One day in the early 1960s, my family received a letter from New York State. It said the Long Island Expressway was being stretched eastward into Riverhead -- right across our land. For our family, it was the end of an era.
In the years before tract housing, eastern Long Island was a different world of open fields galore and vastly more accessible shorelines.
In 1906, my father's parents, immigrants from Italy, rode the Long Island Rail Road from Manhattan to the area called Manorville. They walked about a half mile south on Ryerson Avenue, just down the road from the still-popular Maples, a country restaurant.
They came upon a two-room farmhouse for sale on about six acres. Grandpa bought it with the idea of creating a family getaway. And so each summer for generations, on the day after school closed, several children and adults would travel to this farmstead. Barrels of flour and other supplies followed, and a self-sufficient way of life developed.
The house, a simple frame structure, soon grew from its original two rooms to about a dozen. Many a holiday weekend would find 25 to 30 people there.
Just out the kitchen door stood a bread oven, or "forno," built by the grandparents and other relatives who felt it important to provide some Old World culture. A grape arbor stood over a homemade table that easily seated 20 people. At the end of the table was a block-and-stone barbecue.
Every Saturday and Sunday at about 4 p.m., the older uncles or cousins set a wood fire. An hour or so later, racks of chicken, steak and sausage began to broil over a 2-inch layer of hot coals. Dinner started at about 6 and usually didn't end much before 8.
That's when card games of all sorts started. As moths danced around a string of bare lightbulbs overhead, adults played penny-ante poker while kids enjoyed old maid or war.
Most of the house had no electricity or plumbing. The "facilities" were an outhouse affectionately named "California" because it was a long 100 yards from the main house, among day lilies at the edge of the woods. It seated three, and in the days when my grandmother frowned on women who smoked, three of our younger aunts would stroll inside and produce plumes of cigarette smoke.
By the 1960s, reaction to that letter from the state was mixed. Some of our younger people had shunned the hardships of the summer house and visited less often. And the place was falling into disrepair. Eminent domain sealed its fate, and the wrecking ball took down the house in 1966. The anachronism that was our summer place ceased to exist, and the wide new highway was built straight through the property.
Nothing lasts forever, but the memories of feeling carefree and being enveloped in the love of an extended family are still strong. I wish more people could have such joy. Simplicity of life allowed us to grasp what is important.
I still go to the overpass on Ryerson Avenue between Exits 69 and 70 sometimes, and face east listening for the past. From finding duck eggs in a low-lying field to painting the house's wooden clapboards with messy oil-based paint, I can still sense those faded days and feel a familiar warmth.