#52Ancestors: #13–Reflections on my old Homestead

105-36 Ditmars old front
My old home in East Elmhurst, Queens, NY

I didn’t know anything about the home property where my maternal ancestors lived in North Carolina until I started doing my genealogy research in 1976. Although my mother had spent her early years in North Carolina, it was not on those lands, nor had she ever seen them until we took a trip together to meet our newly discovered cousins in 1982. Neither had I nor my father ever visited the town where his family was from in Florida. “Home,” for most of my life meant the home where I grew up in Queens, New York, a neighborhood called East Elmhurst, now affectionately called the “Double-E” on one of our Facebook group pages. It is a neighborhood that has boasted many African American notables, including Malcom X, Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Mays, and former Attorney General Eric “Ricky” Holder.

Ella Fitzgerald home on Ditmars Blvd
Former home of Ella Fitzgerald in East Elmhurst, Queens, NY

My parents had been living in the Bronx before buying the 1920 two-story, Dutch colonial on Ditmars Boulevard, overlooking Flushing Bay and LaGuardia Airport, in March of 1946.[1] In those days it was a primarily German and Italian community. Those homes on Ditmars that faced the bay originally were actual bay-front homes, complete with the ability to bring small boats up to the backs of their homes to anchor them there. Some of those homes still had the mooring fixtures embedded in their back yards. The area in those days was known as North Beach, and included, besides an actual beach with beach house, a large and popular amusement park, called North Beach or Bowery Bay Gala Amusement Park.[2]

Gala Amusement Park North Beach 2
Gala Amusement Park, North Beach, Queens, NY (Photo from What Was There)

By the time my parents bought all that had changed. The beach and amusement park had been turned into LaGuardia Airport. There was a waterfront park with tree lined walkway, benches for relaxing, and sand boxes for children to play. Further down going towards what is today Citi Field, was a marina popular with various celebrities. Between the airport, bay, park and Ditmars Boulevard, cutting off the former beachfront properties from the waterfront was Grand Central Parkway, dotted with overpass walkways so that neighborhood residents could access the bay front park. The beach house was eventually converted to a community center where many a late-night party was held. Although our house was on the opposite side of the street from the Bayfront, we still had beautiful views from the Master bedroom whose windows faced the Bayfront. Memories of what the area looked like then are readily accessible to me not only in family pictures, but in a scene in the original movie “Sabrina,” with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden, which features a scene driving along Grand Central Parkway right through this community.[3]

Margaret +Margo at the Bayfront East Elmhurst
Margaret L. Williams, my mother, and me at the Bayfront park along Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay

I wasn’t born yet. My parents had been married twelve years when they bought the house with no children in sight.  They believed there would be no natural children and they had begun to grapple with whether to adopt or not. A year later I was born. I like to think the house had something to do with it. The house was on a 40X100 square foot lot. There was a large maple tree in front along the curb. The house had a nice grassy front with garden border. The driveway led to a two-car garage with an upper floor storage area. There was a good sized back yard with both patio area and grassy area, large enough for entertaining as well as the swing set with slide. I spent many hours playing on the swings, glider, slide, or hanging from the cross bars.

105-36 Ditmars - Copy
The house on Ditmars Blvd. with a view of garage in the back. (From Google photos)

Inside was a six-room house with wrap around, enclosed porch, unfinished basement, and storage area in the attic. There were three bedrooms and one and half bathrooms. There was an eat-in kitchen, formal dining room and living room with bay window and a lovely stained-glass window high up on one wall. That house was my world.

Margo and godmother Emelda Clark Mills
Me (Margo) with my godmother, Emelda Clark Mills in the nurssery

I started my life in that house in the rear bedroom which was then called the nursery. It was a bright, west-facing room. It looked out over the back yard. By the time I was about three and half I was moved into the larger middle bedroom, with big-girl furniture. That room was on the side of the house and faced a balcony of the neighbors.  It could be fun talking with various people over the years as they stood on the balcony and I leaned into the window, which was screened. I always speculated about being able to pull off such acrobatic feats as swinging from my window on something akin to a zip-line across to the balcony to save myself from some imaginary threat. I lived in the middle room even after college when I decided to stay in New York to attend graduate school. Regardless of where I lived it was always referred to as my room. Even in my absence most things in the room stayed as they were when I last lived there. It was the room where I would always stay when visiting, married or single. In later years, after my mother moved to assisted living and then died I came home for various occasions, some work-related, some not, but I almost always stayed in “my room.” It helped me feel anchored, rooted, in a good way, as if somehow, no matter what else was happening, all was right with the world.

