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A spirit that will always stand tall

From left, Larry and Joan Moderno, Ann Zablocki

From left, Larry and Joan Moderno, Ann Zablocki and her husband, writer Bernard Zablocki, hit the beach on a visit to Montauk Manor in 2015. Credit: Bernard Zablocki

A recent Act2 essay about a tree drew me in. The writer spoke of her "old spruce" of 70 years as a dear friend providing her with countless mornings of peace and wonder as she drank her coffee. Tropical Storm Isaias toppled her tree. I thought of my wife, Ann, who had died a few days earlier, on Aug. 14.

Two years ago, our son, Michael, gave his mother a book for Christmas, "The Hidden Life of Trees," by Peter Wohlleben. The book sat on a small table next to her easy chair in our living room. She marveled at the life of trees and often remarked on passages in the book. She urged me to pick up the book sometime. I had no excuse after reading about that spruce. How hopeful the author's words were: "You are The Tree ... It's all a gift." Our marriage was a gift, 49 years, not quite as old as that spruce. I’m so glad Joan Hitz shared in My Turn the relationship she had with "The Tree." It inspired me to write a poem for Ann; here’s one verse:

Come to the window

together, let us look,

Our neighbor's tree tall and broad,

You worried it might fall.

"Otherwise, life is flat," you said.

I'm happy to report that life was not "flat" in the retirement years, as you’ll soon see. Ann and I lived in Queens since we were married in 1971. Our first apartment was in Jamaica, right next to the main Queens library. Ann taught English as a second language at I.S. 238, and I taught French and religion at LaSalle Academy. After Michael was born in 1973, the library became a windfall for him with books to be discarded, thanks to a kind security guard. When Michael was 5, we moved to Ridgewood, where Ann and I resided for the rest of our married life. It was convenient, close to transportation and stores.

Neither Ann nor I knew much about Long Island. I remember riding out to Riverhead for a Polish festival, exposing her to my ethnic roots. We didn't know any Irish or Swedish locales for me to learn about her background. But our unfamiliarity with Long Island changed dramatically more than a decade ago when I met Larry Moderno, a Vietnam veteran from Long Beach, volunteering at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Manhattan.

Larry and his wife, Joan, had sent their children to Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale. Ann and I soon were attending the Catholic school’s Thanksgiving dinners and plays. Other invitations followed to various parks. We enjoyed watching Tony Orlando in concert at Eisenhower Park, saw the Jersey Boys and, later, a tribute to Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Of course, Larry and Joan had to take us a couple of times to the East End for a night or two at Montauk Manor.

Larry, alas, died last year. He was our Long Island tour guide, making two old-timers feel young again. Larry became like The Tree that Joan wrote about. He was always telling me to phone him after we arrived home following a visit with him and Joan. I miss his weekly calls and the concern he showered on us in our retirement. His spirit, like The Tree, "stands within."

Reader Bernard Zablocki lives in Ridgewood.

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