Few Clouds 41° Good Afternoon
Few Clouds 41° Good Afternoon

Growing up on the wild shores of Nassau

Valerie Policastro as a young girl with her

Valerie Policastro as a young girl with her father, Thomas Jeremiah Dinan, at their home in Massapequa in the mid 1950s. Photo Credit: Policastro Family Photo

Being a child of the 1950s on Long Island was a gift.

In 1951, my parents moved to a newly built Cape Cod on the empty sand- and seagrass-covered shoreline in Massapequa. What to some was a worthless sand spit became a highly desired place to live.

Our development, Nassau Shores, had only about 10 houses where there are now hundreds. Next to our little weather-beaten Cape Cod was a large vacant lot, a haven (and heaven) of bulrushes and birds, rabbits and turtles. Muskrats would swim through a glass-smooth canal in the early mornings with their babies on their backs, leaving a V wake. Even the field mice seemed unafraid of visits from a little girl.

I was a water baby before there were "water babies" classes because my father refused to fence in our backyard on the Unqua River. The river was dredged so that deep-draft boats could proceed upriver to sites where new homes were being built. I would swim across to the farther channel and clam with bare feet and a floating basket tied around my waist. Then I'd swim to the shallows of the other drop and check out the horseshoe crabs and mussels, ducks and swans and their spring broods. One time I brought up a human leg bone, blackened by bottom mud or age. Tackapausha Nature Preserve in Seaford dated it to the time of the Massapeag Indians. History in my hands!

In various states of insobriety, weekend boat captains would ignore the channel markers and run aground at low tide. Colorful language would drift very clearly across the water until they realized they might as well continue their parties while waiting for the tide to rise, and then we'd be entertained by their complete change of mood. Hearing them kept me awake long enough to see the colorful little mushrooms of light across the Great South Bay at the Jones Beach Marine Theater -- bandleader Guy Lombardo's post-concert fireworks extravaganzas.

When I was only 3, my father, Thomas Jeremiah Dinan, would ask me to help scrape, varnish and polish his 1952 Chris-Craft. He would take my mother, sister and me out into the bay on July Fourth, never dropping anchor so we could drift along to see the fireworks shows put on by South Shore communities. I would wake the next morning gently rocking in my bunk, with the boat tied to the dock at home and my mother cooking breakfast in the house.

I lost my dad to a stroke when I was 5. My uncle, Allen Bennett, took over guiding me in the marine life. We had a good time in my tiny 3-hp. motorized rowboat until I grew up some and my new girly girl ways made him weep over my refusal to bait hooks any longer or clam without thin-soled sneakers.

My mother, sister and I would go up and down the river to net blue claw crabs we could see clearly a few feet down (slow-moving soft-shell crabs were easy pickings). My mother gave the bushels of live crabs as gifts to neighbors. As a widow with little income, she even used them as barter with the mom-and-pop businesses up on Merrick Road.

Sunday drivers would stop and offer my mother cold cash for the Cape Cod surrounded by multicolor rosebushes. She always refused, but after she died a decade ago, my sister and I sold the house.

It's now unrecognizable after alterations by new owners, especially after superstorm Sandy, but my memories and gratitude for my childhood there will never change.

Reader Valerie Policastro lives in Miller Place.