My room on Ditmars - Copy
My room — but not the color I originally chose.

My world in that house had been, for me, idyllic. Summers meant bike-riding, shooting the basketball at the hoop (I didn’t get it in often), playing on the swings or skating with the kind of skates that required keys and attached to your shoes. For a few years when I was very young there was also an inflatable pool my parents erected in the back yard. If the weather was not cooperative, there was always the porch which was large enough to at least skate on, and comfy enough for playing with dolls or reading books. We also walked across the street and across the overpass to the park along Flushing Bay to watch “warm=ups and take-offs” from LaGuardia Airport, skip stones across the water, or walk to the marina to see which celebrity yachts were tied up there.

 

Margo in backyard pool on Ditmars Blvd.
In the Backyard Pool circa 1950

Winter had just as many pleasures. When I was growing up, before the increased heat in the atmosphere from increased car usage, plane traffic, and homes and hotels built on previously open land, there was significant snowfall in the winter. Snows of five or six inches were not uncommon. Snowfalls would have to approach eight or ten inches or more before anyone thought to call a snow event a storm. For me, snow was a welcome sight. It rarely meant missing school, but what it did mean was the opportunity to build snowmen, snow forts or tunnels, and sledding! My father and I would go across the street to sled down the steep hill that led to the steps that climbed to the overpass to the bay front park. We would sled literally for hours, until neither of us could feel our hands, feet or lips. Finally, my mother would start yelling across the street that we had been out there long enough, and we were going to get sick, stating emphatically that we had no good sense. Probably not, but we sure did love every minute of it.

I also loved ice skating. Our home was near Flushing Park where the 1935 World’s Fair (and the 1965 Fair) took place. Some of the structures were still in use. One of those was the pavilion used for skating. One side of the building was for ice skating the other for roller skating. I took some lessons and frequently went on Saturday mornings with friends.  I liked it enough that I was able to persuade my father to acquire a backyard skating rink that I used many afternoons after school, before dark, practicing what were called school figures.

I loved the outdoor life. I loved mowing the lawn, planting flowers, and having backyard barbeques. I liked sitting with the neighbors on summer nights watching the passing traffic, listening to stories, and catching lightening bugs/fireflies (we used both terms interchangeably). It is true that if playing with friends around the corner and it became dark enough for the street lights to turn on, it was time to go home. It wouldn’t be more than five or ten minutes before you would hear mothers begin yelling out windows or standing at backyard fences for us to come home. Needless to say, when we did get home we would be questioned about why we didn’t come promptly before being called. If we were too late, we knew we would be punished, grounded, for at least one or two nights.

Despite being a small family, I was an only child with only one cousin my age, our home was always filled with happy loving family friends. My mother loved entertaining. We had formal dinner parties, as well as more informal events. Almost every week various friends dropped in on Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons to enjoy dessert and conversation. Holidays, however, were a different matter. They were occasions for grand dinners (no pot-lucks) of at least three and sometimes as many as five courses, accompanied by the appropriate wines. Since my birthday was during the Christmas holidays, my birthday parties took on a heightened sense of festivity that included my own formal luncheons when I was older.

Birthday party ca1957
My Birthday Luncheon circa 1957. L-R far side:  Corlee Abbott, and a daughter of family friend. L-R front: Maxine Wilchfort and Me (Margo) at the head.

My mother was a wonderful cook. She made everything “from scratch.” We had fresh vegetables homemade cakes, breads, pies, and cookies. She was an adventurous cook, willing to try foods that many others were too timid to cook. Christmas dinners were not limited to Turkey, ham, or roast beef. We had duck or goose as well. She made mincemeat pies and homemade fruitcake. Easter usually meant a leg of lamb. Her menus were varied and eclectic. She cooked tongue and kidneys along with the traditional meat loaf. We had dandelion and beet tops as well as turnip or mustard greens, kale and spinach. We not only ate watermelon and cantaloupe, we also ate cassava melon, ugly fruit, persimmons and pomegranate. Although our daily meals were eaten at our kitchen dining area, the meals were no less sumptuous. Sunday dinner was often in the dining room and usually marked by one of her scrumptious, homemade desserts.

