When my family moved to Queens, New York in 2007, everyone thought we were crazy. Why were these parents, who grew up on farms in Iowa, bringing their suburban kids to the hustle and bustle of the most diverse place in the United States? Why would they leave their 3,000-square-feet mountain home for a 1,000-square-feet “consolidated” apartment? Why would anyone intentionally leave the breathtaking experience of coffee with Lady Mount Timpanogos and exchange it for Chinese-take-out with the view of the dilapidated U.S. Open tennis stadium? How could they ever manage such an extreme transition? One word – Mamela. Now, my mother, for those who know her, is not Jewish and definitely dresses better than Roseanne did on that quintessential SNL episode. So why choose this nickname? Simple – she has always been a” Mamela”, just born in the wrong zip code. In fact, most of our friends are convinced that all the Juhls were really born somewhere like Beth Israel Medical Center in inner city New York but mistakenly taken home to America’s Breadbasket, forever living as alien residents until my father’s work transferred us to our baby apartment in the heart of Queens, back to our roots. All our fast-talking ways, our love of life and culture, and our insatiable appetites for new experiences came together to make our transition to this crazy world relatively smooth “like butta”. And thus, the birth of Mamela.
However, no need for anyone to believe that there weren’t a few hiccups during this transition period. The biggest hiccup, resembling more of a drunk-man’s-belch, would be that of adjusting to “itty-bitty-living-spaces”. Coming from a home with a bathroom for each person, a half-acre of land with lush grass,decorated outdoor living spaces, and shade trees for the dog to a small 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom second floor apartment was difficult for me. I was really worried for my Mamela who had always been a gardener of flowers. All her life, no matter where she lived, playing in the dirt and the annual spring trip (really, more than one) to the local nursery was her way of detoxing from the stresses of life. She always said that getting back to basics, gardening, cooking and time with your kids puts the rest of your life into perspective. How was she going to manage in New York City when the closest thing to nature was the scraggly tree the City of New York planted near our sidewalk? Mamela told me not to worry and asked if I remembered the iconic Kevin Costner movie filmed in Iowa, “Field of Dreams”? I did, but had no understanding that “If you build it, they will come” applied to our situation, but Mamela did.
In the spring of 2008 she transformed our astro-turf laden terrace into a botanical garden – creating our own “above-ground NYC oasis”. The peeling white paint on the banisters was soon camouflaged with British wrought-iron flower boxes filled with happy pansies and charming tulips. The astro-turf, that was formerly an eye-sore, didn’t stand out as much when 100 pound terra-cotta pots brimming with lush German-style geraniums and multi- color cascading Impatiens blanketed every corner. The sound of the Q23 bus was soon drowned out by obese bumblebees happily feeding on sweet nectar as if they were harmonizing with Mamela’s dragonfly wind-chimes gently dancing in the summer breeze and the music of Barbara Streisand coming from the stereo (she is Mamela after all!!). The original plastic “white” table and chairs from Wal-Mart were quickly replaced with maple furniture adorned with plush red cushions, Pottery Barn’s tangerine floral pillows, and coordinating with Mamela’s tablecloth she brought back from her most recent trip to the markets of Strasburg. All of a sudden, our seemingly cramped apartment had grown to include an inviting gathering place for family and friends. Breakfast on the run became coffee and bagels on the terrace while Mamela watered her hibiscus tree as early morning commuters trucked by. Saturday lunch became a 2-hr French experience with Mamela’s Alsatian tablecloths and a fresh baguette from the Natural Market on Ascan Avenue. Then, le faire de resistance – nighttime fell and a transformation occurred straight out of a Larabee mansion party. Under a large candy-striped awning, twinkle lights wound through the hanging baskets of begonias, Impatiens and ivy, making their way around the stands of Pottery Barn red umbrellas, only to end their journey at the overflowing hydrangea pot next to the weathered brick wall. Dusk fell and suddenly it seemed that my passport had a stamp from Bologna, Italy. Or at least it felt that way, as I took