My family moved from a cozy cottage in Amityville, Long Island to a brand new spacious colonial in Sayville—20 miles further east on the island that felt rural to my Brooklyn-born parents and their families still rooted in the homeland. My parents had bought the lot six or seven years before building the house. It had all the requirements they were looking for—the Great South Bay in the backyard. The bay drew all of us to the beauty and tremendous power of this incredible body of water. It was going to be our playground, the source of our inspirations, and where we could feel grounded. Through those years, we picnicked on the property enjoying nature. We watched the birds, fished for blowfish and snappers, and collect pine cones and rocks for projects. My parents paced out and planned the new homestead and our futures. They waited for the right time.
In 1968, the time was right. My parents hired a contractor who assured that we would be moved in before the start of school in September. Mom secured a teaching position as a Sayville High School biology teacher, and my four-year-old brother, Billy, was enrolled in the Jack and Jill Nursery School—the first kid in the family to attend a daycare preschool. Mom had my sisters and my school records transferred to Green Avenue Elementary School. The Amityville house sold quickly. We packed.
During the summer of ’68, we regularly visited the Sayville house-to-be. I remember the fresh scent of lumber and how solid the floors and stairs felt under my Keds sneakers. I loved looking out of my huge wall-sized window-to-be facing the Great South Bay. The excitement was mounting to move into this home. Instead of us four sisters sharing an attic room, we would be paired up in bedrooms—Mary and I in the bedroom with the wall-sized window overlooking the Great South Bay and Diana and Barbara’s bedroom facing the front yard. Little brother, Billy, the only brother, got a small bedroom to himself. My parent’s bedroom also had a wall-sized window with a view as did the downstairs den and dining room.
Dad inspected the progress and probably fixed what he didn’t like. Mom added to the growing list of questions and worries. My sisters and I found neighborhood kids, ran through cattail lots, and played new games like SPUD and teather ball. We had to stay within earshot of my mother’s calling so that we couldn’t venture beyond the block.
Labor Day neared. There were so many details needed before we could live in the house. The big one was that the wall-sized windows were not yet installed. Then, the contractor disappeared. I am not sure of the particulars, but all my ten-year-old self knew was that Dad had no choice but to do the remaining work. The electric was connected, water flowed, and toilets flushed. We kids collected abandoned nails into empty coffee cans and stacked left-over cedar shingles. Dad hammered panels of plywood on to the wall-sized window spaces. It was good enough for us to move in time for the first day of school. The beautiful view was blocked, and my bedroom felt claustrophobic.
The house made a lot of noise. Mom said it was settling, normal for a new house. It was especially loud and spooky when the autumn winds blew relentlessly in the dark of the night. Billy claimed that the house was singing.
One week, Dad had to leave on a business trip. My grandmother, Mom’s mother, came to help. Actually, she took over. She swept with the new broom, dusted with new rags, and folded laundry into the new laundry baskets, all while reprimanding and complaining. We stayed out of her way as she cleaned, organized, and reorganized cabinets and drawers. According to Grandma, nothing was right about living way out in the “middle of nowhere”, especially with boarded up windows.
One night, the rain pounded against the plywood windows, and the wind cried against the edge of the house. The house howled through the storm, and I could hear the angry bay crashing against the bulkhead. Billy cozied up with Mary since Grandma took over his bedroom. They were sound asleep, but I was wide awake in the entombed room.
I heard a scratching noise. Perhaps it was a branch banging against the wood. Soon the scratching had a frantic rhythm. I flicked the dim lamp on the nightstand. A paw and pink nose peeked out of the edge of the plywood that had a splintery hole I had not noticed before. It must be my cat, Frisky! Poor thing must be frightened in the storm. I jumped out of bed. Just as I reached the window, a long toothy snout emerged from the hole. Black beady eyes followed. Possum! I fell back and screamed. The creature hissed at me as it wiggled and snarled. I leapt onto Mary’s bed and bounded out of the room, still screaming.
Mom and Grandma ran upstairs. Grandma had armed herself with the the new broom. My sisters, brother, and I cried on the landing, but Grandma made me go with her to inspect my room. The possum was gone. Grandma poked the broom handle into the hole. Then we heard the cat bellow a roaring yowl from my parent’s bedroom. I followed Mom and Grandma into the room. When the light was turned on, a nasty hiss came from the corner. Friskey bolted. Grandma screeched her threats, poking at the rain-drenched animal. It bared its teeth and hunched its back.
“Get out! Get out you #!@* animal!” Grandma hollered and pushed at the snarling possum. I watched Grandma in paralyzed awe. “Don’t you show those #!*# teeth at me. You won’t frighten my grandchildren like this. Out! Out!” continued Grandma.
Grandma made the possum turn itself around. She swatted it out of the hole it had gnawed. Its naked pink tail disappeared into the storm.
Mom patched the holes with the collected cedar shingles and nails. Mary and I had to sleep in our beds. “Nothing will get you tonight,” said Grandma.
Billy had a better idea. He bunked in my younger sisters’ bedroom with small windows that locked against the storm and possums.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.