SALT OF THE EARTH, SALT OF THE SOUND
By Kim Hawxhurst
She watered the cascading red geraniums on the deck early. The rising eastern sun already hot on her back was causing intermittent flashbacks of the Hicksville potato fields of her youth where Gert and her five sisters had planted seedlings, hoed vegetables and grew into women together. She could see their smiling, laughing faces across the vegetable rows, and it brought tears to her eyes. Only her youngest sister, Dolly, was still alive and living in the 250-year-old ancestral Hoeffner farmhouse off Wantagh State Parkway. Dolly still farmed, employing a large number of her extended family each summer to care for the crops, and run the family’s legendary farm-stand on Stewart Avenue.
Before Gert went back in the cottage to prepare breakfast for all of her grandkids that would be arising from numerous bunk beds crammed into her small, immaculate summer home, she turned to go to the edge of the deck and wave to some early morning fishermen coming back up the hill from the beach. The porgies were in and their buckets looked full. She was happy for them. Gert could just see Fisherman’s Rock from the corner of the deck. It was clear out so she could see Connecticut’s silhouette in the distance. The deep pinks of the sunrise were gone from the sky, but the Sound was sparkly and calm. It would be a good day for her youngest son, Danny, to take the kids waterskiing. Danny did not have children of his own yet. His service in Vietnam had interrupted his path, but he would regroup later and give Gert her last two grandchildren.
As she started in towards the refrigerator to take out eggs and bacon, she purposefully did not look at Hawx’s couch. Her husband, Harold Hawxhurst had passed away in 1976. She just simply continued her routines, but the hollow in her life was tremendous. Although she was an articulate, intelligent woman, she never fostered personal ambitions. Supporting her husband’s career as Hicksville Water Commissioner and Fire Chief, while also caring for her family from 6am until 11pm each day was enough to satisfy her. She supplemented the family income by driving for the Jericho school district. She was often confused about the correct way to raise her children. The finely dressed students coming from the elaborate homes were a sharp contrast compared to her three rough and tumble boys. She had never aspired to one of the grand homes in Deer Park or Huntington her other family members had upgraded to. Although she and her husband could have afforded it, she preferred to her carefully saved money to help anyone in need.
Gert’s selflessness continued throughout her life, but the summer she visited her nephew Sam and his wife Grace in Woodcliff Par, she discovered something she wanted for herself. Tucked away on the North Shore in Calverton, behind the Fox Hollow Country Club on Sound Avenue, Woodcliff Park was a jumbled collection of small summer bungalows wedged together on a particularly small, hilly parcel of land owned by Ben Karlin. Ben owned the land and charged property rent to the homeowners who flocked from Nassau and the five boroughs each summer. Of course it would be selflessly shared with her brood, but she had her heart set on one of these enchanting homes set high on the cliffs overlooking the Long Island Sound. Gertie got her wish, purchasing one of the older, more dilapidated cottages, situated on the main trail down to the beach, making it her very own. Her sons rebuilt it and continue upgrading it to this very day. Thanks to her frugal ways and good sense, her family began the 40-year odyssey out east to the summer cabin. Before long, her two oldest sons also had summer cottages of their own. Many of her extended family, offspring of her own brothers and sisters, started buying up cottages there as well. She was grateful and content having her nieces and nephews, grown with children of their own surrounding her each summer.
In two weeks’ time it would be the Fourth of July. Gert loved holidays but everyone knew that the Fourth of July was her FAVORITE HOLIDAY. Throughout the years, the entire clan gathered with her and her husband for the largest, most close-knit, energy packed gathering a family could enjoy. It would not be quite the same this year without Pop but she would make due. She had not yet shared with her family her cancer diagnosis. Gert had never stayed sick in bed a day in her life, and complaining was not her cup of tea. Deep in her heart, she was worried this might be the last year she and her family would gather together for this event. She had always kept busy, but things seemed different to her now. She would occasionally stop her work to reflect on her life. She would recall the handsome, fit men in her family, the Kollmer carpenters spryly leaping and climbing on the foundations of the homes they had built all over Suffolk. She could still envision the Hoeffner men, her two brothers and their boys, all farmers, tilling, the sun glinting off their muscular backs. Gert would recall her own strong boys, fixing their dump trucks and bulldozers in her backyard. Her meticulously kept lawn had been sacrificed to their growing construction business. She relished memories of clamming and crabbing with the grandkids, then taking them back to the house for chowder feasts.
Her middle son, Joe, was the largest. He seemed as strong as Hercules. She remembered him; hair white blond from the sun, huge muscles on his tanned arms flexing as he shifted the drive levers on his machinery, knocking down a large portion of the sand cliffs across from her cottage so that the Karlins could build their own lovely beach home. She was so proud of him that day as the park community gathered to watch him maneuver his huge backhoe back and forth across the dangerous sandy ground.
She also fretted over her crazy grandkids. Her oldest son Hawxie, had three children who were relatively calm well behaved kids. But Joe’s four were a challenging bunch indeed, much like their dad. Children today seemed so wild, compared to her youthful days. Or maybe, she would tell herself with an amused smirk, she had actually, finally grown old.
I am proud to take after my grandmother. This is the first time her song has been sung. Gertrude Hawxhurst kept her life simple, her love of family exceeding all. I only saw her cry once, hunched over the washing machine in her kitchen, worried sick that her baby would not make it back from overseas after being drafted. She knew in her heart that her life had been a rich and fulfilling, despite the daily hardships and trials that inadvertently touch all of us. My grandmother died several years later, in 1989, on the Fourth of July, of course. We all knew she had held out purposely to go on that day, as a first and last personal attestation to her powerful will. But also on that special day as a dedication to the memory of the family time spent together annually at her beloved seaside cottage.