my first bite of savory pasta smothered with Mamela’s legendary Bolognese sauce, made with Iowa corn-fed beef, and salty Cravero Parmiggiana. (My Mamela always ascribed to Julia Child’s style of cooking…convinced that a “little more” brandy, red wine or butter enhanced the recipe.) The fresh herbs and my dad’s homegrown tomatoes from our “cement garden” out back burst in my mouth much like a crescendo in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A bottle of Chilean House Red was poured from a French pichet and our hearts grew glad as the troubles of the day melted away. My sister routinely reenacted a zany scene from her latest Zabar’s customer encounter. Hours ticked by without us noticing and the twinkle lights peeking through the flower petals became our only dim source of light. The small rectangular table, now with crumpled Ikea red napkins perfectly coordinated with the paisley pillows surrounding me (Mamela tells me it’s all about the napkin and pillows), countless glasses scattered the table with only drops remaining served as a backdrop to the exchange of funny anecdotes that still bubbled forth causing our full bellies to ache from laughter. This is when I sat back and realized that no matter where you live, that scene and that moment is what makes an inanimate building become a living, breathing “home”. It wasn’t the number of living rooms or the size of the kitchen that prepared the meal. It wasn’t the number of cars in the garage, or even owning a garage at all. Sitting on that terrace, eating Mamela’s home cooking, fully relaxed with loved ones, and soaking in the surroundings – that is what allows a person to enjoy their new home no matter its zip code.
I look back on the last four years living in New York City and realize how comfortable it has become. I struggle to imagine how I survived living somewhere else for the twenty years before. The vast open space that surrounded each house in suburban America now seems cold and frightening when compared to my neighbors who are barbecuing their dinner just ten-feet from my front-door. Everyone parking their SUV in a 3-car garage with wide new driveways seems boring when compared to the daily sport of watching my anxious-Asian neighbors attempt to parallel park on Clyde Street. The chit-chat with the franchise grocery store cashier seems superficial and annoying as I look forward to my next loud encounter with the proprietor at the corner bodega yelling at me when I can’t decide what I want. An anniversary dinner with your boyfriend at the local “Olive Garden” seems humdrum and lifeless when contrasted to riding the subway to Little Italy and eating the most fragrant creamy risotto and tender pollo in bianco. A large pepperoni pizza with 2-liters of Diet Pepsi for $9.99 from Dominoes seems repulsive after regularly eating Lillian’s tomato and garlic pie pulled hot out of a thirty-five-year old brick oven. Knowing that Lillian knows my name and it’s the same pie Ray Romano ate as an after-school snack growing up in my neighborhood in Forest Hills only enhances the experience.
Before Mamela’s terrace was born, I couldn’t help but look at New York City like a man who viewed a Seurat painting with a magnifying glass instead of using his glasses hanging around his neck. The magnifying glasses mandated that he see every single dot as an individual entity and any slight variance was taken as imperfection, making him unable to see the overall scope of the scene. Once the man perched his glasses on the bridge of his nose, his attitude transformed and he saw things that he would never have seen before. All imperfections came together to make a scene full of beauty and depth, instilling appreciation and warmth in his heart instead of skepticism and cynicism. The city of New York is like Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. When under excessive scrutiny, each flaw is magnified to a blinding degree. But once you take a step back, the city transforms itself into a remarkable functioning machine, with eight million individual parts working together in a way that still baffles my understanding.
And even though I don’t live with my parents on Clyde street anymore, when I have a day that I think I can’t take one more honking yellow cab or another non-English speaking food cart vendor, all I need to do is hop over to my Mamela’s place, have her pour us each a glass from the pichet, make up a “quick” cheese and fruit platter, and head out to the “above-ground NYC oasis”. That is when I know everything in life is ok. That is how I know New York City works, that I fit into New York City and I am home. Thanks Mamela!