For better or worse

2019 Campaign with Dempsey in tow.

 

This week Greg and I lost a faithful and beloved four-legged family member, Dempsey.

We knew it was coming; Dempsey was diagnosed with a very large and fast-moving malignant tumor just two weeks prior.

We had been fortunate to that point to have seen our prior canine family members lay down for the last time right here at the house, peacefully, surrounded by family, on their own.

So having to make the call when it was time for Dempsey to leave us, as any pet owner knows, is a dreaded and heartbreaking prospect.

Dempsey played a starring role in my campaigns for Huntington Town Council, and after I was elected, became my demonstration dog in a video to promote the pilot program I developed for on-leash dog walking in downtown Huntington's signature park, Heckscher Park.  When we walked Dempsey at Heckscher, people would say, "there's Dempsey!" and it made Greg and I beam to know that she was known and loved by members of our community. 

I frequently posted photos and videos of our boxers on social media that made people laugh and smile. I've always believed that boxers are the clowns of the canine world, so when I saw ours clowning around, I wanted to share those moments and the laughter we enjoyed with others. And as a Facebook community, laugh we did.

And so, when Dempsey left us, I wanted to share that news, too, especially since she was known around town and on my social media sites.

But it was so hard, not just because of the heartbreak of losing this remarkable dog, but because I had to pause to consider the appropriateness of publicly announcing and grieving a pet in the context of a worldwide pandemic with colossal and still ongoing loss of human life.

Since the onset of the pandemic last year, every time I look at Facebook, almost without exception, I learn about the loss of someone's wife, husband, partner, mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, child, grandchild, niece, nephew. 

And we stop what we are doing to share our condolences in words of comfort and symbols of hearts, praying hands and more.

And those announcing and grieving these losses cling hard to those words of comfort, hearts and praying hands.

This pandemic has so cruelly robbed us of our usual rituals of properly sending off our loved ones, even from being with them during their illness and final moments.

We have had to learn to live in a world that denies sustained human contact, in-person hugs, conversation, sharing of food, memories and even the tears to dry for the inconsolable.

And for better, Facebook has become the alternative gathering space where we can come together in grief and in support, to help get us through these terrible, terrible moments.

After thinking it through, I made the decision to post about Dempsey, and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of wonderful souls who understood this pain.

The comments below Dempsey's post turned into the most beautiful and caring virtual community of friends, family and acquaintances reflecting and sharing their own feelings and experiences of loss of a beloved dog or cat. 

And it meant the world to me and Greg. 

Words do so really matter.

And as we remain socially distant, words posted on social media now rule the day. 

I replied with a heart symbol to every post to show how grateful I was for these kind and thoughtful acknowledgements.

And it really hit me that Facebook can be a place for better, so much better, and, a place for worse, so much worse.

It has of course been painful to look at Facebook not just because of the personal losses and suffering we learn about every day, but because of the division and discord taking place as our nation remains at odds about how we move forward.

I see friends engaging in bitter disputes with friends over politics, people and beliefs. I see name-calling and vitriol. It hurts my heart.

How and where do we begin to repair the fault line that seems to grow larger day by day?

When can we remember there was a time when differences of any kind could be respected and debated thoughtfully with consideration for the other?

Disagreement is certainly nothing new. 

My eternal optimism and hope tells me we can do it.

We can start to turn the temperature down, bit by bit, day by day.

Knowing we are united by far more than that which divides us.

One nation. Under God.

If we want it, we can do it.

As I especially learned this week, Facebook can be a place for better.

And better feels, well, so much better, than worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Why I write

Hello and thank you for visiting!

While I am a Councilwoman for the Town of Huntington, in my heart, I consider myself first, a writer.

In addition to holding a degree in journalism I have been writing stories, poems and songs since childhood.

Between my personal and professional life, I am fortunate to have lots of interesting material from which to weave into meaningful narrative.

Some people ask me why I write. My answer: I don’t have a choice.

I believe many people have at least one special activity or pastime in their life that offers a necessary release. For me, it’s writing.

I also do quite a bit of writing in my current position in government where communication is critical in effectively sharing ideas and information.

My late father, a surgeon and quintessential gentleman, advised me that it was more important to listen than to speak. I deeply admired dad and always heeded his good advice. As a result, I became an early expert at listening, which in hindsight I now understand was an important skill to develop.

I am especially fortunate to have the opportunity to work with, befriend or simply interact with many inspiring people in my private and public life who have left a lasting impression on me.

