There is something intriguing about forgotten places – old cemeteries, abandoned buildings, crumbling walls. They beg us to ask, “Why are you forgotten? What memories do your walls hold?”
My fascination with the lure of old places and the stories they held began in childhood on warm Sunday afternoons when my great-aunts and uncles would gather in the living room and tell stories. My grandmother, their sister, lived with us, and thus on many Sundays throughout the year, they would converge on our living room, taking up every available seat while I sat on the floor, leaning against legs smelling of lavender and smooth with elastic support hose.
My mother came from a large, boisterous Catholic family known for stories and laughter, kinship and deep ties to the local area. Their roots ran deep in the Dominican convent and in Brooklyn, Queens, and Floral Park, where I grew up.
Every street in Floral Park appeared as an old sepia photograph to my childish eyes as the stories told by Aunt Alice, Grandma, and Aunt Flossie layered over the current landscape, a lens through which I viewed the houses I passed on my way to school or the library. The tall old “coffin” houses on Magnolia Avenue had been built by my great-grandfather and great-uncle Albert; they had good plumbing but the wood creaked, or so I heard, and the rumbling railroad trains cracked the ceilings over time.
There were stories of the old Long Island, stories of horse stables in Mineola – horse stables! where my great uncle Clarence had once rented horses by the hour to satisfy his love of riding. I knew now where I acquired my almost genetic passion for horses. Somewhere in our Alsace-Lorraine heritage was an equestrian past that showed up in our genes the way big noses and a cackling laugh showed up.
Uncle Clarence was one of my favorite relatives, and another who kindled my passion for the old houses and mansions of Long Island’s Gold Coast. You’ll meet his spiritual inheritor, Larry Schein, a character in the second Majek Family Mystery book, I Know You (currently a work in progress). Like the character of Larry, Uncle Clarence had been a plumber. He had his own plumbing business from the late 1920s through the 1950s. During that time, he often answered calls to service the big mansions along the North Shore.
He knew the old houses intimately as only a plumber can. The butler would phone him in the fall to remove the gold-plated dolphin faucets in the master bathroom. These would be ceremonially added to a velvet-lined box and stored in the mansion’s safe. Then, sometime around April, he’d receive a phone call to return to the mansion and replace them. How he would laugh when he told this story! With a twinkle in his bright blue eyes, he never said precisely what he thought of this parade of wealth and opulence, but I always got the sense from his stories that he thought it patently absurd to spend so much money on a home that was used only six to eight weeks a year – and to remove the faucets so they wouldn’t be stolen!
These are the story tellers that sing in my dreams, these wonderful old people who I spent many a dreamy Sunday afternoon with clustered around the living room. My grandmother would sit in her wheelchair and laugh along with her brothers and sisters, and I would absorb the stories, the tales of a Long Island long gone but still remembered in the stories passed from their generation to mine.