I hate driving to Long Island. I don’t much mind the New York State Thruway, especially since those dismal cinder block bunkers at the rest areas were replaced by large, airy, Adirondack Lodge type structures, with a variety of eateries. Ever since my daughter started at Purchase College in 1999, I learned to get off the Thruway at Exit 17 and take Rte. 684 to Rte. 84 to the Hutchinson River Parkway to the Whitestone Bridge, totally avoiding the tolls and the inevitable traffic jams at the Tappan Zee Bridge. It is the nightmare warren of parkways, expressways and access roads encountered once you cross the Whitestone that confuse and intimidate me.
I have been going to East Rockaway on Long Island since 1976. My late husband, Mitchell, took me to meet his parents one spring day during our first year in law school. He navigated the almost four hour drive easily, pointing out landmarks and locations dear to him with the ease of a tour bus guide in Europe. I never drove the car to or from Long Island while he was alive. After he died in 1988, it fell to me to maneuver our mini-van, with kids and pets, to visit their grandparents on Adams Street. I never consulted a map. I didn’t know all of the street names. I just knew to turn here at the Shell station, get in the middle lane there near Green Acres Shopping Center, stay in the right lane for one exit on the Southern State Parkway and never get on the Long Island Expressway.
In recent years, I have taken to visiting my mother-in-law, Aileen, about once a month. So it was on a beautiful Tuesday morning in October that my dog Marley and I set out for East Rockaway. My mother-in-law had just turned 88 that Saturday and I thought a mid-week visit would be a nice birthday gift, along with homemade chicken soup and a donation to the North Shore Animal League. We made good time, encountering very little traffic and taking only one rest stop on the Thruway.
It is our practice for me to call my mother-in-law as I approach the toll booths on the Whitestone. She knows that I am only 35-45 minutes away at that point, plenty of time for her to take rollers out of her hair, change her top and put on earrings. That day, as I approached the bridge, my plan was thwarted by those flashing yellow signs that give out traffic delays and Amber Alerts. Cross Island Parkway, all lanes closed. Use alternate routes. I dialed her number, thinking, What the hell?
“Hello, Aileen, it’s Debbi. I’m at the Whitestone.”
“That’s great, you made good time.”
“Yeah, I did, but there’s a problem. The signs say the Cross Island is closed. What road am I supposed to take? Can I get to you from the Van Wyck?” I asked because I could see the sign for the Van Wyck Expressway as I came up on the bridge. I knew the Van Wyck went past Kennedy Airport and my mother-in-law lived 15 minutes from Kennedy.
“Closed? It can’t be closed. Let me put on the news.” I could hear the volume come up on high on the bedroom television (my mother-in-law is losing her hearing). I was shouting into the phone, “Wait, I don’t have time, I’m already on the bridge.”
“Debbi, the Cross Island is closed between Exits 28A and 27. You can get on it and go that far.” Good thing she said that when she did because I was in the left lane and you had to get on the Cross Island from that lane.
“What’s going on? Is there an accident?”
“I don’t know. Tell me the first exit you come to so I can get oriented.”
“Francis Lewis Boulevard.”
“No, don’t get off there. Let me think what exit I can have you take to get around the closed area and get back on the Cross Island going south.” I was driving the speed limit on the highway, traffic was moving and I had no idea where to go if I had to exit abruptly.
“Aileen, I can go back and get on the Van Wyck…”
“No, stay on the Cross Island. See if you can make it to the Long Island Expressway.”
The dreaded LIE! But I could see the traffic starting to slow down ahead of me as I approached the exit for the Long Island Expressway, so I pulled off to the right and headed out the LIE to the East.
“Okay, I’m on the LIE. What do I do now?
“Let me think…look for the exit for New Hyde Park Road. If you turn there, I can get you to the south shore using local streets.”
I was thinking to myself that my mother-in-law was 88 years old and didn’t drive that much anymore, just to bridge, the market, the gym and the hairdresser, but all within a few miles of the house she had lived in for over 50 years. I was out in the middle of nowhere, except it was a crowded, congested nowhere, almost completely unknown to me, and I was relying on HER for directions. I saw the exit for New Hyde Park Road and gratefully got off the LIE. There was a police car parked at the approaching intersection.
“Maybe I should pull over and ask this officer what to do…”
“No. Don’t. Local cops won’t know how to get you here. Tell me the next cross street.”
While I was talking to Aileen, I had somehow gotten myself on the LIE service road, so I was driving parallel to the Expressway and the cross streets didn’t have any signs. She was getting a bit frustrated with me and said, “Take the next right and tell me where you are.” I did as she commanded.
“Shelter Rock Road.”