You will also find a number of stories here about my parents who had particularly interesting lives and experiences that lend to good storytelling.

More recently, my husband Greg and I have teamed up to write a series of blogs entitled “We look out the same window. Why don’t we see the same thing?” to illuminate and poke fun at the challenges of relationships.  We hope you enjoy these.

Most of all, I use my blog as a venue to share stories, my own as well as those of special people in my life who have touched me.

Thank you for spending this time with me. And please, share your comments on anything you read here. I really enjoy reading them and will always respond.

– Joan


American Dreams

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My paternal grandfather, Salvatore De Vito, arrived on the shores of New York with his wife and young son just in time for the Great Depression. A former Italian military officer and astute businessman, he chose America over a prestigious military career in Italy. Salvatore had big dreams of opening a vaudeville house in New York City, but that grandiose plan would have to wait. Times were tough and he had to find a way to make a buck.

To feed his growing family, Salvatore rode out the Great Depression hauling heavy blocks of ice up and down the narrow stairways of tenements in the Bronx. There, he had made a home in a cramped, but neat apartment at 1270 Nelson Avenue. The proud Depression era iceman was no stranger to America and capitalism. He had previously immigrated as a bachelor in the 1910’s. Filled with desire to invest everything he had in America, Salvatore used his life savings and some inheritance money to purchase many acres of undeveloped land in New Jersey, land now known as Hoboken.

But the call of duty to serve his native country at the onset of World War I forced Salvatore to sell all those acres in New Jersey. A practical man, he knew his odds of surviving that war were slim. But unsurprisingly as the fearless and honorable man I remember him to be, Salvatore narrowly survived a bloody battle during the final days of WWI, leaving him the last man barely standing in his company, determined to hold that strategic ground for Italy. For his valor, in 1918 he was decorated with Italy’s “la Croce al Merito di Guerra” (equivalent to America’s purple heart) and promised a long and successful Italian military career.

But the ever-powerful lure of New York City and its streets “paved in gold” drew Salvatore back to America, where he would have to endure a struggle of a different kind, this time for his piece of the American dream in the worst possible times.

Jack Dempsey

Grandpa earned his U.S. citizenship in 1930, and by the end of that decade, had saved enough to buy a building at 448 West 42nd Street. He transformed it into a thriving landmark theatre district bar and restaurant known as La Conca D’Oro (Shower of Gold) A fellow bar owner who happened to be the feisty legendary heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, later became his close friend and confidante. Dempsey, too, knew all too well that hard work and struggle were the precursors to the American Dream.

Describes Roger Kahn in his biography about Dempsey: A Flame of Pure Fire “This then was the life of teenage Jack Dempsey: fighting when he could get a fight. Working in the depths, or as someone fiercely put it, “a Caliban in the mines.” Riding the rods. Sleeping in whorehouses. And, when there was no mining work, nor any fights, standing on a street corner.”

My father once told me that Grandpa and Dempsey would very often share a drink and conversation in the early morning hours after closing down their respective establishments. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during their discussions. I could have extracted a treasure trove of invaluable insights and words of wisdom.

I believe when we look to our own families and to history, we can find inspiration and hope that better tomorrows do come.  For me, those lessons come from a celebrated American boxer and his Italian immigrant friend, my grandfather.

Both were fighters who shared the brightest of dreams in the dimmest of times.


Local artists' murals are more than just art

Each day hundreds pass his murals that grace the facades of numerous Huntington buildings. They are pleasing to the eye, providing life and history to otherwise empty walls and spaces. They pay tribute to war veterans, historic figures, and even an iconic Huntington businessman. But they do not tell the remarkable story of Huntington resident Erich Preis, the man behind the art.

For 39 year-old Erich Preis, art is salvation.  In addition to using his artistic talent and training to express his reverence for veterans and connection to God and nature, Erich uses art as therapy to overcome challenges with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Upon his diagnosis seven years ago, Erich felt like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Since childhood, he struggled with an array of difficulties for which he was treated with medications. Despite the social and communication challenges he faced, in 1992 Erich successfully graduated from Harborfields High School. Following high school he earned an A.S. from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Art and Design, and later, a B.A. in Art Therapy from Long Island University, CW Post Campus. He also attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on scholarship for two years, completed 12 credits at Queens College toward a Master’s, and earned certification by the State of New York to teach art.

