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Essay: Single mom in a postwar promised land

Peter White, left, in a family photo from

Peter White, left, in a family photo from 1970. The photo was taken the night his brother, Dennis, right, had returned home from serving in Vietnam. From left, White, 23; his sister, Jeanne White (now Callahan), 18; Kay White, their mother, then 53; and brother Dennis, then 20. Credit: Clem Randbeck

‘We’re going to Jones Beach, and you can’t come.”

“My father got tickets to the Dodger game, just us.”

Such were the taunts I remember from childhood, when Levittown was brand new and most young families seemed to have the basics: two parents, a paycheck and a car.

Most that is, not all.

My family moved to 55 Twig Lane in September 1950. I was 3 years old, my brothers 1 and 7, and my sister to be born a year later.

In January 1952, for reasons never spoken of, our father abandoned us, and neither he nor anyone in his family ever sent as much as a card or a dollar, leaving my strong and determined mother, Levittown pioneer Kay White, to go it alone in the biggest suburb ever built, the postwar promised land, with its 17,500 young families: Levittown.

How she was able to keep us safely together with a roof over our heads, feed, clothe and educate us while providing proper values, bewilders the imagination.

With help from her parish, Holy Family Church in Hicksville, and a meager welfare allowance from the county (really a loan that we repaid later), she persevered and ultimately triumphed, accomplishing what two parents with a job and a car often struggled to do.

Levittown, whose first family moved in 71 years ago this month, was for the White family a tougher experience than for the families with dads, money and cars.

For us, there were no vacations to the Catskills, no Dodgers games, no fishing for blues in the family boat, no trips to Jones Beach, no weekly allowance and no dining out.

Transportation to anywhere beyond our immediate neighborhood involved days, sometimes weeks of planning, begging rides from neighbors, biking, hitchhiking or walking everywhere.

If I missed the school bus, Mom was emphatic.

“Peter, you put one foot in front of the other, then repeat that process for the next 45 minutes, and you’ll get there,” she’d say.

She always had a solution, often not easy, to whatever problems we faced. My brothers, sister and I were the painters, the fix-it men and the shopping force. Though we were poor by neighborhood standards, the only “welfare family” on the block, we never knew it because Mom absorbed the blows and sacrificed greatly so we could go about spending our days as kids.

We had dozens of playmates, safe streets and parks, decent schools, supportive priests, kind neighbors, and even a few benefactors at holiday time.

Levittown on a shoestring was sometimes tough, but it provided us with a wonderful gift: golden childhoods in a safe, healthy and beautiful oasis. In our Levittown — simple as that existence might have been, thanks to Mom’s vision, wisdom, courage, tenacity and hard work — we had everything, the miracle of happy upbringings.

The profound lessons I learned watching Mom deal with her uphill struggles have guided me all my life. I admired her strength as she persevered, overcame fear, trusted in others and God, and stood up for what was right. She was our beacon, our guiding light out of the poverty and loneliness we faced as a family.

We lost her tragically on the Wantagh State Parkway in June 1975 when a friend was taking her to Jones Beach, of all places. For all we were given back then, I say thank you, Levittown, and thank you, Mom.

Reader Peter White lives in Centerport.