“Okay, good. I know where you are. The next street you are going to turn on is Herricks Road. You bear right. There is a school on the corner.”
How does she know these things? I’d bet the last time she was on the North Shore was at least ten years earlier! But she was continuing to talk about someone who had lived nearby or a temple nearby where she had attended a Bar Mitzvah or something. And she was on the money! There was the right turn, there was the school and then I was on Herricks Road! I began to breathe a little easier.
“I am in awe of you! I cannot believe you knew where I was and where I needed to turn.”
“I have lived around here for years and when your father-in-law was alive, I was always the navigator. I’m very good with directions. Now, look for Old Country Road.”
After a split that had me gingerly easing in front of another car to be able to bear right, I was pleased to announce to her “I’m on Old Country!”
“Alright. Now, you are going through Garden City. Remember we went there for Ben’s tallis for his Bar Mitzvah, but I think that shop is closed now. You need to look for the turn for Franklin Avenue, it will be on your right.”
I missed Franklin but she had me turn onto the next street: Washington Avenue.
“Now, you have to look for a street across from the shopping center. I can’t remember the name of that street but there is a bronze statue of someone holding a flag on the opposite corner from where you turn.”
Seriously? There were six lanes of traffic, cars and trucks everywhere and I was supposed to find a statue on a corner?! Amazingly, the street was where she said it would be – I think it was Stewart. Then I needed to be careful because I was leaving the beautiful old houses of Garden City and heading into Hempstead.
“Hempstead is terrible. It’s not safe. Make sure you lock the car doors and your windows are up. How is Marley doing?”
Marley was enjoying the ride through interesting areas he had not seen before and would never see again if I had my way! And he liked the sound of my voice and Aileen’s as she guided me to her. Her directions were interspersed with a continuing monologue about each area. On this street was the store was where we had looked at wedding dresses. That town was where we had shopped for my daughter’s tallis. This road was the one she had taken when she was attending Adelphi University to get her Master’s Degree in Education.
“I’m stunned and amazed, Aileen. You know every damn street and you even know what store or service station is on the corner AND you know the street before the street and the one before that!”
She proudly acknowledged once again her superior navigational skills and pointed out that she had shopped in all of those towns over the past 50 years. And I knew she had because she still had every damn thing she had ever bought in the “cold room” in her attic.
“Be careful in Hempstead. You need to get onto Peninsula Boulevard. You must know Peninsula Boulevard? We’ve been on it a hundred times when I took you to Fortunoff’s. It bears to the right, look for it and don’t miss it!”
I knew the name of the street, of course, but I was still not sure of my surroundings. At least I was closing in on the South Shore. I made the turn onto Peninsula Boulevard. She was right, Hempstead was a little skanky.
“Now, you stay on Peninsula for awhile. You will go by Mercy Medical Center on your left and the Hempstead Lake State Park on your right. You need to go to the third light and make a left on Ocean Avenue. You certainly know where that is.”
I recognized the names of almost all the streets but I couldn’t tell you where they were in relation to where she was. I renewed my vow to get a GPS as soon as possible. I turned left onto Ocean Avenue and things did start to look familiar to me. I went by the train station just before I crossed Sunrise Highway. By the time I got to Centre Avenue, I could have probably found my way to Adams Street alone. Centre became Carman and then crossed Main Street. From there it was a right, a left and a left. We hung up when I saw the familiar gold and white ranch house. I pulled into the driveway and the parking area to the right. I rested my head on the steering wheel, ignoring Marley’s impatient whines, and thanked G-d and Mitchell for protecting me and giving me such a fabulous navigator.
We discovered later that a man on parole had shot and killed a police officer during a routine stop. Then the alleged murderer had careened onto the Cross Island, shot and killed a driver who had pulled over to read a text message, and stole his car. He was captured later that evening.
Amidst listening to news reports about the man hunt, I also learned that Aileen had honed her navigational skills at an early age.
“I always rode in the front seat with my father, my sister Marilyn always rode in the back with my mother. I think they separated us because we fought with each other. But, I was always in front when we went on family outings so I got to see where we were going. You learn directions better in the front seat. When Gregory (my father-in-law) was alive, he always drove and I navigated.”
“When I was a teenager, my father used to take me to the beach club. They played handball there. I was fascinated by it so I learned to play. One day they had a tournament and I played against all these men! They couldn’t believe a girl was playing and beating them! That’s when I decided I liked to play games and exercise, I liked to be in good shape. So I have exercised every day since I was a girl.”
A simple trip to Long Island to honor Aileen’s birthday, marred by the senseless killing of a police officer and an innocent man, was turned into a cherished memory by my mother-in-law’s remarkable sense of direction and geographic recall.
And I was the one who was gifted by a glimpse of the young woman she had been.