Erich’s academic accomplishments are no small feat, especially for someone who suffers from an autism spectrum disorder that is estimated to occur at a rate of 2-6 per 1000 in the U.S. population. Yet, these achievements represent only a single dimension of Erich’s larger success story.

On 9-11 Erich’s life took a dramatic turn when he lost his friend and former FIT roommate, Michael A. Noeth, after American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon. Noeth served as the Chief of Graphics at the Pentagon, and was among the 125 casualties within the federal building.

The tragic loss of Noeth, a fellow artist and mentor whom Erich credits as being the first person to push him to reach new heights with his art, deeply resonated on a personal and professional level. It was Erich’s intent from that day forward to pay tribute to Noeth through his art. He also vowed to honor our men and women in the armed forces, past and present, who serve our nation and protect our freedoms.

Erich did what came naturally to him and picked up his brush and began to paint. Springing forth were a series of works depicting the heroism and sacrifice of our American war veterans. For Preis, it was a therapeutic exercise. His ability to express himself through paintings and sculptures provided a measure of comfort he was otherwise unable to achieve in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. “Painting keeps me focused and calm,” he explained.

Erich later came to know and befriend the late Len Totora, a lifelong Huntington resident and owner of L&L Camera in Huntington. Len was a proud Korean War veteran known for his philanthropy and compassion for the homeless, especially homeless veterans. In honor of Len, Erich painted a mural depicting him at both his L&L Camera building at 267 New York Avenue, and later, on the building located at the corner of Route 25A and Park Avenue, both in Huntington.

Erich first met Len Totora when his late grandfather, Robert Bailey, a naval aviator and Pearl Harbor veteran, accompanied him to the L&L camera store. Erich was anxious to trade his camera for another and was nervous he wouldn’t be able to get the camera he wanted, so he recruited his grandfather to assist in the transaction.

“I remember my grandfather giving me a wink during the drive to the store. He told me to let him do all the talking,” Erich said. During small talk while browsing cameras, Erich’s grandfather noticed the photos of Len in uniform displayed throughout the store and mentioned that he was at Pearl Harbor. In immediate recognition of doing business with one of his “brothers,” Len gave Mr. Bailey the camera his grandson was eyeing, no questions asked. “It was great!” Erich beamed.

A mutual devotion to veterans forged a camaraderie between Erich and Len. They worked together to raise $8,000 through private donors to finance a memorial to honor Christopher Scherer, a U.S. Marine from East Northport who was killed in Iraq in July 2007. The bronze sculpture created by Erich was later donated to the late Reverend Gaines for his Huntington Station Helping Hands Rescue Mission “Garden of Memories.” Rev. Gaines, whose dream was to create a memorial garden for the mission, had himself served as a U.S. Marine. The Scherer memorial was unveiled on October 9, 2011, the same day Erich’s beloved grandfather, Robert Bailey, passed away.

After Totora’s death on February 22, 2010, Erich was invited to do a mural at the former Village Green automotive building at the corner of Route 25A and Park Avenue in Huntington. At that location, Erich painted yet another image of the iconic L&L Camera owner, together with President George Washington. He does not believe it was a coincidence that Len Totora passed away on Washington’s birthday. However, Erich was not prepared to learn yet another profound connection associated with his decision to include Washington in that mural.

“A Park Avenue neighbor approached me as I was working and asked if I realized that George Washington had once delivered a speech at that very location,” Erich said. “She then pointed to the plaque commemorating the occasion, which I had not realized was there, and all at once I felt every hair on the back of my neck stand up,” he said.

As he toiled to complete the extensive mural on the Village Green building, Erich came up with an idea to fulfill a longtime dream. In January 2011, Erich’s dream became reality with the launch of a not for profit organization to help both children and adults with special needs discover art as a form of therapy as he did. The Spirit of Huntington Art Center offers a series of art classes with various instructors and guest artists, as well as the opportunity to participate in local outdoor mural projects under the direction of Preis. More recently, the Center added yoga instruction with exercises for calming breathing techniques.

Erich views his Asperger’s diagnosis in adulthood as a blessing rather than a burden. “It opened my eyes to a whole new understanding and appreciation of me. I now knew what I was dealing with, and was therefore able to study, understand, explore and accept it,” he said. Erich identified the classic Asperger’s trigger points, and then devised ways to use art therapy and yoga, both of which require intense focus, to intercept certain stimuli to the frontal lobe of the brain that sets off a sense of chaos or confusion. The mastery of these therapies ultimately substituted for the medications Erich had been taking since childhood. “I’ve never felt better,” Erich said.

