Secret Staircase



Neighborhood: Sunnyside, Uncategorized

Secret Staircase
Photo by Garrett Ziegler

On beautiful May mornings like this one, when the sky holds a brightness that hints at a sunshiny day and the birds are all a-twitter, I miss Nancy terribly. I miss knowing that after school we’ll go beyond the alley that stretches out behind my back yard, to the communal gardens there. As we do most days, we’ll walk home from school together in Woodside. Maybe we’ll stop by a candy store where I’ll steal a few of the Skybars or Necco’s or whatever’s on the bottom shelf while she distracts the owner by picking up and then putting back various items on the top shelf. Then we’ll leave the store and when we’re a safe distance away, start laughing and head down toward our secret place among the trees.

We’ll walk down 49th street, slowing our pace to grab at the privet leaves that grow all the long way down the block, crunching them with our fingernails and then throwing them to the sidewalk, already littered with blossoms from the few flowering trees along the way; mostly they’ll be sycamores – the ones with patchy bark that looks like the camouflage outfits everyone wore decades later after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as a fashion statement.

We’ll walk all the way down that impossibly long block, turning left at the very last alley, mine, and drop our school stuff at my house. There we’ll stop for some milk and cookies – though my mother never buys very good ones – and then dash out, candy bars lining the pockets of my jacket, and head across the alley. We’ll take the path on the right side, bordering the densely wooded upper community garden with moderately tall shade trees and bushes and maybe some tall purple irises scattered about – the colorful blossoming of early blooming crocuses and sparsely planted daffodils already gone – and wind up at the center of it all, at the heart of our garden.

Just before we get to the lower community garden there will be a walkway in between the two where, halfway across, will be an oddly situated set of short, widely set steps that stop at the upper garden and are blocked off. On each side of the stairway will be the iron bannisters with curlicues at the end, and twisting through them will be thorny bushes with small flowers which attract bees.

I’ll offer Nancy a piece of a candy bar I’ve unwrapped and we’ll sit, talking or resting in the companionable silence that we know as our safest place to be. But we’ll only actually be seated – and only at the very center of the stairway – for short bursts of time. We’ll have to get up suddenly and we will, shrieking, at the threat of being stung. But all the while, we’ll gaze up to see the tall, tall trees which stand in two broad lanes before us in the broad, grassy rectangular patch of the lower community garden. Birds will be flying high there, squawking as they light from branch to branch. It will never be quiet there – spring, summer or fall. (Only in winter will we make our way to the steps, buried deep in snow – trudging around, leaving tracks from our boots in the deep, silent whiteness.) Eventually it will be time to part, to leave our special sanctuary and return to our separate homes for dinner.

Nancy’s gone now; she died in Ohio years ago – as much, the doctors said, from complications resulting from their treatment of her scoliosis as from the breast cancer. I visited her there several times there, briefly, returning to my home in Brooklyn, and then for longer some months before she died. It was Halloween and I bought much more candy than we needed to fill the bowl Nancy held as she sat, dressed as a witch, handing it out to trick-or-treating children who came by.

The community gardens on my old block in Sunnyside are no more now, divided up many long years ago so that each home owner could have a bigger piece of land. So there is no longer access to that central spot with its strange stairway to nowhere. Or maybe it’s not even there any more. I haven’t gone back to check. But in my mind, in my heart, I return quite often. Especially during that time of spring when the days start out with a promise of warmth and an after-school visit with Nancy to our private place at the heart of the gardens.

Heidi Rain is a writer who has hosted poetry readings and written New Age book reviews and columns. She is currently working on a memoir about rediscovering her original father.

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§ 5 Responses to “Secret Staircase”

  • Christine says:

    Poignant and moving, Heidi. Thank you!

  • Risa says:

    Beautifully evocative of how our pasts evoke, shape, transform the people we are today.
    Congrats, Heidi!

  • Stirling says:

    Thank you! There are so many days that I too remenber Nancy. Sometime I still turn to ask her a question that I know she would have the answer for . I miss her soooooo much!

  • tom oleszczuk says:

    A powerful story that puts anyone reading it into the time and place of your friendship with Nancy and the specialness of the community gardens!

  • Lovely nostalgic story about Sunnyside Gardens when the commons were there for everybody to enjoy. I think you might like to peruse the stories on, created to remember the neighborhood from the 1940s and 1950s.

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