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My Turn: Our 'pioneer' move to Suffolk

Writer Jewel Arntsen and her children, Ilene, 4,

Writer Jewel Arntsen and her children, Ilene, 4, and David, 3, at their new home in Coram in 1969. Credit: Handout

In 1969, we considered ourselves pioneers!

After checking with our friend the accountant as to whether we could possibly afford a house in the suburbs, we bundled our two young children into the car and drove from Queens waaaay out to Suffolk County, where the houses were cheaper, to seek the "holy grail" of a new home.

It didn't take us long. The beautiful semicircle of Levitt homes on Nesconset Highway had 11 models to choose from. What did we know of houses -- we who grew up on the streets of the Bronx and moved upscale to Queens when we had our second child? From a sunny two-bedroom apartment on Main Street, the two-story Colonial house with four bedrooms and 21/2 baths seemed like luxury, indeed. One more telephone call to our accountant friend, and we prepared to mortgage our lives away in the amount of $25,990 to Williamsburgh Savings Bank. We had to borrow a $1,000 down payment.

Each weekend leading up to moving day, we took our 3- and 4-year-old children on a picnic to the site where our future home would be built. We spread out a blanket on the dirt, swept away pebbles, sticks and detritus and ate our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches as we gazed at the random piles of lumber and bricks that would someday be our castle.

When the stairway went in, my husband, Henry, took each child, one at a time, carefully up the steps and pointed out their future rooms. To say that Ilene and David were unimpressed would be an understatement! After all, they now slept in warmth and comfort in a sunny room in Queens. However wonderful this would someday be, right now, bare lumber, isolated, freestanding stairway notwithstanding, this pile of sticks with no walls did not represent a child's version of home. But my husband and I drank in the majesty of our own someday-home.

Moving day came in early February. Boxes were unloaded, beds set up, and we were home. This was a time before ATMs, and until we could cash a check, we had exactly enough money in our pockets to purchase either a garbage can or a snow shovel. It should have been a sign, because we chose a garbage can. Three days later, Suffolk County saw 19 inches of snow fall gently on the mounds of dirt and whatever cartons had been emptied! Thus our first adventure was "shoveling" with the garbage can cover! We made friends straightaway with the neighbor who was gloriously moving snow with a real shovel.

When spring arrived, albeit later than usual, what was to become grass needed to be watered daily. Thus, our second adventure was watering dirt twice a day in hopes that grass would magically appear. Mail was delivered to a combination post office/deli and had to be picked up daily. No mail deliveries in the area, as there were no roads yet. We city folk regarded this as one more sign that we were in the country. Pick up mail and order a quarter-pound of baloney!

When we drove our parents out to see our castle in Coram, there were diverse reactions to the location. My mother-in-law, originally from Sweden and having spent her entire 30-year American experience in a six-story apartment house in Queens among civilization, began muttering in Swedish with every mile we traveled. She was positive she would never see her precious grandchildren again. My parents, citified New Yorkers, reveled in the idea that we would be first-generation suburban homeowners and were delighted with every mile that passed.

Since neither parents drove, that meant my husband, whose generosity knew no bounds, went to the Bronx to get the parents and after an overnight stay (because it was such a long trip for them) drove them back after the weekend!

Little by little, the grass came up, sparse but lovely and green. We all made friends with neighbors who were in the same boat as we were, and life began in earnest in our little town. Our children attended kindergarten through 12th grade in our fine schools, sometimes on split sessions. I went to work for the school district and remained there for 34 years. Our son and daughter grew to be stalwart, bright young adults, eventually leaving for college; one becoming a teacher and the other an attorney. Marriage and parenthood followed.

In 1969, the last exit on the LIE was 56. Subsequently, the LIE ended at Exit 74, and we became "close-in-Coram," All the trees we planted became so overgrown that they needed pruning yearly. Early piles of dirt became thick, green grass and lovely flower beds.

I doubt our children remember those early days, but their children -- our seven grandchildren -- implore us never to sell our house. They love to hear the stories of their parents as youngsters and the adventures we had as pioneers in Coram.

"After all, Grandma and Grandpa," they say, "this house has memories!"

--Jewel A. Arntsen,Coram

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