Home Bound to Childhood
By Elaine Federici It’s said you can’t go home again. All has changed. Unfamiliar waters flow where once you waded intimately. Maybe it’s true. Perhaps your memory deceives your sentimental illusions, tempering wounds of melancholy with sweetened salves of childhood reminiscences woven more from myths and fairy tales than life itself. How bleak this view; a cold stone fact with neither hearth nor home, only a scripted scrutiny which outlines a future by diminishing a past.
What if the maxim, not the memory, is false? What if you could go home again and rediscover the familiar; the childhood played beneath shadows ofLong Island’s fluid history, skipping along ancestral footpaths rather than Rockwellian snapshots frozen in time? What if you had already returned before ever leaving; carried by fate and circumstance through generations long departed from bustling Dutch settlements and diligent Southold of Puritan forefathers forMarylandfarms andPennsylvaniafrontiers? What if you are of a generation swept by boughs of family branches back to roots of a 350 year family tree, restored to the Island which nurtured your identity long before you were who you were?
From Pennsylvania, among sons of 17th century Long Island pillars, to Flushing, skirting old haunts of French Huguenot patriarchs, I journeyed east towardSuffolk while too young to recognize the familiarity of the path winding its way home. Like a migratory bird instinctively returning to its origin, I was guided on course. Destination: eastern shores by way ofNassau.
Born on the cusp of the baby boom era, mine was a child’s world shaped not by the regularity of consistency but the constancy of change. Before 1950,NassauCountyhad seen little transformation within its interior. The glacier crafted north shore had its post-industrial gilded age of manorial estates replete with castles and European gardens, and the southern sand swept beaches had their Arts & Crafts era bungalows, but the inland remained meadows and farmlands intersected by wildwoods and Sunday drives. Dotted with coastal fishing villages of the Canarsee long before its days as a Dutch frontier, annexed by the Duke of York to the new colony, bled during the Revolution, and stealthily traversed by George Washington’s spies, Nassau was the sleepy country east of the cosmopolitan hub unawaken to time. But a new age had arrived and by the close of the bopping decade,Nassauhad been shook from pastoral slumber to take her place atAmerica’s crossroad.
The Gold Coast barons had built highways, Robert Levitt built houses, and GIs were armed with a bill of dreams. Neo-colonialism was sweeping forward carrying trinkets and trade goods called televisions, housing developments, and credit. Farms bowed before urban colonizers and paradise was paved. Towns grew faster than the bane of middle class lords and pesticides were readily enlisted in the war of hoses. We were swept eastward toNassau’s promised land as if there’d been a peasant uprising.
Levittownwas a synthetic production with flash; the Greta Garbo pin-up of postwar planners across the nation. Seductive. Alluring. Promising. It offered young urban families a piece of American pie onLong Island’s widening country lanes. For all its potential and promise, and despite its coveted place in the annals of American progress, it had an antiseptic affect; the drab grey-green of the schools, the sterile offices and dismal lots, the monotony of pink-grey houses, and the Cold War draped overhead with drills and doomsday fear. Its utilitarian aura so blackened my fragile perceptions that I have, still, an aversion to institutional ambiance. Unlike easternLong Island’s more antiquated towns which grew in measured pace as need inspired,Levittownand its environs were pre-measured blocks of asphalt-molded attitudes dropped upon Oz too quickly. But I was a sojourner in this land of powdered milk and low-fat honey. There was a rich island world yet to be explored and its diverse beauty peppered the landscape with flora and fauna unimaginable within theLevittowncompound. It lay to the east.
Suffolk’s towns were well established, anchored like ships in coastal waters with hamlets and villages endowed with centuries old historical character, quaintness, andNew Englandcharm. Beauty was in the eye of the builder, it seems, so that even the westSuffolkexpansions of the 1960s incorporated natural geographical features. (I speak of woods, ponds, and lakes; not of water towers.) Whereas Nassau’s new towns erased to build, Suffolk wore treasured hand-me-downs with new neighborhoods stitched to aged historic districts; the grand old avenues and main streets retaining their worn shops, faded Victorians, and sometimes gaudy eccentricity as ground was broke for split-ranches and aluminum siding. Massive hardwoods lined quiet lanes and traffic laden boulevards with glorious canopies of emerald shade, their aged roots oftentimes disrespecting the borders of cemented pavements, erupting in territorial struggles and land disputes; trees the victors and vanquished footpaths cracked up has-beens, an occasional tree downed by saw wielding mercenaries.