Five decades removed from where I grew up, we ventured back to go sailing home.
Bonnie and I met our younger daughter Wendy in New York for three days of touring that included a day in the suburbs of Westchester. Wendy was in town from Denver to deliver a talk to the Queens Dental Society, which by the time I was through telling everyone was conflated as the United Nations General Assembly.
We took the train to Rye from Grand Central and rented a car. Fifty years later, everything looked remarkably the same except for new construction in the form of office buildings and the occasional tear-down home replaced new.
Near the train station was Rye Country Day School, where all four siblings attended at one time or another. The grounds were sheered by the New England Thruway in the 1950s, but the school recovered by expanding in the other direction. The website lists a sliding scale of tuition that begins at $23,300 for pre-kindergarten.
What struck me was how big the houses were, virtual mansions with wings jutting out and floor plans of 8,000 square feet. They’re next door to each other on spacious lots that are so big that you can’t see Long Island Sound from the street.
The little town is still intact with small shops and stores as well as the larger, ubiquitous Starbucks. I pointed out a corner store which used to sell comics, candy, knives, sports equipment and other important things boys need. Today it’s occupied by Verizon.
We drove to Manursing Island Club, where I grew up playing tennis on green clay courts and sailing a small boat. The place was hit by nor’easter in December that took out a lot of sand but otherwise the grounds looked elegant as always. Wendy posted a photo of me on Facebook with the water in the background. “This is where my father first learned to sail, Long Island Sound. He and his dad would take the Sailfish sailboat out to the larger island on the left. Occasionally my father would swim on his own or with friends to the island on the right. Today he is a US Coast Guard captain. And he forgives me for living in a landlocked city.”
Further down the coast was Playland, a lowbrow amusement park which should have been razed decades ago for pricey condos but was taken over by Westchester County as a public park. We could see the big roller coaster in the distance. It used to be called the Wild Mouse. I read in the local Journal News (derivative of the White Plains Reporter-Dispatch that where my father was editor in the 1930s and where I broke in in 1967) that the pool is leaking 35,000 gallons a day and needs to be fixed. There’s talk of replacing it instead with a beach to the water, but that would remove the pool from the annual county swim meet where 1,200 kids participate in the season finale. When I was covering the meet one summer, a swimmer missed his turn and crashed into the wall and died. They fished him out of the pool and the show went on. Welcome to New York.
As rain began to fall, we drove past Rye High, a magnificent school built of stone where we couldn’t attend because the kids were townies. Across the street was the equally impressive Resurrection Catholic Church, where we rated a monsignor as pastor instead of a mere priest.
“It’s Presbyterian,” Bonnie said. “What!” I responded. She was reading from the sign out front. Resurrection was next door.
We found the house on Purchase Street where I grew up. Wendy asked the street number to verify against GPS, and I told her that back then houses on Purchase Street didn’t have numbers. The two-car garage was retrofitted into living quarters, and a three-car barn occupied a section of a vacant lot next door that my father bought as an investment. Over the original garage is an exterior window in a closet, of all things. When I was little my mother would tuck me in and close the closet door to avoid the draft. But I thought she said “giraffe” and have avoided them ever since.
One day I was playing outside when a man who turned out to be a bank robber zoomed by at 89-90 mph with the police in hot pursuit. I was too young to ride a bike, so my sister Cicely jumped on hers to find out what was going on. A mile or so away, the road curved and the robber ran off the road into this house, where moments earlier several children had just gone inside for dinner. When Cicely came back, I asked for details but she wouldn’t tell me anything. Years later I realized this was a pivotal point in my becoming a journalist, because I just wanted to find out what the hell was going on.
I pointed out where I set the pachysandra on fire at age six. It burned pretty well, and quickly at that for which I got into a lot of trouble. The house looks fine from the street, and we drove up the circular drive next door at the Massie house to see ours from the side, and you could see the shutters on the side looked shabby. Where else do you find shutters on the side of a house anyway?
On the way up the hill to Westchester Country Club, I showed them the Hellman House (as in Hellman’s mayonnaise), which looked different from the contemporary house I recall. The country club is spectacular as it dominates the skyline on a ridge that constitutes the highest elevation in the county. In fact, there’s a Ridge Street there.
We walked around inside and I showed them where my sisters Valerie, Molly and Cicely had their debutante balls—outside with a bandstand and marble dance floor. A marble top table is still there on the terrace.
Valerie and her husband Jack Curran had their wedding reception in another wing of the country club in 1958, where I recall my father sprung for 50 cases of champagne.
We took the elevator up to the eighth floor for the view north to White Plains, where two skyscrapers dominate the scene five miles in the distance.
The place was eerily quiet, and the grille in one wing was apparently between lunch and dinner. It was set up nicely in red leather in a sunken room. I remember it well. Across the way in the opposite wing, a brokerage office was long gone.
We drove inland to White Plains to the house at 17 Vermont Avenue where we relocated around 1961. My maternal grandfather built it in 1906 and when he died my mother bought out her brother Bob’s interest. A neighbor walking her dog suggested we knock. Phyllis Handler let us in reluctantly. “You should have called!” she said. I responded, “We didn’t know who to call.” The last time one of you O’Donovans did this you called ahead.” “How did they know?” I asked. “They wrote a letter to Resident, 17 Vermont Ave.”
The parquet floors were intact 110 years later, as was the rug in the dining room that conveyed with the sale in 1966. We came to the conclusion that the Handlers were the buyers from my parents since she said the selling couple was in a rush to move to California because the husband had suffered a stroke. I told her husband Stanley that they were in such a hurry that my mother disposed of my treasured Yankee baseball signed by Mickey Mantle. As we stood there, I realized the rug was considerably older than those of us in our 60s and 70s.
A beautiful stained glass window of a sailboat still caught the sunlight on the stairway landing. I asked if the window tended to bulge in the summer as the lead seams heated up. Mrs. Handler said that it did indeed and that they got an estimate to refurbish the window but it ran $3,000. So the window bulges when it’s hot outside. The kitchen had been torn apart and remodeled twice, but it was still cut up into patches.
The wood stove that my grandmother used to cook on was long gone. Nearby was a restored ice box that had been stashed away in the basement. The Handlers had it spiffed up as an antique, but it’s important to note the thing fulfilled its intended use for decades before we were born. Long gone was the wood stove that my Grandmother Daisey cooked on (or rather her cook cooked on).
The wood cabinets in the kitchen were natural and looked much better than the dreadful white paint of yonder. I told her that over the years I repainted nearly every single room in the house, including the nooks and crannies of the kitchen. “Can you do it again?” Phyllis deadpanned. I told her about the time my Uncle Bob came in tipsy one night and mistook the stairs to the basement for the back stairs to his room. He fell sharply and pulled down the pots and pans hanging on the wall.
Back in New York, we toured the town over two days and took in the famous Algonquin Room at the Algonquin Hotel, where famous writers of the 1920s threw down drinks and tidbits at the Roundtable.
Meanwhile in Williamsburg, the sailing season opens Saturday, March 12.
Let’s go sail. To see the rates and reserve a date this spring for a sailboat charter, click here. To check out reviews from sailors, click here. To become a crew member on a charter sail or to tell us your sailing story, click here.