2 friends and I stand on the deck of Grammie’s house
Both sets of my grandparents settled in Breezy Point, New York, in their youths. My mom’s parents went in on a bungalow with her aunt and uncle on Suffolk Walk in the ealry ’50’s. My dad’s parents built their bungalow at the end of Beach 217th Street in 1957.
My dad’s paternal family had lived in Far Rockaway since arriving in New York with the polo ponies in the mid 1800’s. My great-grandparents owned a hotel where my great grandmother cooked and music was frequently heard. Pop-Pop was a member of NY’s Bravest, FDNY. When dating my Grammie in the Bronx, he’d go over an hour by train to visit.
My dad’s mother’s family frequently visited the bungalows in the “middle” of the peninsula, staying with friends, enjoying the sea air. Quarters were tight, walls were thin, there was no air conditioning, and the Brooklyn breeze always brought bugs, but no one cared. They were at the Beach.
Both sets of grandparents met, married, bought houses in the Bronx and Richmond Hill, and then invested in Breezy Point. It was a place where far-flung families could gather. My mother often speaks of spending summers at Breezy with her cousins. They were more like siblings to her. My dad’s cousins often visited too. In fact, since they lived in New Jersey, their time at Breezy Point was the only time he did see them.
Growing up as the child of two Pointers, I always felt a sense of freedom when we arrived at Breezy Point. Shoes and socks could come off, bathing suits and sunscreen went on, and the fun began. We usually stayed with my paternal grandparents because they had a little more room for four rambunctious children to play in. For the longest time, I didn’t realize there were any beaches other than Breezy Point. Breezy = Beach in my mind. In fact, at this point in my life (and I’ve now been on quite a few beaches), Breezy is still one of the best beaches in the world.
I think one of the best things about Breezy Point was that it was a home away from home. I knew that if I needed to, I could stay the night there. In fact, my grandparents often allowed us to spend weeks at a time with them which were really wonderful bonding times.
Everything at the Breezy Point house was a little bit worn- the second best pots & pans, the second best glasses, the plastic dishes, reams of paper plates and napkins… it wasn’t fine china and crystal- Breezy was the best of simplicity. Breezy was the place where you could let your hair down (or pull it back, whatever was easier), walk around with a wet head (even though you were bound to get raise eyebrows from Grammie), and drink Lipton Iced Tea on the deck in the sun (or shade, depending on how badly you burned).
For me, Breezy Point- my Grammie’s house- was my “calm” place. Any time I needed to meditate or find a place of calm, I’d see the view from the middle bedroom looking out over the dunes with the ocean far off in the distance. It was amazing how far the water grew as the beach grew due to Co-op conservation and anti-erosion efforts.
Grammie sitting in the living room at Breezy
One of the most inspiring views for me was late one summer night- looking out over the dunes and seeing the moon looking like it was sitting right on the ocean. I felt like if I’d just been a bit more adventurous, I could’ve walked that moonlit pathway over the ocean and touched a little bit of heaven.
As I grew at the beach, I was witness to several changes in the Pointer way of life. First there were no more bonfires allowed on the beach. Then no more cars. Then the Piping Plover decided to make its nest in the grasses that had been planted by the Co-op and the area became restricted- an endangered species nesting area. By the way, in case you didn’t know, the Piping Plover likes to build its nest below the high water mark. Not the brightest bird in the air. Each year, after the Piping Plover appeared, there seemed to be more restrictions by the EPA. They cordoned off more and more of the beach. They would kill any domestic animal found in the dunes where the birds lived. Fines for breaking Plover eggs ranged as high as $50,000.
In addition to all these restrictions, we were growing up too. My mother’s parents died, then her aunt & uncle, so the Suffolk Walk house was sold. That was one anchor lost. Then my Pop-Pop and Uncle Jerry died, and a year later, my Aunt Mickey. The Bayside house was sold. The only family left at Breezy were my Grammie on the Ocean side and my mom’s cousin and his wife on the Bay side. We also moved further north in NY and it became an ordeal of a 2 hour drive to get to the Beach.
Anyone who’s had to drive in Brooklyn or Queens will tell you that it is one of the most miserable experiences of his/her life. To get to Breezy Point (Queens), which is across Jamaica Bay from Coney Island (Brooklyn) you have to drive through both Brooklyn AND Queens. Once we moved north, we had to drive through the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens over two bridges.
