A Piece of the East
By Maria Ulrich
Often the memory of that fateful phone call comes to mind. The evening began like so many others, banal, like beads on a string, the type that just blurs into your subconscious. This evening, in the summer of 1970, however, proved to be different. This particular evening is etched forever in my mind.
It began like this…quite simply, I was standing in the kitchen, although you could hardly call it that. It was a converted space between two rooms, long and narrow. A tiny window facing east was at one end of the room and was situated so high up on the wall, that only the treetops and the sky were visible. The walls were originally covered in a dated knotty pine, which rendered the space dark and uninviting. Thinking that anything would be an improvement, and limited to what would be permissible in a rental, up went yards of laminated fabric with a large tulip design. Not just a bashful tulip either. Rather, big, bold, brilliant tulips. They were the type of tulips that someone with limited artistic skills might have rendered. They were bright orange and fuchsia, with lime green leaves, all very two-dimensional. It got mixed reviews from guests, and a few raised eyebrows from older family members.
As I stood among the whimsical field of tulips, the wall phone in this proverbial garden rang. On the other end of the line, was a relative acquired through marriage. He was an older gentleman, not particularly known for long conversations or phone calls, for that matter. English was not his native language. Utterly surprised to hear his voice, I tried to imagine what could have prompted this call. Of course, disaster was my first thought. Getting straight to the point, bypassing mundane pleasantries, he proceeded to tell me that he had come across a sale of unimproved land on theEast End. He wasn’t very specific, but the tone in his voice told me that it was something I should consider. He mentioned a general area on the eastern end ofLong Islandand asked if my new husband and I would be interested in purchasing a portion of a parcel. Not being knowledgeable about location, even though I have spent most of my life onLong Island, I went on faith and instinct. The wheels began turning in my head…It was all the money we had at the time, a tidy sum saved from wedding gifts from relatives. How to best use those proceeds? We definitely needed a new car. What about a vacation to an exotic location? How about a down payment for our own home? No! Instead, let’s gamble it all on a piece of land, not surveyed and who knows exactly where.
Against a lawyer’s approval (we had to sign a letter which stated that he advised us against this purchase), we plunked down all our savings. We certainly had some reservations after the fact, but just pushed them aside. The purchase was not something one could see, hold, share, even snap photos of (yet), or in any other way enjoy. We did however, pay taxes. The exact location remained uncertain for years. Eventually, a survey was done to pinpoint the parcel. The land finally became real. We became knowledgeable of the zoning laws and what was required to have a buildable plot. While managing careers, earning degrees and starting a family, we were holding on to a dream for the future-to build a home on that land purchased with our wedding gifts. For many years, we were firmly planted miles away. At one time we even left the state ofNew Yorkaltogether, in the back of our minds knowing those moves were not forever. One thing I had learned from that old gentleman was love for the land. He spoke few words, but when he spoke, I listened. He also taught me to think in the long term, because “some day” would eventually come. He is long gone now, but I remember him and his sage advice. Over the years, our careers changed and progressed, the children grew, moved on and out, yet our dream remained steady-to take that piece of purchased land and to turn into a place we could one day call home. Once the decision to move forward with the formal planning began, more negative commentary from conservatives was offered. Once again, we just moved forward with our dreams.