I was 3 years old when we moved to Hicksville from the Lower East Side of New York City. My father was a baker; my mother left her job at Simplicity Patterns, and we rented the three-bedroom, two-story house on Richard Street, a block behind Broadway. The year was 1941 and my father found a job at Just-Rite Bakery on Broadway. My sister and brother were born in the mid-1940s.
Dominating a whole block on Broadway was St. Ignatius Church, rectory, school and convent. Broadway was a two-lane avenue packed with stores on both sides including Heuttner’s and Larry’s department stores, Buster Brown Shoes, delicatessens, bakeries, stationery stores, hardware stores and banks. The Sweet Shop served ice cream at the counter, as did Scheiner’s Drugstore and Lindemann’s. Doctors, dentists and lawyers had offices above the stores. The surrounding farms fueled Hicksville’s economy at the time. Stores were open on Saturday nights when the farmers came to town to shop.
World War II began soon after we moved to Hicksville. My father was not able to serve and left the bakery for defense work at Grumman Aircraft. Planes from Grumman and Mitchel Field were constantly flying overhead. We used blackout curtains, and we could see searchlight beams in the sky at night. One afternoon while I was shopping with my mother, there was an air-raid drill on Broadway. All traffic stopped and people got out of their cars. A warden guided us off the street and into the stores. I still remember crying when I overheard a woman say the enemy was just around the corner. I was 5 and I believed her. I was petrified that the scenes we saw in LIFE Magazine would happen to Hicksville.
On Richard Street, we lived between two families with grown children. To our right, two of their children were priests, two were nurses, and their youngest son was in the Army Air Corp. To our left, the family’s two sons were doctors — one in the Navy and one in the Army; their sister was a local schoolteacher. None of them was married during the war, and they lived with their parents when they were off-duty. As the youngster on the block, I drifted back and forth picking their flowers, visiting their kitchens to eat their plum cake and cookies, and swinging on their lawn swings. My mother knitted and sewed for them, helped with their canning, and shared our vegetable garden, chickens and eggs. Hicksville was populated with old German families and my mother added a lot of their recipes to her cookbook.
Despite the war, my friends and I on Richard Street, Carl Place and Railroad Avenue had a life of freedom — roller skating, riding our bikes and packing-crate scooters. We built forts, played baseball, had cowboy-Indian and pirate wars, and of course, we played Army, marching with sticks and branches for rifles. The ice house on Carl Place had ice slivers left on their loading docks for us to pick up and cool off with. We would stop and watch the troop trains and flat cars with war supplies go by behind our field every day.
The Dominican nuns lived at their convent on Cherry Street, and I took piano lessons there for $1 a lesson. I attended the first kindergarten at St. Ignatius School, and eventually became the “errand girl” for the convent. I would come every day after school to their kitchen door, and get my assignment: pick up a free loaf of bread at the bakery for them, mail letters, drop off or pick up things at the different stores on Broadway. Sometimes, I escorted a nun to a store because they weren’t allowed to go out alone. Usually, I was rewarded with a cookie or candy or a holy picture.
The church sexton was a Polish man who lived next door to the church. He rang the bells at noon every day after the fire horn blew twice. My father would stop and speak Polish to him when we were out for a walk sometimes. His wife and daughter were stranded in Poland all during the war, and he lost touch with them. In his house, I saw a row of dolls waiting for his daughter. After the war, he was reunited with his family.
We didn’t have a car, so we walked for recreation, mostly in the evenings. It was all farm fields, with huge maple trees on both sides of Broadway. One day my parents went to an auction on South Broadway and bought an upright piano. We had no way to get it home, so friends and relatives rolled it down Broadway on a couple of dollies from the bakery and a red wagon. That piano followed me into my married life and ended up in my first house in East Islip.
The war ended in 1945 with a noisy celebration of flag-decorated cars and trucks riding up and down Broadway on V-E Day, horns blaring and dragging tin cans behind them.
After the war, Hicksville became a hub for the surrounding communities growing by thousands of homes being built on the farm fields in Plainview, Levittown, Jericho. Broadway was a two-lane highway, and there were many gated railroad crossings. Sunday mornings, the churches had standing room only, and the lines at the two bakeries in town went around the corner. In the next few years, Broadway become a four-lane highway, and all the stores on the west side were taken down, leaving empty lots for years. The railroad crossings were elevated. Broadway Mall was built as Mid-Island Plaza. My parents bought a house on Burns Avenue, across from a farm that later became the site of the Burns Avenue School. I was married at St. Ignatius Church in 1958, and moved 25 miles east with my new husband.
But every once in a while, I’ll ride down Richard Street, and try to picture our house with the dogwood tree and wash lines. I learned my love of gardening from my father’s vegetable garden there, and my mother’s rows of flowers. Along one side of the front lawn were pink-tinged white rose bushes, “New Dawn,” introduced in 1930, which put them into the perfect time frame for our years in the rented house. We cut the blooms for neighbors, our hair, corsages, the nuns. Our home, the roses, and the families I knew there are long gone. St. Ignatius School is closed. But I remember it all so well.
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