It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m sitting on my porch in the country, cocktail in hand, reveling in the beauty of this glorious July day. I am reflecting on previous summers and, like the tide, I am instantly swept back to the summers of my youth, growing up in the sleepy beach town of Far Rockaway, NY.
I was born in what was then St. Joseph’s Hospital in December of 1955 and lived there until 1977, when my mother moved to Atlanta and I graduated from college and moved to Manhattan.
Once a summer playground for the rich and famous and then a haven for those who fled the other boroughs in search of sand and summer sun, Far Rockaway became a stellar four season suburb with white sand beaches and a boardwalk that went on for miles (5.5 miles to be exact).
This pearl on the Atlantic, sun bleached and gleaming, began to lose its luster, and by the mid 1970’s, it seemed that Far Rockaway’s best days were long gone.
I had only made two brief trips back to my hometown in the years since I left, preferring to preserve my childhood memories and remember Far Rockaway as it used to be.
About a year ago I began to follow and eventually join a facebook group dedicated to Far Rockaway and all things Rockaways. Its members and administrators are thoughtful and share a plethora of historical information as well as trivia, preserving the “good old days” for so many of us.
After my successful sojourn to the NY World’s Fair, I was anxious to plan my next photographic road trip and I thought that Far Rockaway might just be the perfect destination. I messaged my kindergarten classmate and long time friend/fellow photographer, Ruth and we set the date.
On the morning of the planned excursion with rain in the forecast, I was overcome with an acute case of cold feet, thinking that the rain would only emphasize the already depressing images I was about to encounter. Despite my gnawing desire to cancel, we forged onward.
Our first stop was Ruth’s former home site. Her home, a Mid Century ranch replete with notable designer furnishings and a multi page feature in Better Homes and Gardens, had been replaced by a larger less attractive modern home, a huge trend in her childhood neighborhood.
Then it was on to the site of my first home. On the way we stopped at a building around the corner, which I recognized from my childhood. Currently a girls' Jewish day school undergoing renovation, I remembered it as HILI Manor, a Jewish retirement home. I have a vivid memory of several families from our block going there for a Jewish holiday dinner once. I was quite young at the time and have no idea as to what prompted this excursion, all I can remember is being served roast chicken that had many feather quills on it and my mother commenting that we would never eat there again. What I learned thanks to both The Leiman Library and Rockaway Memories is that the building was constructed in the early 1930s as a hotel to service the growing summer population.
We continued around the corner to Beach 15th Street, where three generations of my family lived from the mid 1940's until about 1972. My home, which was demolished in 1974 is now a parking lot- literally.
While my home no longer stands, some of my neighbors’ homes are still there which amazed me.
My mind was instantly flooded with early childhood memories of life “on the block” when summers seemed endless and our Good Humor man, Johnny came twice a day offering a multitude of treats for 10-25 cents. We played potsie, red light-green light, off the wall and ringolevio and pretended to smoke punks. My grandmother (who passed away when I was in kindergarten) had a green thumb and our garden was filled with lilac and honeysuckle bushes, fruit trees and even grape vines, but her prize possessions were her rose bushes, which she coveted.
While my house was gone, my memories were stronger than ever and as we drove away, even the drizzle, which had begun to fall, could not dampen my spirits.
Before making our way to my second home, we stopped by the hospital where we were both born (currently St. John’s Episcopal Hospital), and took photos.
While there have been several many additions, since it was erected in 1912, the hospital looks essentially the same.
After stopping at WaveCrest shopping center, once the home of the WaveCrest Bakery, which made a killer blackout cake by the way, we made our way to my second home.
We drove through the winding streets of my former neighborhood, up Beach 25th Street and turned onto Brookhaven Avenue, and what used to be the home of the Young Israel of Wavecrest & Bayswater. Directly across from that building, which now houses a Jehovah’s Witness Center, stood my second home.
While I couldn't locate any images of the front of the house from my time living there, I do have these images of me on the porch, in the driveway and in the kitchen.
The owners were sitting on the porch and we had an opportunity to chat. I was delighted to learn that he and his wife had lived there since purchasing the house from my mother just over thirty-seven years ago. And while the house had severe fencing, along with vault-like front doors and barred windows, clearly a sign of the times, I could still recognize the house I had lived in. As we talked, I was drawn to the rose bush that was in full bloom in front of the house, and his daughter, now his tenant, explained that her mother, now suffering from Alzheimer’s, had a passion for…. you guessed it- roses! Her mother loved roses and had planted a plethora of rose bushes around the house soon after purchasing it. The owner's daughter invited me to “smell the roses”, and I did so- both literally as well as figuratively.
As Ruth and I walked back to my car, I began to cry. A day I’d imagined to be so depressing, was becoming quite emotionally uplifting with the realization that my grandmother’s rose garden, destroyed by the demolition of my first house, was magically reborn in my second house’s garden after we had moved.
At that very moment, I turned to my friend and said: “You can go home again”.
To be continued-