Aunt Connye’s

Written By: Margaret O'Leary

My family moved to Bellmore in 1959. For those of you who don’t know, Bellmore sits in between the Meadowbrook and Wantagh parkways, just before they end at Jones Beach. My summers were spent at Jones Beach for the most part, occasionally at Robert Moses, Heckscher or Lake Ronkonkoma. Very rarely, we would take a ride out to Montauk. The Hamptons, per se, never entered my consciousness until 1988 when I met Steve, my husband to be. His Aunt Connye had a house in Quogue where she had summered since before he was born. She had bought this modest house on Quantuck Creek in the 1930s when Quogue was “the country,” as Connye always called it. In July of 1989, I had the opportunity to meet Connye for the first time. Connye’s reputation definitely preceded her. She had been a teacher and assistant principal in Harlem before she retired. She had served on the Board of Harlem Hospital and had been a founding member of the Girlfriends, a prestigious group of African American women, to which she still belonged that summer. She had just returned from the national meeting in Memphis. Her summers in Quogue began on the 4th of July weekend and ended on Labor Day weekend. Many of Steve’s friends cautioned me about Connye’s acerbic tongue. Some thought her nasty or spiteful and mean, or just plain cranky; others thought she was terrific. Interestingly, the former were generally women and the latter generally men. Steve told me not to worry, she would like me. Easy for him to say, he fell into the latter group. We drove Steve’s Toyota Tercel (tiny) to northern Harlem where Connye lived in a five story walk up. I was still smoking then and thought surely I would pass out by the time we got to the top. Connye, in her 80s at the time, also smoked and never seemed phased by this. We gathered Connye’s Quogue-bound belongings and packed them into the car, leaving a tiny spot for me in the back seat while Connye sat up front with Steve. What I didn’t understand when I positioned myself was that we were making a stop at the butcher before we even left Harlem. Apparently, this was part of the annual ritual . Since, it would “just be a minute,” I stayed where I was. It would have been too hard to start moving things around, a decision I regretted as the minute turned into at least an hour. Once we finally got moving, the inquisition began. Where was I from? Long Island. No, that was not the right answer. Where were my people from? For instance, her last name was Cotterell, her people are from England. Oh, Ireland then. That was a satisfactory answer. Not as good as England, of course, but it would do. It helped that my grandmother had some English blood. The fact that I smoked was also okay with Connye. She mostly talked to Steve on the way out. We left the LIE at exit 70 and headed off to Eastport Manor Road where we stopped at Olish’s farmstand. It was more of a farmstand back then and the man whose picture is now on the sign greeted Connye as an old friend. It was nice to see them catch up with each other on the happenings of the winter. They had been doing this for fifty years or so. The faces are different there now. I still recognize them, but they don’t know me anymore. I miss that. We traveled via Montauk Highway to Connye’s, so Connye and Steve could see what had changed over the winter, new stores, restaurants, anything and everything. It’s a tradition I now can appreciate. When we got to the house, it was such a lovely sight as you approached it from the bridge. We drove into the driveway and the chatter turned to trees down and changes here at the house. Inside, it was with great relief that we didn’t find any winter visitors who hadn’t made their way out. We set about getting things in order while Connye ensconced herself in her chair and turned on the television. Her favorite channel was channel 9. Well, by choice her only channel. It was all she needed. If the Mets weren’t on, then you’d find her watching reruns of Mannix or some other 60s rerun. Connye and I also connected on the Mets. Connye didn’t really speak directly to me. She spoke to Steve about me, in my presence. When I reintroduced myself and explained that she could speak to me, she seemed pleased. I guess I had passed some sort of test. In any event, things got better. That was the day Connye told me the story of the two dolls that were at the house. The dolls are still there, a little worse for wear from the kids over the years. The dolls had been given to the school where Connye worked, but they were told they couldn’t keep them because the dolls were “colored,” nevermind that the school was located in Harlem and the students, for the most part were African American. By the end of the weekend, Connye and I had developed a mutual respect for each other. I had fallen in love with her home in Quogue. The house was not in the best condition, but to sit in the living room and look out on the water was enough to forget any worry. Connye’s husband had passed away in Quogue, long before I met her. The volunteers of the Quogue Fire Department were the first to arrive in response to her call for help. Every August, the Fire Department has a party. That year, we took Connye down for the party. She was greeted like royalty. The chief remembered her and was so kind. Connye loved the attention and I loved that everyone was so nice. Connye and I became friends over the years. I could always count on her to tell me the truth that no one else would. I was gaining weight. That haircut really didn’t flatter me at all. You need some one like Connye in your life. If no one is telling you these things, how will you ever know? We both loved Steve and that was our strongest bond. Steve and I have been enjoying summers in Quogue ever since, with and ultimately, without Connye. Our children’s childhood summers were spent thriving in the backyard and at the beaches. When I would drive out from work on Friday afternoon with the boys in the backseat, I could literally feel the stress start to leave my body as soon as I made that turn onto Sunrise Highway. It would be gone by the time I hit Olish’s. There is no place I have been that is as peaceful as Aunt Connye’s.