But even though I didn’t get there a lot, I knew that Breezy Point – my Grammie’s house- was going to be there forever. I saw myself bringing my future husband and children there, eating grilled hot dogs and hamburgers on the deck… but in the span of a day that dream was shattered, along with the dreams of so many others.
In October of 2012, Super Storm Sandy hit. By the time it hit NY, it was no longer a “hurricane”. By the trail of damage it left, you’d never know it was anything other than a hurricane. Due to the position of the moon, tides, and force of wind, a 13 foot storm surge flooded New York Harbor. Lower lying areas along the ocean, many rivers, and bays were flooded.
Grammie’s house was lifted off its cinderblock risers and spun into the house next to it before eventually dropping down into the maintenance tracks that run behind the houses. All of the furniture that had been brought inside for the winter was thrust through the walls, or tumbled around. It was waterlogged, weed-soaked, and ruined. Our first image of the house was seen on FoxNews.Com’s Sandy coverage. Ironically, the only thing that survived intact was the hurricane-proof shingles that my grandmother had installed the summer prior.
Grammie’s house lifted off its piers
The house was red-tagged, set to be demolished. My grandparents’ house- that place of childhood refuge- was going to be destroyed.
My older brother and sister-in-law braved the traffic, lawlessness, and lack of public services following Sandy to salvage what they could from my grandmother’s house. They were able to retrieve some nicknacks, some linens, and some other items, but the bulk of it- all the pictures, the memories, my grandfather’s binoculars… all of it was gone.
Many people asked if we had flood insurance. We didn’t. The last time my grandfather had flood insurance, and it flooded, he was told the damage was wind damage and that there wouldn’t be a pay-out. So he dropped the coverage. And for 40 years, there was no flood. If they’d paid flood insurance, they would’ve paid more than the value of the house over those 40 years.
Then there was the question of FEMA aid. Because the bungalow was not my grandma’s primary residence, FEMA aid was out of the question. As a family, we didn’t begrudge anyone receiving FEMA aid. There we people who lost their primary residences and all their possessions in Sandy. We just wish that the insurance company had been a little more compassionate in their decisions. Or that there had been some other agency which could’ve helped my 97 year old grandmother recover some of her losses.
So a year later… very few houses that were demolished have been rebuilt. Breezy Point is almost a ghost town. There have been fundraisers and charity drives galore, but no one helps the summer residents. No one really thinks about them when considering giving aid. No one considers the fact that people like my grandmother had built that house with hard-earned money and owned it free and clear. To rebuild now would require more energy and effort than a 97 year old woman should have to expend.
And that’s not even taking into consideration the fact that the various regulatory agencies haven’t come to decisions on the new regulations for rebuilding. Some of the early regulations were going to require that all houses be built on 11 foot piers. Obviously the geniuses who came up with that one have never had to watch a 97 year old woman climb a flight of stairs. Or pondered how to make a ramp that would geometrically feasible for that type of construction.
Additionally, the regulatory bodies seem convinced that there are going to be more of these super storms on a yearly basis. Well, I hate to break it to you, folks, but there wasn’t a single hurricane that made it to the NorthEast this summer/fall. And the Ocean only met the Bay twice in 40 some-odd years. The odds actually are in favor of not building 11 foot high piers for foundations.
I think one of the saddest things my family faced this summer was not having our typical celebrations at the Beach. Normally we would’ve gone down for Fourth of July weekend, which was the official opening of Grammie’s summer. The a week later we would’ve been down to celebrate her birthday. This year, we celebrated at a Chinese restaurant in Westchester. It wasn’t the same.
This is not to say that I’m not grateful that I have my family safe and whole. I am. I recognize that we are so much more fortunate than so many others who lost everything in Sandy. I just am so saddened by what we lost: our place of peace and happiness; our place of family gatherings; our memories; our last physical connections with those who are no longer with us.
So now the process begins of coming to grips with the fact that my “Fortress of Solitude” no longer exists and may never be rebuilt. I truly have a newfound respect and gratitude for the people in my life, as well as having a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food on the table. While we suffered losses, we still have each other. And like Pointers from of old, we’ll find a way to come back.