A window to their world



It’s mind boggling how many high tech gadgets we have at our disposal to share and retrieve information, and to make connections to people in our local and global community.  But for some, an old fashioned landline telephone remains their only conduit to the outside world.

During my near decade in government I have easily fielded thousands of calls from residents seeking assistance or information about local projects and quality of life issues.  No matter the kind of questions, suggestions or criticisms they bring, I never take for granted the rare privilege of being at the other end of the phone.

Over time, many of these callers have become regular visitors to our office where they share their thoughts in person.  Others make time to attend various Town meetings to do that. I enjoy connecting names with faces, and helping citizens find a place to cultivate activism on issues that are meaningful to them.

But I have never met Barry or John.  They have been calling me for years, and when they do, I have to fully pause from reviewing endless emails or other distractions on my desktop so I can listen closely, and learn.

Barry is a resident of a local nursing home.  I don’t know much about him other than the fact that he is always full of questions about Town affairs, and is very appreciative to get answers to them or information in general.   Barry, it appears, makes use of a shared telephone at the nursing home so our conversations are brief.  He calls regularly to get updates on our ongoing Huntington Station projects, the progress and opening of the new Paramount Theatre, or to get population statistics on the Town.  The last time Barry called it was for the express purpose to tell me that he saw my name in the newspaper. He needed only to share that with me during his limited phone time, and the enthusiasm in his voice made me smile.

I know a bit more about John. He is of Italian descent and was born on June 1, 1920, just a few days before my father.  Raised in Cold Spring Harbor, he moved to Huntington Station in the late forties after completing his service in the military. John, a very proper gentleman, first called about six years ago to share a concern he had about his neighborhood.  Reaching out to government to register a complaint was not something John was used to doing, and he was almost apologetic about it until I reassured him that his communication was vital in helping us to do our work.

John lives near the properties now being developed into Station Sports Family Fun Center, and as a former avid golfer, he is especially pleased about the miniature golf course soon to be enjoyed there.  He has been watching this project with great anticipation since the day it broke ground, and reports in regularly to me on its progress.

During one of our telephone calls, I informed John that he had become the eyes and ears of his neighborhood, and he seemed to fidget a bit with that idea, as if he was trying it on for size, before he proudly accepted the role.  His age and health prevent him from venturing too far beyond his property on his own, but the windows of John’s home and the telephone on his desk are all he needs to help feel connected with the outside world.  After getting to know John over these years, I know he feels empowered in knowing that he has found a portal in local government to help bring about positive change for himself, and his neighbors.

My maternal grandparents lived overseas so I didn’t get to spend much time with them.  My widowed paternal grandmother lived in Forest Hills and often visited our family’s home in Huntington while I was growing up.  I lost her before I was mature enough to fully realize how important it is for us to give generations above us our time and attention, because often, it’s all they want or need.   During my mom and dad’s last years, I did my best to be generous with my time and attention.  The level of appreciation I received in return from them for that made me feel like a rock star.

That’s kind of how I feel when Barry and John call.  What’s most ironic about my interactions with them is that while they are the ones who hang up the phone feeling grateful for the time and help I can give, I don’t think either of them possibly realize how grateful I am for what they give to me.  We never stop growing and learning, and there is no better font of wisdom and life experience to be found, than at the feet of those who came before us.

I may never get to meet Barry or John, but it doesn’t matter.  We have a connection.  And I am better for it.

A bit about labels


Gisela Wolff DeVito, mom

I'm not a fan of labels, and yet there are a number of them attached to me.

Some of my labels and associations are self-assigned. I am a Democrat. I drive a VW Beetle. 

And then there are the inescapable labels that come to me by birth. I'm first generation American-born. I'm Roman Catholic.

Do these labels tell you who I am? Obviously not. But there are a lot of people who might say they do.

That's a problem.

During a parade and fair in Huntington Station a young Salvadoran teen told a Newsday reporter that she felt it was important to attend the event to debunk the myth that all Latin American youth are gang members. While the statement impressed me for its spunk and honesty, it struck a somber chord. This is one young girl's reality, and very likely, will remain her reality for years to come.

My mom could not shake the labels associated with her German heritage. A cold-war bride, she met and married a U.S. Army Officer in Berlin. When dad was transferred to the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas U.S Army base mom was ushered into a new life in America. She was very excited at the prospect of becoming a citizen. After fleeing one town to the next to escape the constant bombings in WWII-torn Germany, mom was more than ready to leave that part of her life behind. Little did she know that 1943-1945 would not leave her.

Mom's grand entrance into mid 1950s America found her squarely in the middle of lingering tensions over what happened in Germany. Had she not opened her mouth to speak, mom might have passed as any American woman. But the unmistakable accent gave her up every time, and no matter how kind, charming, or beautiful she was, anti-German sentiment simmered just below the surface of post WWII American conversation.

Mom's German label continued to undermine her into the 1970s, when a neighbor threw a large pot of boiling water on our family's German shepherd as a hateful statement to mom and her German dog. It took months for the poor creature's massive third degree burns to heal. It was nearly a year before the dog's fur grew back to mask the grotesque assault. But the wound inflicted on my mom by this act would never heal.

Just like the Huntington Station teen trying to shake the connection of gangs with her Latin heritage, mom spent a lifetime trying to shake her own burdens of association. Throughout the rest of her life mom continued to be haunted by the horrors she witnessed as an impressionable and innocent teen during WWII- and remained deeply ashamed by what her people had done.

I am hoping for better for our young Salvadoran teen who came out proud and bold to represent the true face and nature of her people.

