The United States Weather Bureau forecast for Friday, Dec. 26, said: “New York City and vicinity, cloudy with occasional snow ending during the afternoon.” It probably was the greatest understatement in Weather Bureau history. The New York Times Archives
Snow began falling early in the morning the day after Christmas in 1947. My mother was in her last month of pregnancy. The phone rang all day with concerned friends suggesting she should call her doctor to see if she could go to the hospital, just in case the baby (me) came early. “No,” she insisted. The baby wasn’t due until the 6th of January (1948). She was fine.
There was no let-up, the skies continued to dump white, cold, heavy precipitation all day and night, continuing into the day on Saturday, the 27th. Roads were impassible, public transportation came to a halt, including New York’s famed Subway and elevated trains, with snow levels mounting and frozen rails. The City restricted all travel to emergency vehicles only. No travel across the various bridges that linked four of the five boroughs to each other (Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Manhattan; Staten Island could only be reached by ferry) was permitted. My parents lived in Queens, just two blocks from LaGuardia Airport, overlooking Grand Central Parkway. My mother’s doctor was in Manhattan. The hospital where she was to deliver was in Manhattan. My parents didn’t own a car, but it didn’t matter. The roads were closed. The bridges were closed. They were stranded. About midday, my mother’s water broke. Now what?
My parents were frantic. They began calling everyone they could, but it didn’t matter. Even if people had cars (most of their friends did not), the roads were closed. More to the point, the snow was so high, cars couldn’t move. Even emergency vehicles were experiencing difficulties getting around. One of my parent’s friends suggested that they call a nearby bar and grill, known to be frequented by truckers. Perhaps someone there could help. They called. Most people at the bar were stranded themselves. However, one young man and a friend had a pickup truck. They felt that if they weighted the back of truck with snow and ice, they might be able to make the trip. They agreed to try, feeling concerned about the young pregnant woman.
The two young men arrived at the house and helped my father get my mother down the front steps and into the truck. The young man who was not driving rode in the back of pickup. I can’t imagine how cold he must have been. Upon arriving at the toll booth for the Triboro Bridge (now called Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge), which they needed to cross to get to the hospital in Manhattan, the policeman, incredulous that they were able to drive at all on the nearly impassable roads, told them the bridge was closed and they could not cross. I’m not sure if my mother was screaming or not, but the driver explained he had a pregnant woman who was in labor, about to give birth right there in the truck and he needed to get her to her designated hospital, Wadsworth Hospital, on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The policeman peered in the truck window and apparently was sufficiently shocked by my mother’s demeanor that he allowed them to pass. Somehow, they made it to the hospital. In all the excitement and relief that they made it, my parents said a hasty thank you and were whisked away into the hospital, by hospital attendants, neglecting to obtain the names of their kind transporters. They made it in time. My mother was in labor for several more hours. I was not born until 12:47 am, on Sunday morning, the 28th. The snow also ended sometime overnight, having deposited 26.4 inches. It was the most snow since the Blizzard of 1888. Moreover, this blizzard was called a “mesoscale” storm because it snowed on one more centralized spot(rather than a region) with “a concentrated force.”
Post-delivery was not then what it is today. My mother and I were kept in the hospital for eight days after I was born. Meanwhile, my father had to negotiate the aftermath of the blizzard. He worked at the Customs House in lower Manhattan, on the waterfront, near the ferry for Staten Island (and Ground Zero). Getting to work each day, and home again, required herculean effort. Although the Subway stop near the Customs House that he used was underground and was now functional, getting to and from the Subway in Queens was another matter. The bus he normally took was unable to negotiate the snow-packed streets. He had to walk 2.5 miles each way from the Subway at 74th St. and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights to our home on Ditmars Blvd. in East Elmhurst. In addition, after work, he would take the Subway uptown to visit my mother and me, his new baby girl, in the hospital, before heading home. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to walk from the Subway at 74th St. to our house on a sunny, Spring day, much less trudging through nearly hip-high snow.
About 12 years later, the snow was falling; school closed early. My mother was on the phone talking with our neighbor, Thelma. My mother was explaining the snow was falling much like the day before I was born. She went on to tell the story of the young men who came and helped her and my father get to the hospital in time to be born. She credited them with saving our lives, since it was a somewhat difficult birth and one or both of us might have died without proper medical care. Thelma began to explain that her then fiancé, “Buster,” was supposed to come to her apartment to have dinner. He was late because he said he and his friend helped a young woman in labor and her husband get to the hospital in Manhattan. He lamented that in all the excitement he didn’t get their names. She went on to say that ever since they bought their house next door to us, Buster would comment from time to time that he was sure that young couple lived nearby, but he just couldn’t remember which house. He wondered if the baby and mother had survived and what became of them. It didn’t take too many more comparisons of the details to realize that my mother was that young pregnant woman in labor and that I was the baby. How amazing to realize the man who helped my mother get to the hospital and almost certainly saved our lives, was my much loved “Uncle Buster,” next door!
I can never experience a snowfall, much less a blizzard without thinking about my dramatic entrance or Uncle Buster.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.