The year was 1931. The broken-down truck loaded with building materials turned off Hempstead Turnpike onto a dirt road, then another and another until they reached Keller Avenue. For months, my grandfather Jack and his friends made the arduous trip from the Bushwick section of Brooklyn to his future patch of heaven in Elmont.
They had cleared the land by hand and were ready to start building. But first they had to meet with the inspector. My grandfather — "Papa" — had checked and rechecked the map.
The inspector, though, told him that the land he had cleared was not his. His property was the adjacent lot where he and his friends had dumped all the trees they’d cut down. The newly cleared land was up for sale, but my grandfather did not have the money to buy it. A friend, Joe Stallone, purchased it, and they all built his home first. It was three more years before they’d complete Papa’s house.
My Uncle Pat was severely injured while installing telephone lines, and in those days, if you couldn’t work, you were let go. He was left with no income or medical coverage. So, he, his wife and two children moved in with my grandparents into their small apartment. My mother and aunts all quit school in the eighth or ninth grades to work in the Garment District to pay the medical bills.
A year and a half later, Uncle Pat was back on his feet and working. After Papa’s two-story house had been completed, he decided he’d like a basement, one big enough to have parties and celebrate holidays. Uncle Pat was grateful for the family’s kindness, and if Papa wanted a basement, Uncle Pat would build him one. Nights and weekends, he single-handedly dug out the basement, one shovel at a time. It took him two years, and then he built a big table to celebrate the holidays.
My grandmother Giovanna — "Nonna" to the kids — loved her new life in America after arriving from Sicily in 1912 at age 22. Whenever she returned home, she would kiss the kitchen floor. And then, in the 1930s, telephone service was installed.
In the afternoon, Nonna would have coffee with a neighbor who began having "visions." She told my grandmother specific things about our family in vivid detail. At first, my grandmother was frightened but quickly thought she figured it out. She suspected her neighbor was eavesdropping on her telephone party line. The family, and even the phone company, insisted they would never have neighboring houses on the same line.
So my grandmother made up three tales and had her daughters phone her on three days, relating Nonna’s invented stories. Sure enough, the neighbor would retell them to her. Nonna changed her phone line.
Aunts and uncles enjoyed helping my grandparents. Uncle Joe, who lived in Franklin Square, loved to fish, and he’d bring eels to cook in Elmont, where most of the house numbers were out of order. For example, No. 3 was next door to 81. One day, a domestic disturbance two blocks away brought the police. Sirens blaring, they entered our block, searching for the correct house.
Uncle Joe, who had been cleaning the eels, came out to see what the commotion was about. His arms were covered in blood, knife in hand, as he watched the police stop their car and emerge, guns drawn. My grandmother, in her best broken English, explained the situation and talked down the police. Thankfully, no one was killed.
While growing up elsewhere in Elmont and in Franklin Square, I heard these stories about that house from relatives. Many family members are gone now, but they live on whenever I recall these tales of their early lives on Long Island.
Reader Thomas Fasullo lives in Franklin Square.