Leroy et al at Xmas ca 1958
Flora Williams Yerby with Jan Yerby in her lap, Herbert R Williams (my father), Margaret L. Williams (my mother), W. Leroy Williams (Herbert’s brother and father of Flora W. Yerby)

Unfortunately, nothing ever stays the same. As the years passed, all was no longer right with the world. My aging mother began slipping deeper and deeper into a dementia that left her lucid but not always rational. Her own decline meant she was less and less able to cope with her second husband who had Alzheimer’s. Her once meticulous home began to show signs of decline as well. Simple repairs were ignored, real cleaning stopped, only her penchant for being tidy saved the day. She stopped paying bills or she payed them three times over. Most frustrating was her unwillingness to allow anyone, including myself, to help her.  One saving grace was that we maintained a joint account set up after my father died in 1982. It made it possible for me to pay her bills without her even realizing it. In her mind, all was right with the world. I attempted to help her clean or cook on visits, but she was less and less tolerant of anyone touching her things. Eventually, I had to insist that she move to an assisted living facility. She was 96. She had been in our home nearly 65 years.

Margaret Lee Williams 2011
Margaret Lee Williams, my mother

I continued to come home to visit and look after the home. I had the building painted outside, the roof replaced, the furnace replaced, the water leaks repaired, including replacing bathroom fixtures. I put up the small artificial Christmas tree at the appropriate time. It was a far cry from the large eight-foot, live Christmas trees we had traditionally, but it maintained the spirit. I arranged all the Christmas china and glass ware in the buffet, put the Christmas tablecloth on the Dining Room table, and red candles in the candlesticks. Even though I might not be there for Christmas Day, it made me feel good, still grounded. I still had my home. However, more changes would come.

In 2012, just short of her 98th birthday, my mother died. I continued coming to the house and paying to have the yard maintained. In July 2015, I gave my last party. It was a barbeque with my niece and her family, my daughter and some of her friends, and my boyfriend and me. I had wanted to have another Christmas celebration in the home, but the Flu put an end to those plans. By the summer of 2016, I began packing the contents and making some renovations with an eye to selling. There was no way I could continue maintaining the home and paying New York real estate taxes. My daughter wanted desperately for me to keep the house, as did I, but there really was no feasible way that I could do that.

I was determined to sell the house to a private family. I did not like what I saw happening when homes were sold to developers. They were destroying the community, destroying its history. I was lucky, I was able to hold out long enough for a wonderful family with two children to buy the house. They have continued to renovate the home (it needed a lot of work). They have family over and have barbeques in the backyard while children run and play. It was the best I could do to preserve the community I loved.

On the other hand, Although I own my own home in Maryland, I now feel homeless. I feel displaced. I’m not of course, but it’s how I feel. Since the home in North Carolina which my cousins call the “home place” is now rented out, I feel alienated from that land as well. I still enjoy visiting the community, but I feel like a visitor now.

I like living where I live in Maryland. I live near my only daughter. I’m active in the community and at church, but it’s not home. This is not my homestead. I’m an alien in a strange land. I’m still a New Yorker, but now I’m a homeless one. I haven’t been back since selling the house. Really, there’s nothing to go back to. Although I’m sure I will visit one day soon, it’s just not not home any longer.

105-36 Ditmars Blvd EE NY
The house on Ditmars Blvd., East Elmhurst, Queens, NY (Photo from Exit Realty)

Endnotes

[1] CoronaWP. (September 17, 2015). Ditmars Boulevard. Corona East Elmhurst Historical Preservation Society. Retrieved from: http://www.ceehps.org/index.php/2015/09/17/ditmars-boulevard/

[2] Brown, Y. (March 31, 2016). East Elmhurst. Queens Tribune (Anniversary Special Edition). Retrieved from: http://queenstribune.com/east-elmhurst/

[3] Wilder B., Director. (1954). Sabrina-IMDb. Retrieved from: www.imdb.com/title/tt0047437