The East Islip of My Memory

 Freda Follender


Audio file of Freda reading this story 


Before World War II there was sea and sand, great marshes and endless stands of pine and oak on the south shore of Long Island . Until the great post-war population push into that scrub oak and bush pine, most of the land lay fallow.


 The rich had discovered East Islip in the latter half the nineteenth century and in my time their properties sprawled along the waterfront of the Great South Bay, up into the marshes and  beyond to the south side of the only highway, Merrick Road. Their imposing homes were hidden behind high stone walls or hedges to ensure privacy.


 In the nineteen thirties, the East Islip I remember could have been as distant from New York City as China for most of the 2,000 inhabitants.  They not only had little money to travel the sixty miles to New York City , they had no desire. Most of the full-time residents of East Islip had not seen the "City," as it was always referred to, since they passed through it on their way from the docked ships that brought them from the ports of  Europe to the Port of New York City and then to the village that would be their home. There was a sprinkling of Dutch, English and Germans but most of the residents had emigrated to America from Bohemia , a province of the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that became Czechoslovakia after World War One.


The north side of the  Merrick Road , Main Street where it ran through the village, was dotted with simple cottages whose occupants worked on "the rich estates". They cooked and cleaned and chauffeured and gardened and cared for the hunting dogs and the horses and the cows and the gardens and fields. 


 Their children, my peers, were first generation Americans. My friends' parents were humble people whose only aspiration was a better quality of life. They were good workers. They sent hard-earned money to relatives left behind in Eastern Europe and the financial help allowed the relatives to live a little better in their native land and, eventually, to emigrate to East Islip.


 Our Main Street comprised about six blocks. It had a butcher shop, two rival groceries, A Thomas Roulston's and a Bohacks, two old-time franchises that are no more. There were two dry goods stores, a bicycle shop, a drug store, the post office and, at the end of the village, a movie house.  


Freda (right) and Sister Nellie Follender on their front lawn, 2nd Avenue, 1923.  Nellie has her ballet shoes and dress on for this photo.  There was a large empty lot across the street. The houses in the background are on the next street, First Avenue . The one to the left was owned by the Fialkas, the one on the right by the Ames family.  Helen Ames was my sister's best friend.



Mr. L’Hommedieu (pronounced “lama-dew” by all the residents) was the street cleaner. He walked back and forth, up and down Main Street from Carleton Avenue to Irish Lane with a galvanized garbage can with wheels attached and a handle by which he directed it. With a stiff broom he swept up the detritus.  Could he have been a left-over from the horse and buggy era?


A stout jolly little man, Mr. Carey, spent a lot of time looking out of the large front window of his office, a small white building with a sign over the door that said, “John Carey, Real Estate, Insurance, Notary Public;  I don’t think much property changed hands then. You could buy thirty acres of pine bush on the outskirts of East Islip for thirty dollars.


The largest building on Main Street was an oblong two-story building with a faux Greek revival porch that had been, up until World War I, a movie house. It was sold in 1918 to my parents who manufactured dolls' wigs. The doll-wig manufacture was a specialized business that employed, during full production, two dozen women and a few men. My father commuted to the original wig factory in New York City where he supervised the workers who wove and processed the human hair that was made into theatrical wigs. 


(Note: The name of the factory was THE FOLLENDER WIG CORPORATION.  It is referred to thusly in doll encyclopedias. )


He created the wigs that Mary Pickford wore in her movies and he fashioned the diamond-entwined blonde braids that Mae West showed off in her stage production of Diamond Lil.  Mrs. Jesse Strauss, wife of the president of R.H. Macy department store was one of his clients. Many New Yorkers of means wore wigs or hair-pieces that were attached to their own hair to make the elaborate hairdos of the late eighteen nineties and early nineteen hundreds.  While my father supervised the New York City plant my mother managed the doll wig production in East Islip .  



The caretaker of the factory in East Islip was an elderly retiree named Henry Boehning. He had been a bookkeeper in Brooklyn and he had always yearned for employment in the country atmosphere.  He was delighted to be hired by my parents. He opened the factory doors in the morning and locked up at night, he tended the ovens that dried the hair. And after work he loved caring for the chickens and the cow that were housed in my mother's property in back of the wig factory.  He was stiff and rheumatic but he performed his tasks well and always had time to give me much-needed attention.  He couldn't walk the two blocks to the church, so I would go, each Saturday morning, and fetch holy water for him. The parish priest, Father Connelly, had arranged a little font in Henry's quarters. Henry lived in the part of the wig factory that had been the stage and dressing rooms for the vaudeville acts when the building was a movie house. 


I loved going for the holy water, setting foot in church made me feel that I belonged. The wood-shingled St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was painted stark white and topped with a large gold cross; it was the showpiece of Main Street , set on a green lawn behind a somber grey eight-foot concrete Mother Mary who blessed the surrounding, well manicured grass. The bell in the belfry tolled for morning and evening mass, then at noon it tolled twelve times and six for six o’clock in the evening. Life’s routines evolved around that bell and when a parishioner died the end of a worldly existence was broadcast mournfully by a different slow cadence for a long time.. 


