New York City, 1946. A family gathers at the Castleholm Restaurant, one of the top restaurants of its day, to celebrate a patriarch’s 70th birthday. They are all in attendance, every one of the living relatives who had immigrated from Bavaria, Germany since the early 1900s to start new lives and new ventures in Manhattan. And they have successful businesses, too, in very short order: thriving butcher shops, bakeries, millinery shops, haute couture dressmakers shops, and popular restaurants.
At the core of the group are several brothers and sisters from a family of eleven siblings, the eldest ones of the brood coming to the U.S. in the 1920s to strike out on their own while their parents continued to raise the younger children at home in Germany. The oldest brother finds his success in the hospitality industry, eventually taking on the management of the unique Castleholm Swedish Restaurant. The grand Viking dining room became the place where all of the family gathered to celebrate hallmark life events, and then documented these occasions with elegant group portraits of happy, well-dressed, thriving people–photos which were duly mailed back home overseas. Copies hung in the houses of each and every sibling on both sides of the Atlantic, hand-written notes carefully inked on the back to make sure the recipient (and any other future viewer) knew precisely who everyone was.
As a child, I remember seeing these images proudly displayed whenever I visited the great-aunts and great-uncles, here or abroad. The Castleholm photos became a roadmap to guide the storytelling about every person in the photo, often repeated to me in both languages. Whether or not I had actually met these people in my own lifetime, I most definitely knew all of them…and can still pick them out quickly and easily in any family photo, even those going back to their childhoods around 1910.
Stories about their New York City years more often than not had the Castleholm Restaurant playing a major character role: the restaurant became part of family legend and lore. My great-uncle Henry was the host and manager; his wife, Aunt Erna, the hostess. They lived above the restaurant, their apartment upstairs in the same building. Because the restaurant was close to Carnegie Hall, tales often featured the great performers of the day. These stories were told so many times they began to roll over you as a matter of course, settling into your bones and becoming part of your DNA.
New York City, 2006: After aspiring to live and work in New York City, I finally land a position running a national medical association in mid-town Manhattan. But my employment contract details are taking a while to settle, and the organization is going through a turn-around period. Apartment hunting and signing leases has to wait. I end up bouncing between a friend’s sofa, stale hotel rooms, and hard train seats on a nearly two-hour train commute from a family home in the Hudson Valley. Monthly board meetings in-town become late-night marathons, and the transiency is quickly wearing me out. So, with gratitude and relief, I gladly accept an offer from a board member to use her vacant studio apartment as a place to land for a while, especially after late night board meetings.
I take the key she hands me at the end of the latest board meeting marathon, scribble down the address, and hop into a taxi with no expectations other than, finally, having a room of one’s own. As the cab weaves its way across mid-town, I call my mother to let her know my accommodations are secured for the evening. “Give me the address where you are staying,” she asks sleepily, given the late hour.
I check the paper in the dim backseat light: “344 West 57th Street.”
My mother catches her breath, she is suddenly awake. “What was that address?”
I look again, repeat, “344 West 57th Street.”
There is an odd sound to her voice as she responds, “Do you know where you are going?”
Annoyed with the question as another thinly-veiled reference to my habit of mixing up downtown and uptown, I retort, “Of course I know where I’m going. I’m on the West Side, we just passed Carnegie Hall, and I’m staying at Maria’s apartment.”
“That’s not what I meant. Do you know what’s at that address?”
Too tired for circular conversations, I ask simply, “No, Mom. What am I supposed to know about that address?”
“That’s where the Castleholm Restaurant used to be.”
Now it’s my turn to catch my breath. And to realize that, despite all of the stories, I never actually knew the restaurant’s address…
Out of all the possible buildings and places in New York City…for my first night on my own in Manhattan, my family had brought me home.