My Grandfather Left Me Long Island
Long Island, specifically Suffolk County, has been part of my life for as long as a can remember. It has been part of my life since before I was even born. Nobody can tell me exactly when, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the 1960s, my grandfather first started working on a farm somewhere in Nassau County. The one detail I am sure of, however, is that it was a Chinese vegetable farm. Since my dad’s side of my family is not big on oral history, I have to pay careful attention to collect and preserve anything I hear about my grandfather’s life. When I was little, Paga was my best friend—and I made sure to announce this often. It’s true, in many ways he has left me a legacy: our family pastime of watching Yankees games and eating hot dogs, memories of lunches at McDonald’s (always just the two of us), the wooden dollhouse he made for me that was modeled after his childhood home in China, and we still have his house out here in Center Moriches. By the time I was born, Paga had retired and was no longer working at the farm. But his nephew, my uncle, still had a farm in Calverton, and Paga still had the house in Center Moriches. During the summers, I remember my mom driving me out to Long Island to visit Paga’s house and the farm. The house was simultaneously a sacred shrine of enigmatic family history, and a scary old house. It was dark due to bad lighting, a bit dusty, and full of Chinese Buddha figurines—the ones with the big bellies and jolly smiles. The furniture was musty and when the TV was on, it was always a little snowy. The lawn was always littered with crab shells. Despite all of this, I loved going out to Long Island. I guess, even back then as an elementary school kid, I recognized that it connected me to Paga and the life he had lived. The house was the only place where I ever saw pictures of my dad as a boy, and even more intriguing, my grandmother. Looking at these pictures reminded me that Paga had been young once, too, which was fascinating to me, and it prompted me to try to ask him about his life. He somehow always found ways to change the subject and make me forget I had asked. Like many of his fellow Long Islanders, Paga loved fishing, and his house is situated in a prime fishing location on the Forge River. As a little girl, I wanted so badly to also love fishing and to share in his favorite pastime. He bought me a little fishing pole, just my size, and kept it in the garage of his Center Moriches house. I think I used it a few times, caught a fish once about six inches long, but never became an avid fishing fan. He never acted disappointed or made me feel bad about it. In hindsight, I realize that going fishing with Paga wasn’t so much about catching fish, but about spending quality time with him: hearing him explain to me how to cast and reel, how to put bait on the hook (but I never wanted to touch the bait myself), and hearing him “Ooh” and “Ahh” at my unimpressive six-inch catch of the day. It was the same when Paga would take me to the vegetable farm to visit. He would take me into the fields, bend down to inspect the leafy greens, and tell me all about the differences between them. I am by no means a vegetable aficionado, but I do wonder if spending time on the farm influenced my love of eating vegetables. I used to write stories in a notebook I kept about what I imagined what it would be like if I lived the farm life. Paga’s house was always a part of the setting in my stories, as was my imaginary farm just a bike ride away. I wrote about waking up early in the morning, riding my bike to the farm, and watering vegetables. There was also always a dog sidekick—because there was always a dog on the farm. Paga is no longer with us, and the farm has since been sold, but we still have the house in Center Moriches. After Paga passed away, my parents decided it was time to fix up the house. With its reincarnation came a new name—the Rivershack. When we go out to visit, sometimes we still drive by where the farm used to be. During these drives, my dad indulges my appetite for family history by regaling me with stories of painstakingly picking soy beans—which is why he doesn’t like to eat edamame—and driving the truck into New York City to deliver vegetables. I’ve been coming out to Long Island for the past twenty-something years. A lot of things have changed over the years. Many of the familiar farms have disappeared; my new favorite pastime when I come out here is to visit different wineries that have taken their places. I can always count on hearing Billy Joel songs on the radio when I’m here, and there are still crab shells littering the back lawn behind the Rivershack. Center Moriches has been part of my life since before I was born, and I have a feeling it will be part of my life until the day I die.