I looked forward to that Saturday morning errand fetching the holy water. I recall the overwhelming feelings of wonder and fright and awe as sooon as I lugged open the heavy, intricately carved wooden door. The church was always empty except for someone practicing dolorous music on the organ. Around the altar there was crisp embroidered linen, glittering gold, rich color and a sweet herbal smell of scented burning wax. Like a field of narcissi in the wind, votive candles flickered in their recessed niche in the rear wall. If it was sunny outside, I’d first stand and watch the amorphous blue and green shapes reflected from the stained glass windows onto the polished wood of the ceiling, the floor and the pews. Then as I walked down the aisle I made a game of stepping within a different pattern of the red and green carpet that ran between the pews. Approaching the altar, I avoided looking at the polychrome figure of my friends’ Christ who suffered there on the cross because my schoolmates never hesitated to remind me that MY people had crucified him.


East Islip was mostly Catholic, there were no other religious buildings. Everyone attended church at least once a week. Widows, the elderly and a few supplicants never missed the daily mass. For most of the church-goers religion was manifested in prayer-by-rote on Sunday and the cloak of faith and devotion was discarded until the toll of the church bells reminded them of their obligation on the next day of rest. They were good people who helped a neighbor, who looked upon sexual deviates and drunks with compassion and kindness, who helped the poor and the sick, not in the name of religion but because, as they would remind the succored, it might happen to them. 

Across and up Main Street from St. Mary’s, the drug store (nobody called it a pharmacy) was approached by three wide, high, concrete steps. Inside it was dim and had an air of mystery. Mr. Jerome, the druggist (no one knew what pharmacist meant or had heard the word) Mr. Jerome was not friendly with his customers. There was no medical doctor in the little village up until the middle thirties and when he was consulted Mr. Jerome dispensed his potions with such a proprietary air that his patrons were more than a little in awe of him. 

The drug store was the only place in the village where one encountered “the rich people”. They slipped out of their wood-grain sided station wagons and ran quickly up the steps and never greeted anyone. They came to discuss their hunting dogs that Mr. Jerome boarded in the kennels out back of his store. Those dogs barked and yelped and kept neighbors awake at night but no one dared to complain.

The drugstore always smelled of iodine and tincture of benzoin. It was lit by three green glass shaded lamps that were suspended from the gray pressed-tin ceiling. On one side of the store there were four glass-fronted cabinets displaying sickroom supplies and patent medicines. In front of the opposite wall stood a high marble-topped mahogany counter behind which Mr. Jerome dispensed sodas and ice cream. An ice cream cone cost five cents, an ice cream soda fifteen. There was no Coca Cola or Seven-Up but one did look forward to climbing up onto one of the high wrought iron stools to have a root beer or a cream soda or a chocolate drink that the druggist mixed from a bottled syrup and carbonated water. He handed you one paper straw from behind the counter and you sat for a long time, sipping your drink and admiring yourself in the smoky mirror that extended the length of the wall that faced the counter.

You wouldn’t dream of ordering a sarsaparilla soda, a popular choice of the grownups, because the soda fountain served another function: those times your mother led you by a stiff arm to the counter and asked Mr. Jerome to serve you a sarsparilla and castor oil mix to help along nature’s function. After several threats by Mamma and encouraging pleas by the druggist, the mix was gulped down and you were left with a churning stomach and a mucoid, oily aftertaste lining your mouth and sheathing your tongue. No wonder no one today has even heard of a drink called sarsaparilla. 

I had one close friend, Mary. Her mother was a house maid and her father was a gardener on a “rich estate”. Their house near Main Street was a two-story white frame building with no indoor plumbing; instead there was a narrow, well-worn path to a small unpainted building beyond their chicken yard that was only a little wider and taller than its door. Inside there was a wooden seat with a large and a small hole cut into it and fastened to the wall by two large nails was an old Sears and Roebuck catalogue. It was printed in black and white on newsprint paper. This was their toilet and toilet paper.

Mary’s house had a dining room where no one ever ate and a parlor where no one ever sat. The family spent their precious free time in the kitchen. When her great-grandmother died, the undertaker (there were no “funeral directors” yet) hung a huge flowered wreath on the front door and the deceased was presented for three days and nights in Mary’s sparsely furnished parlor. Everyone in the village came to the house to pay respects to the flower- banked coffin. Afterward they went into the kitchen to drink schnapps or homebrew with a bite of sausage and assorted pastries with coffee.

