City Mom Versus East End Daughter

Written By: Colette  Sewall

Everyone loves the East End of Long Island. I observe the constant stream of tourists whizzing by me daily. They arrive in Jitney busses, in their I-leave-a-tiny-footprint-zippy-electric cars, in their I-just-divorced my-wife-jazzy-convertibles, in their gaggle-of-girlfriends-chipped-in-to-get-plastered-on-local-wines-stretch white limos, and last, but not least, in their I’m-so-rich-I-float-above-the-hoi polloi-helicopters.

Yep, everyone loves the East End: everyone that is, with the exception of one person—my mother. Mom’s a city gal, but when I say city, I’m not talking about Park Avenue, doormen, shopping at Saks, or opening nights at the Met. I’m talking about a crime-ridden section of Philadelphia. Mom lives in an attached old brick row house, not too far from an area actually nicknamed, “The Badlands.”

My mother nonchalantly tells people that she lives in the prostitute capital of the country. I think that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Her favorite thrift stores are located in the darkened underworld of the elevated train tracks. During her daily walks, she passes burnt out buildings, drug dealers, and those infamous prostitutes. She gets up before dawn and sweeps drug paraphernalia off her porch. Nothing much fazes her; she won’t move. This is what she prefers to the bucolic East End.

Every day at four o’clock, she sits down at her grand piano. While the pounding bass of her neighbor’s stereo vibrates the wall of her narrow living room, Mom plays classical music for two hours. She’s scrappy: a sturdy World War II-era dame, a child of the Great Depression. Usually it doesn’t take much to please her, but she seems to enjoy saying, “I wouldn’t live out by you—even if they paid me.”

I’m the East End daughter. I used to be a New York City kid, born and raised, up until my late twenties. After that, I kept moving farther and farther east. My husband and I are wimps; we live on the North Fork. Our modest ranch style house is on an acre that backs up to farmland. On our drives to do our daily errands we pass lush vineyards, pristine bays, and swans gliding across ponds. Our main streets are lined with little stores so charming that visitors half expect a kindly sheriff, like Andy Griffith of Mayberry, to stroll outside the barbershop, tip his cap and say, “Howdy stranger.”

Mom finds it “boring” out here. She’s not a beach person, so scratch that off the list. How about wine tasting? That won’t work. She’s not into the depths and nuances of their distinct flavors or the unique complexities of their overtones versus their undertones. She doesn’t care if their tannins are well managed. She stores a gallon of cheap red wine in her basement fridge and takes one swig of it a day, for “medicinal” purposes. She’ll only buy a new jug when the old one runs out. I think they last her about a year or so.

How about art galleries? Mom is artsy, I’ll give you that. She does like to paint occasionally. Here’s the problem: Whenever we visit a gallery, I always pray that no one, especially the artist, is within earshot when Mom inevitably remarks in her loudest theatrical voice, “What kind of garbage is that?”

Mom tells everyone that I live in the sticks. “Where are the sidewalks? There’s nowhere to walk, and you don’t even have subways.” Mom wasn’t always a city girl. She was born in a small rural town in Pennsylvania, where she and her sisters ran barefoot in the hills picking blueberries. Her mother, who had emigrated there from Hungary, told her that the Earth was flat. My mother grew up believing she lived at the end of the world. She dreamt of leaving the endless farms and hills and heading in the opposite direction, where excitement lived.

She eventually moved to Center City, Philadelphia and became a concert pianist. She met my father, who was an opera singer from Brooklyn, in an orchestra. They married and bought a little old house in Astoria, where my brother and I were raised. Since our kitchen was in the cellar and flooded on a regular basis, my father hooked up a sump pump with a hose that snaked outside through a small trap door. Strange cats would find their way inside that opening and stretch out on our sofa while we ate dinner. Mom would give piano lessons to neighborhood children and in the evenings accompany my father while he sang. Music filled the air; everyone was happy and grounded.

After my father died, she lost her anchor. By that time, I was married and somewhat stable, but instead of leaning on me, she floated off to Europe, untethered for four years. Every few months she would call or write from a different city. I was afraid she would drift off the edge of earth and never return home. One day she called and said, “You can come visit me.” When I asked where she was, I was shocked to hear her say, “I’m in Philadelphia. I found a cheap house here so I bought it. Astoria got too expensive. I’m sorry I sold our old house there, but you can’t change fate.”

After our first few initial visits to her row house, my husband would insist on staying at a hotel in a safer area, closer to the attractions and culture of Center City. My mother never understood why we spent money on a hotel when we could sleep on the old futon at her place. Every night at eight, I would call to check on her. Everything was steady as she goes until last year when a team of doctors informed her that she needed a critical heart operation. They didn’t know if she would make it through, and if she did, she had a twenty percent chance of becoming paralyzed from the surgery.

“I don’t know how this will turn out,” she shouted. “Sell your house right now, and buy a two family in Astoria so we can live together after this.”

“Mom,” I pleaded, “just come and live with us out on the Island.”

“Are you kidding? I would die of boredom. Get us a house in Queens. And hurry up!”

I panicked and started looking at real estate ads. “Look at these horrible houses in our price range,” I yelled at my husband.

Never one to react quickly to change—I think it would take a crowbar to move him—he asked what the heck was I doing?

My head was spinning. “She won’t live here; she’d be miserable. What if she is paralyzed? She has to walk every day. She’s like a wild alley cat; she’ll go nuts if she’s trapped.” I was frantic.

“I’m never going to live in Queens,” he said.

“Do you ever get tired of living in our small town?” I asked.

“Who needs a big world?” he said. “I’m happy here.” He eventually convinced me to slow down and take one step at a time.

The operation was successful, and her recovery astounded the doctors. They even wrote about her in one of their journals. When I asked her if she still wanted to live together, she said, “No, forget it. I love my freedom. I want to stay where I am. By the way, someone in my neighborhood shoveled all the snow from my stoop and sidewalk while I was in the hospital. Can you believe it?”

My husband constantly reminds me we can’t force her to move. I guess our soul knows when it has found a sense of home and belonging to a place. When we are there, we feel nourished and whole. It can’t be argued. It just is.

The last time she came to visit, my husband and I waited for her Jitney at our Jamesport stop. The 4:00 bus came and went, with no one getting on or off. I panicked. Mom doesn’t know how to use her cell phone. After around twenty minutes, my phone rang with a man’s caller ID displayed. The male voice said, “I know this sounds strange, but I’m calling for a woman who says she’s your mother. She got off the wrong stop. She’s here at the Bar and Grill in Mattituck—if you want to come get her.”

We rushed over and found her waiting outside. Before we could go, she dragged us both inside the darkened paneled interior. With a grand gesture, she stated loudly to everyone, “They’re here! This is my daughter and son-in-law. They live on the North Fork.” Then with a laugh, she just had to add, “But I can’t stand it here!”

So for now, my mother continues to hide her purse and walk the streets of Northeast Philadelphia, while I putter around the pastoral roads of Long Island’s East End.