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Good Afternoon

The free-spirited girl who bedazzled my Southampton summers

It’s holiday time, so pardon the abrupt retreat to summer.

Ah, summer in Southampton, just before Labor Day, the little family — mom, dad, chubby son, their only child — motoring out from Brooklyn in a black 1939 Pontiac.

The ride would begin on 69th Street at maybe 8 in the morning and last for what seemed a month.

There would be emergency provisions — a Thermos of nearly cold milk, a bologna sandwich on white, Fig Newtons — and frequent naps. In the front seat, mom — Winnie — would study a road map from Texaco and pass navigational tips to the driver, Fred. They would talk and talk. The Pontiac had no radio.

Out the window, the boy watched the suburbs sprouting. Single-family houses. Lawns. Garages. Shady streets. Another planet had been reached without so much as a boost from Buck Rogers. Long Island was inching toward its destiny, for better or worse. Wow, thought the boy.

Late afternoon, the Pontiac would swing off Montauk Highway just outside Southampton.

Then, open fields, farmhouses, the little country deli where, sometime tomorrow, Uncle Jack, my godfather, and his wife, Aunt Ann, would promise an ice cream sandwich. One left turn, then another and there, ahead, on a gentle rise, a brown cottage, and driveway covered with loose stones, and shower outside for after the beach.

And, maybe, a yellow convertible, and Joanne.

She was eight years older, Jack and Ann’s daughter, always in shorts, tan and gorgeous at summer’s end. Her legs were slim and shapely but, because of troubles at birth, one was a bit longer than the other, so Joanne walked with an uneven gait. To me, the bedazzled, little Brooklyn gumdrop, her wobbly walk made Joanne seem glamorous and brave, Wonder Woman.

“Hey, you’re here,” Joanne would say, arriving out of nowhere it seemed, smelling like Coppertone, grabbing my hand. “How about a ride? Get in the car, we’re going.”

And off we’d fly, Joanne and me, no complaints now about the long jaunt from Brooklyn. Her hair — chestnut, hints of red — blew in the wind, the Merc’s top down, hit parade playing. The Merc had a radio, you bet.

“How about we go to Montauk?” she’d say, kidding. “Or I could take you back to Bay Ridge, leave you there. Yeah, that’ll be it — we’ll go to Brooklyn.”

“But ... Mom, Dad, I can’t ...”

“You can,” said Joanne. “You can do anything.”

It was only a joke. Before long, we were roaring up the driveway to Jack and Ann’s modest vacation place, and without need of medical attention. “Next time, Connecticut!” Joanne would laugh. “Boston! The moon!”

She was a free spirit, all right, the first I met, defiant and irresistible. She went out with boys, got home late, gave her jittery parents all they could handle. She had a dog named Piccolo Pete — she kissed the dog with theatrical passion — and a fast car and played the radio loud.

Teenage ended quickly. Joanne married young, had three boys. When her marriage fell apart, she lived in Malverne with Jack and Ann. At some point, Joanne moved south.

We never lost touch. She was the sister I never had, and dear friend to my wife, Wink. Before heading to Tennessee, where one of her boys had a home, Joanne was a regular at Thanksgiving dinner. She brought mashed potatoes laced with garlic — Joanne’s signature dish.

This year, Joanne got sick. We went south in September and saw she was struggling.

“Ah,” she said. “I’m OK.”

Back home on Long Island, we called one day. Her son, Lee, answered. Things were bad, he confessed.

“Want to say a word?” Lee asked. “I’ll hold the phone to her ear.”

“Give me a moment,” I said, trying to focus. “OK. Now.”

“Go ahead,” said Lee.

“Joanne, we’re thinking of you, pal,” I said, pushing out the words. “Thinking of you.”

Wink, nearby, whispered to me: “We love you.”

“We love you,” I told Joanne. “We love you.”

“Yours was the last voice she heard,” Lee said later.

The person I’d known longest in life — everyone else gone by now — had disappeared the way we did long ago, around a bend, in the yellow Merc, music loud, disturbing the peace.

She lived an ordinary life, Joanne, like most of us. Friends, family, grandkids. But she had a righteous spirit that served her well, kept her steady on that one bum leg, gave her the grit to look ahead, fearless to the end.

Soon it’s Christmas. No card from Joanne on the mantle this year, no cheery wish, no wisecrack, or hope for the new year, or love to all. I’ll think of her, though, tan, beautiful, pulling me along. Get in the car, stop worrying, take a chance. Hang on. Next stop, moon.

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