My friend Mary's grandparents were typical of the first Bohemian immigrants. Grandma was "Bahba" and Grandpa was "Jerecek" in Bohemian. Bahba was a tiny bent woman with watery blue eyes and grey hair that was drawn up on the top of her head in a tight bun.  She had no teeth and when she smiled, which was often, her lips wrapped up into  her gums and faded into a black crescent. Bahba was often in the kitchen shaping lumps of dough that she fried in a big pot of boiling lard. I loved to watch her gnarled hands as she deftly formed the creamy-white balls and lowered them gently into a large pot. They turned golden and crisp as they sizzled in the hot lard.  She fished them out with a long-handled slotted spoon and left them to drain on brown paper bags. The mouth-watering aroma ran up my nose and landed in the taste buds on each side of my tongue.  When the fried bread cooled she gave them a dusting of sugar and we got samples that we washed down with cool lemonade.


Mary and I were eight and nine and we had a schedule: we had something different to bring to Bahba in her kitchen each month from Spring to Fall.  If it was early May, we brought her short, thick bunches of piercing blue periwinkle blossoms. We picked them from our hideaway place deep in the woods of one of the Hollins’ estates. Bahba had a special pitcher to put them in; it was creamy white with a black and white cat climbing up the side for the handle. She told us that it was one of the few pieces she had brought with her from the old country.


Me on the rear seat of my brother's Indian mototcycle,1923 in the side yard of our house that was always cultivated in a large garden in Spring.  We had show flowers and great vegetables: the gardener usually pilfered the most interesting plants for my mom who hired him for after his work was done on one of the estates. 

My sister Nellie is on the driver's seat. She had her ballet costume on especially for the picture. In the background is Second Avenue and between my sister and I can be seen the little porch of Abbie Hanford's house where his uncle "Mate" (Maitland Hanford) used to sit and watch us play.



In June we crept up behind Bahba, said "Boo!" and opened our cupped hands to reveal to her the slippery, stunned frogs, caught from the brook that ran in the woods behind Knapp’s Lake. We had watched them grow from pollywogs in early spring to the slimy green frogs we swooped up from the shallow water. We shivered from the thrill of the catch and deposited them in a covered tin container that we salvaged from the dump for just this purpose. The dump was a place we were prohibited by our parents from trespassing but we scoured its periphery and often came up with a prize. 


In July we corralled a couple of neighbor boys and marched to the "crick" holding our crab nets high, carrying the stinking chunks of rotten meat that we scrounged from Mr. Swissler the grouchy butcher. As soon as we reached the water, we tied the pieces of meat to the ends of long lengths of stout cord.  We flung them out into the salty water as far as the lines would go and tied the ends to the bollards on the bulwark that kept the tides from eroding the landing. We tended as many as five lines. While the blue crab feasted on the meat lure, we slowly pulled in the quivering line to keep the crab unaware of its journey toward the bulwark, and when it came to the point where we could see it gripping the meat we deftly scooped it into a long-handled net. 


When we returned to Mary's house Bahba boiled the crabs in salt water and spices in the same galvanized pail in which we carried them home. We always marveled that the feisty creatures went in all green and blue and squirming and came out stiff and literally red hot.


In August we picked white enamel basins-full of blueberries and huckleberries. We had already noted them in May when the boys chased us through the Hollins' property woods. We remembered the areas where the blossoms had been and we would plan, weeks beforehand to return for the harvest so Bahba could make blueberry pies. 


Mary took activities in her kitchen for granted, but not I. My father had died when I was twenty-two months old and my mother was left to support me and my two siblings. She was seldom home during the week. She left for work at seven in the morning and returned at seven at night. In my kitchen there was a surly housekeeper who appeared for work every day as I was finishing my breakfast. She always eyed me coolly and then snatched my cereal dish away so she could wash up and get on with reading her morning tabloid. When I came home from school, she was right there to make sure I changed to my play clothes and that I ate store-bought Lorna Doones with my glass of milk. Then she went back to reading her True Story magazines before starting supper for me and Mamma. It took me a long time to eat those Lorna Doones. They usually had a pasty texture that stuck between my tongue and the roof of my mouth.  But they were sweet and their dryness helped make my glass of milk more palatable. How different from the fried cakes in Bahba’s  kitchen!


While Mary's Bahba worked inside, her husband, Jerecek, was out in his garden, hoe tipped at an angle rhythmically chopping out the weeds so his vegetables could grow better. When he saw us, he stopped his work, stood the hoe up against his shoulder and beckoned us to him; he took the hoe and pointed it to a particular spot and said, "take, take." At that signal Mary would bend down, surround the base of feathery green fronds with a greedy grasp. She gave an experienced pull. The earth-encrusted carrot would then be wiped across Jerecek's faded blue overalls until it looked clean enough for us to eat.


I have not been back to East Islip since my mother’s funeral in 1952.  I wonder how many Jerecheks grace the backyard gardens of today?  Are there still undeveloped woods that youngsters can run through? Are the blue crabs lounging on the muddy floor of the creek waiting for that rotten chunk of meat to feast on, only to be feasted upon, in turn, by a triumphant kid who knows how to handle a crab net?  Are strip malls and McDonalds in the village replacing Mr. Carey’s little white building?    Tempest Fugit.


Copyright 2004  Freda Vink-Brock  All Rights Reserved


Note: Freda can be reached at