I was scrounging for food in my parents’ kitchen when my mother popped her head over the refrigerator door. She said she had a surprise.
Guiding me into the living room, she pointed at a stack of hand-labeled discs and explained that after a decade of letting the VHS-to-DVD converter accumulate dust, my father had transferred all of our family video footage. Ignoring my mumbled comments about the modern revolution of digital storage, she popped in the first video and dimmed the lights.
Hours flew by as we binge-watched home movies, and on the train home that night, the film reel of my family history replayed in my head. I realized two things.
One, that my dear parents have no idea how to operate a video camera. And two, that through the many hours of severely overexposed or maddeningly underexposed tape, the setting was almost always the same: Nearly every holiday and gathering and document-worthy moment took place in the upstairs or downstairs of my parents’ house.
Or, if you arrived at the door in the 1970s, my grandparents’ house. Or, if you were visiting in the 1940s, my great-grandparents’ house. The same house that has been in my family for 72 years.
Containing two apartments stacked on top of each other, this unassuming semi-detached home is located in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. The neighborhood is quiet and picturesque, with the bay on one side and the beach on the other. The air always runs a bit cooler than in the rest of Brooklyn, and fishing boats can be seen from the front porch.
As a current resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant and a non-car owner, heading out to my parents’ house can be a slog. I often encourage my mother to meet me for vintage shopping in Williamsburg or my father to grab dinner with me in the city. But getting out to Manhattan Beach is always a welcome break from my busy surroundings. The house has a stoop to sit on, and you can do so while accompanied by a friendly feral cat and one of my parents’ dogs.
But the idyllic location isn’t the only reason why generation after generation has chosen to live in the upstairs or downstairs of that house. Or why we almost always gather there, for every visit, holiday, and random Tuesday.
The real reason is simpler. Comfort.
Not necessarily comfort in the structure of the space—the apartments are still New York-sized, and most of the home movies show us sweating around a too-crowded table or elbowing one another on a too-crowded couch. Rather, it is the consistency of the space that is comforting. There is never a question of who runs the household or where we should go or who should be there.
This precedent was established by the first generations to live on Mackenzie Street, my great-grandparents and grandparents. They bought the house and inadvertently established the future living arrangements, moving from upstairs to downstairs as they aged. As a result, my mother grew up upstairs with her grandparents living downstairs, the first full wave of my family to populate the entire home.
After my great-grandfather died, my great-grandmother stayed downstairs, remaining close to her daughter’s family. She was an incredible baker, and my mother and aunts remember sitting under her kitchen table as she broke eggs into a pile of flour, sticking her gum under the wooden surface to return to later.
My great-grandmother was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and her proximity allowed my grandmother to keep a watchful eye on her. Stories from this time remain the stuff of family legend, dark tales told with laughter as a way to cope with a tragic illness. In one of the more famous anecdotes, my great-grandmother baked pies for neighbors using Lestoil instead of cooking oil, and the family had to run from house to house making sure the deadly treats were disposed of safely.
After she died, a short series of renters occupied the downstairs apartment until my parents moved in. My brother and I grew up there, assuming that everyone’s grandparents were equally present in their lives.
After my grandfather died, we moved upstairs, gaining a third bedroom just as my brother and I were about to explode with teenage rage and burst out of our half-shared room, where a wall with a pocket door gave us a minimal amount of privacy. My parents took over the mortgage and ran the household, and my grandmother followed in her mother’s footsteps, moving downstairs. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years later.
My grandmother remained downstairs for 15 years and was displaced only twice: by Hurricane Sandy and then, finally, by her move into hospice care. By remaining in the house she was able to remain the figurehead matriarch, playing the part without the burdens that came along with the position.
And so the pattern was established. Those unable to continue running the house from upstairs move downstairs. Those downstairs who are able to find their footing move upstairs.
This cycle allows for each room in the house to hold the full span of a human life. Within the same walls where two of our matriarchs spent their final days, my brother took his first steps. The upstairs living room where I danced to “Jock Jams Volume 1” was also the space where my mother listened to her favorite Traffic and Cream albums. The windowsill where my parents put their plants is the same one my great-grandmother used to cool pies. We are comforted by the somewhat antiquated idea that we are moving along a path trod by the generations before.
For my great-grandparents and grandparents, the house was initially about finding comfort together after World War II. My grandparents would host weekend parties, and everyone was invited. My grandmother’s cousin Felicia, who escaped from Auschwitz, spent Friday nights upstairs in the dining room, telling jokes and smoking long cigarettes. Another cousin, Freddie, who had fled Europe disguised as a man, would sing songs and play piano. People danced. The house provided a place for those who had lived through the worst and now sought normalcy, safety, and light.
For the generations that followed, the house provided different things. For my mother it was the last place she thought she would end up, but she now regards it as her cherished home. For my cousins it has been a place to stop, a place to stay, and a place to catch up with everyone they have missed. For my aunts it is a connection to those who once lived here and have passed on, a connection to their childhood memories in the same space.
Watching some of this play out on grainy film with the sound turned up too high served as a reminder of the house’s power. I am ashamed to say that I was once embarrassed by my tiny bedroom and my loopy grandmother, who wandered around trying to tickle my friends. But now, as a visitor to the space and a voyeur to these moments in time, I am truly in awe of the patterns that have been built into our house.
I don’t know what the next cycle of the house will be. My brother is now a West Coaster, leaving me to eventually move downstairs, assuming the next generation’s matriarch role. But as time passes and Brooklyn changes, I have yet to decide whether this is the path for me.
Whatever happens, I will remain one of the family members who absorbs the comfort and power of the space. I will know that we have a safety net and a place to come together where we never need a reservation or reassurance that we are welcome. I will elbow my way to a spot on the couch and eat the food in the refrigerator and laugh and tell jokes and get a bit too loud. Like those before me have, and those after me will.
Gabrielle Sierra is a Brooklyn native who constantly shares stories, guides, and tips about her hometown. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in Narratively, Life and Thyme, Inside Out, and A Woman’s Thing. As a journalist she has covered arts and culture for publications like Gothamist, Billboard, Paste, and Metro.