Two innocent women separated only by nationality, time and history, but who share an identical struggle to be recognized separate and apart from the labels they assumed at birth- labels to carry in their brave new world called America.

Pennies from Heaven




Have you ever wondered if your loved ones who have crossed over have found each other on the other side?

On this day fifteen years ago, September 17, 2005, my sister and I received a pretty remarkable sign that mom and dad were indeed together in the afterlife.

This “knowledge” came to us in a rather interesting way. I suppose it’s safe to assume that given the great communications divide between this world and the next, our deceased loved ones have to get pretty creative to deliver their messages.

Dad succumbed to complications following a stroke in March of 2003. And mom, just fifteen months later, followed him after suffering a fatal heart attack. The loss of our parents too soon in their lives, and occurring in such close proximity, was obviously devastating.

My only consolation in processing these sad events was to at least know that mom and dad were together, where ever they were. And, what better day to come into that knowledge than on what would have been the next wedding anniversary following their deaths.

Seemed reasonable to me anyway.

Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t just any anniversary, it would have been their 50th.

So, my story begins on the afternoon of September 17, 2005, when I headed over to St. Patrick’s Cemetery with a sound system in tow to commemorate mom and dad’s Golden anniversary.

A sound system you ask?

Well, yes. I imagined that if I played mom and dad’s wedding song “Until I Waltz Again With You” loud enough at their gravesite, I had a reasonably good chance of getting their attention.

My face flushed as I cranked the volume of Teresa Brewer’s fine vocals,  recognizing this may not be in keeping with the quiet serenity of any final resting place.

But I was on a mission.

Well, it turned out that I got attention pretty quickly, but unfortunately, not the attention I was hoping for.

I found myself sheepishly explaining the reason for the temporary disturbance to the few souls paying respects to their loved ones at neighboring gravesites. They nodded, and even managed half smiles, in silent understanding.

“Until I Waltz Again With You” was a song I had grown to love over the years because it so well defined the courtship of my parents. It was fitting they had selected it for their wedding first dance.

During her life when mom played her wedding song she would revel in the happy memories it surfaced. She would describe her military wedding on the U.S. Army base in Berlin, and then show me the few photos she cherished from that day. Mom was a stunning bride and dad, handsome in dress military uniform.

During their courtship in Europe, mom and dad would meet up after time spent apart at one of the few remaining nightclubs unharmed in the still bomb-ravaged and divided City of Berlin during the Cold War.

It was a scene reminiscent of an old post WWII Hollywood movie: dad, a striking doctor and U.S. Army Officer then serving at U.S. Army Hospital in Berlin, and mom, a young beauty and stewardess for Pan American Airlines. They were a stunning pair, who, even in their later years, could elegantly glide across the dance floor, leaving spectators in awe.

My heart hurt, but also raced in hopeful anticipation of a sign, any sign, that mom and dad were together, as I meditated on that wedding scene fifty years later in the cemetery.

The tribute song trailed off, and silence was restored.

I waited, and waited.


I left the cemetery, slightly embarrassed and definitely defeated.

That evening my husband Greg and I had dinner plans with my sister Nola and her husband Bob, who were also married on September 17th.

We met up at Abel Conklin’s (one of mom and dad’s favorite Huntington haunts, and ours as well, that is sadly, no more) and we lifted our glasses to toast our parents’, and, Nola and Bob’s September 17 wedding anniversaries.

And that’s when I decided to share my sad and perhaps, silly, cemetery story.

My sister laughed and rolled her eyes over the idea of me disturbing the peace. I insisted that after such a thoughtful idea and loving music tribute, I surely deserved an answer to my very reasonable request.

Nola, Bob and Greg were definitely having a little fun at my expense.

And then, Nola got quiet and, very serious, deep in thought as she began processing information that was suddenly making sense to her.

Her silence was broken with a single question: “Uh, Joan, about what time were you at the cemetery this afternoon?”

“Around 4:00 p.m.” I answered.

“Oh my God,” she gasped. “Actually, something very strange happened to me around that same time today. And now, it all makes sense.”

Nola proceeded to share that toward the end of her workday, she left her office to pick up a few items at a little nearby food shop.

In processing the sale, the proprietor dug into his cash register to provide Nola the change due to her in that transaction.

Two pennies.

“When he handed me my change,” Nola said, “he pressed it into the palm of my hand and then held it there in such a way that gave me pause. I buy items from this merchant often and never before had he done anything like that,” she noted.

The act was so unusual, in fact, that instead of tossing the change into her purse without looking at it as she normally did, Nola opened her hand to reveal and study the two coins that had been placed into her palm in that seemingly mystical moment.

“There were two old pennies in my hand,” she said.

Nola looked at the date of the first penny: 1955. Then at the second; it was also dated 1955.

Now, what were the chances that in 2005, a person could get not one, but two 1955 pennies handed to them in a single instant?

And, on of all dates, September 17th?

September 17, 1955, mom and dad’s wedding day, fifty years later.

Two 1955 pennies pressed into the palm of Nola’s hand, while some ten miles away, Teresa Brewer’s “Until I Waltz Again With You” was filling the crisp fall air at mom and dad’s resting place, with me praying my heart out for a sign that they were together.

Yes, it’s difficult to deny that was not a sign.

Two pennies from Heaven?


But for sure, mom and dad’s two cents.

Postscript: After I wrote this story I received the following message from my sister, along with a photo of the special pennies below: Joan! “I didn’t know you were writing the penny story. Here are the pennies I kept, still taped together, since I received them that day.” – Nola