerced. In January of 1959, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of the Second Circuit Court opinion and in May of 1959, Edward Eckwerth was duly executed in the electric chair at Sing-Sing federal prison, twenty miles up the Hudson Valley from Yonkers.


After the Eckwerth trial, my Aunt Mary and Uncle Tony moved sixty miles upstate to the small town of Wappingers Falls, New York and my mom’s childhood gradually returned to something like normal. My mom and dad got together as teenagers in the early Sixties and when my father was drafted to serve in Vietnam in 1967, they made a rash decision to wed. A few months before my father left for his service, my mother learned she was pregnant. My father felt pangs of guilt at the thought of leaving a family behind in order to go off to war. I’ve been told that the night before he was to depart, the prospect of leaving my mother a widow with a child on the way, became overwhelming for my father.

“Don’t worry about Gayle or the baby,” Mickey apparently reassured him, “I’ll always make certain they’re taken care of.”

Seeing the need to put a positive spin on the situation, my grandfather added, “You’ve never been out of Yonkers, Johnny. The Army is a good way to see the world.”


Shortly after my dad’s departure, my mom delivered Scott at Yonkers General Hospital, with my grandparents in attendance. She lived with them for the next year. Still a kid herself, I’ve heard that she spent many sleepless nights wrestling with worries about my dad and what other surprises the world would spring on her and my brother Scott, growing gradually more somber each day in the absence of any news from my father. Despite being an imperfect substitute, Mickey filled the void my dad had left. He was resolved to offer the most joy and love he could to his grandchild, as well as to support and comfort his daughter at a time when the future was unclear. Although he mentioned it only to Anne, Mickey approached his substitute paternal role with his grandson as if it might possibly become a permanent one.


Luckily, that was not what happened but it had to have been a bittersweet moment for Mickey when my father's tour in Vietnam came to an end and he arrived in Yonkers healthy, hardened and eager to put his past – in both Vietnam and Yonkers – behind him. Once my dad returned, Mickey quietly relinquished the torch of parenthood without any expectation of fanfare or gratitude, forever the passive middle child and humble Ukrainian immigrant who taught himself English, served in the National Guard, and chased away gawkers to preserve the dignity of his extended family. When Scott would cry at the approach of the stranger who had jumped into his life, Mickey offered no words of advice. He simply looked on with tacit approval as my father transformed himself from hardened soldier to gentle parent


Mary moved back to Yonkers following Tony Spezzo’s death at the beginning of the 1980s. She wanted to be closer to her sister, who remained her best friend despite the distance. Mary found her home in a modest high-rise that overlooked an athletic field that served as a venue for healthy competition during the day and drug trafficking at night. It was far less safe than the Father Finian building but didn't frighten diminutive Mary Spezzo, who'd seen everything during her lifetime. The same summer Mary returned, the year I turned 12, she and Anne invited me to spend more time in Yonkers. The lure was Aunt Mary’s grandson, the third Tony in the family line. Tony was the same age as me and, like the other Tonys before him, enjoyed boxing. We’d spend nights in Aunt Mary’s small apartment reading the stack of Ring Magazines that he’d collected. We spent our days on the town athletics field, often looking out for Renaldo Snipes, a legendary Yonkers boxer who’d fought for, but failed to win, the World Heavyweight title the year before. Mary kept a tight leash on Tony and me, watching us from her apartment and always insisting we return before dark.


During that summer I witnessed the rapid further decline of my grandfather. Anne would come over to Mary’s apartment and return at night to find Mickey on his back and outside the bathroom or small kitchen. One time after escorting Anne up the hill to run errands, we opened the apartment door to find only his head peeking around the corner. He was lying on the ground and had never made it to the bathroom. He was crying and humiliated. Anne was frustrated and yelled at him as if he was a petulant child, while I sat in the living room and opened packs of baseball cards. After about thirty minutes or so of commotion, and what I imagined were Ukrainian curses levelled at each other, Mickey stumbled back to his chair. He stared at me struggling for words. I remember asking myself how he was going to play this. Would he change the subject? Make a joke out of it? But hen only looked at my cards and said, “So, did you get anybody good?”


The news of my grandfather’s passing, which came a few years later, following a stint at a nursing home, where his patience and kindness drew accolades from the Nigerian and Filipino orderlies, came as no shock. A final, fatal stroke had sealed his fate. His funeral at St. Michael’s Church was marked by torrents of tears, sobs and hugs. On the way back from Communion, his Ukrainian relatives and friends, as well as the team of orderlies who had cared for him during his final days, made for a maudlin procession. After receiving the Eucharist, they’d make their way past the casket set at the front of the aisle. The other elderly Ukrainians would bawl at the sight of it, embrace it or kneel down and pray by it but Uncle Jack, who’d been closer to Mickey than any of them, took a different tack. He simply stopped at the casket that held his brother and best friend, looked at it calmly for no more than a couple of seconds and then smiled reassuringly at my brother and me. Years of verbal badinage that only two brothers could have endured unblemished had ended in a simple touch, a parting conciliatory gesture on the part of the stubborn younger brother that signaled the anticipation of a future encounter on the other side and a model to Scott and me.


A few years ago, Scott and I returned for our final visit to the Father Finian building. We’d been tasked with surveying the furniture that had once crowded my grandparents’ apartment, but which had been abandoned ever since Anne had moved into a nursing home a couple of years after Mickey’s death. My mother had attempted to delay the move, but Anne, who’d fallen victim to Alzheimer’s, had been picked up by the NYPD at various times of the night aimlessly walking the same seven hills of Yonkers that she had once navigated with speed and precision, She wandered now without a companion or a mission, her best friends, her sister and husband, having passed away long ago. The pungent smell of stuffed cabbage somehow still lingered in the apartment but the La-Z- Boy chair my grandfather had once occupied sat empty, while my grandmother’s commanding voice, which had once ruled the tiny domicile, would never be heard there again. From outside, there came the voices of a new group of residents, idling on the complex’s terrace, chatting and passing the time, waiting without acknowledging it to share the same fate as my grandparents.


As I surveyed the bare apartment, which had been picked over by friends and family, I noticed a football card that was trapped behind a stack of Good Housekeeping magazines. It wasn’t “a good one”, just a forgotten player staring blankly at the camera. Although the card was innocuous in itself, it told of something more and I slipped it into my pocket, a symbol of things lost and now found only in memory. Our task completed, my brother and I went downstairs and got into our car. Scott’s parking was symmetrical; he hadn't inherited our mother’s lack of driving skills. He put the car into Drive and we rolled down the hill slowly and cautiously, whether out of habit or nostalgia, he slowed and we both looked up at the seventh floor to the corner window on the left. I tapped Scott on the shoulder, much as Uncle Jack had tapped his brother’s casket, and we turned the corner for the last time and drove home to Connecticut, forty-two miles away but closer than we had ever realized.


 

www.memoirist.org
Author Christopher Parent

Christopher Parent is a writer and intellectual property attorney currently living in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife and two daughters. He moved to Zurich after serving as in-house counsel for Nintendo and in private practice in Denver. His work has appeared in law reviews as well as in Kairos Literary Magazine, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, Ginosko Literary Journal, Points in Case, Public House Magazine, and The Haven. He won the Fall 2020 Memoirist Prize for a story about his early introduction to racial inequality. Another piece will be published this year in Drunk Monkeys. Links to some of these works can be found on www.chrisparent.net. Besides travel and writing, he spends his free time as Assistant Coach of the Swiss Women’s Lacrosse National Team.

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