Erich’s most recent mural at the Dole Fuel Oil building at 100 New York Avenue in Huntington depicts athletes engaged in various sports, and represents the second outdoor mural project undertaken by students of the Spirit of Huntington Art Center following that of the Village Green building. Erich is now actively seeking new mural locations so come springtime, he and the Center’s students can resume their outdoor artwork.

“With the benefit of understanding from personal experience, my art therapy training, and my faith in God, I now understand that my diagnosis has led me to something far greater than I could have imagined,” Erich reflected. “It is very important and rewarding to me to help others overcome the same difficulties I encountered.”

With that kind of upbeat spirit and sincere desire to help others, I have no doubt Erich Preis is well on his way to transforming his success story into more of the same for those fortunate enough to learn from him. What’s just as exciting is along the way, Erich and his protégés will leave a trail of beautiful murals for all of Huntington to enjoy.


Poppi's Goodbye

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This week our family lost its patriarch, Bruno Nicholas Cergol.

Bruno was my father in law who, over the last ten months, fought a brave battle against leukemia. We all called him “Poppi.”

The best way for me to honor Poppi is to share the heartfelt words of his oldest son, and my husband, Greg.

On a very difficult day, Greg soothed many hurting hearts with the following tribute:

One of my earliest memories of Poppi came when I was about four or five years old.

He arrived home on a Friday night after picking up some pizza for the family.

And he proceeded to tell us how….after leaving the pizzeria….he stumbled on three men…trying to steal his car.

Those guys chose poorly.

Needless to say….by the end of Poppi’s story….the three battered and bruised thieves were in police custody.

And Poppi was on his way home.

Poppi was always bigger than life.

An imposing physical presence….with massive hands that would swallow yours when he greeted you.

He was a man of few words…because he didn’t need them.

You always knew he was there.

In our Queens neighborhood, my teenaged friends were tough, brash and fearless.

But around Poppi…they turned into choirboys—soft spoken and humble.

They always called him “the Big B”….a nickname of endearment and respect….they use to this day.

Poppi…of course… had a heart to match that big body.

There were few days when he didn’t put others ahead of himself.

One story Poppi told me only recently captures that spirit.

Poppi and his teenaged friends were driving to a neighborhood party when they crossed paths with a group of girls.

These girls were not part of the “in” group and they definitely weren’t invited to the party.

Poppi altered that guest list on the spot.

Within minutes…the girls were piling into the car with Poppi’s buddies and off they all went to the party.

We all know Poppi as a builder.

But he had a great many jobs in his life.

He sorted piano parts for Steinway.

Helped crochet floor rugs.

Served as a clerk in a lumber yard.

Managed a popular Nassau county motel.

There were two constants in everything he did—

A passion to do the job right…and a desire to be creative.

Poppi often told Joan and I he would have liked to work as an architect.

Even as a teen, he dreamed of doing more….so much so…that when his father initially tried to push him toward a career as a mason….

Poppi told the man he loved deeply…it wasn’t for him.

For years, Poppi recalled that conversation with regret.

It’s not easy to tell your dad…..his life is not your dream.

But as we know….fate directed Poppi down a similar path.

His father’s death forced him to grow up fast.

He left high school, and went to work helping to support his family.

Even when a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers came calling, Poppi had to forego a career as a pro baseball player to help keep food on the table.

Poppi’s life often reminded me of the character George Bailey’s in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

He always had to set aside personal dreams to meet his responsibilities to others.

At times, I know Poppi was tormented by the inability to chase those dreams.

I don’t think he ever got over losing his father so young.

But he rarely complained about it.

His answer….was to help US chase OUR dreams.

He never stopped talking about the importance of a higher education.

College wasn’t an option for us.

He and mom made it a requirement…like going to church on Sunday.

So it filled him with pride that he not only got to see all four of his sons graduate from college-

But also his two oldest granddaughters.

On the way to those college degrees, we all served summer internships with the firm—BPF Construction.

And not just my brothers—cousins Jeff and David and others toiled at the feet of CEOs, Bruno, Gino and Frank Cergol.

They worked us hard…probably to send the message school was the better option.

In the days before BPF, my cousin Dennis decided to abandon college for the working world…

Poppi provided his first job.

And after just one day with shovel in hand…Dennis is said to have run back to class.

He completed his undergraduate studies and still enjoys a career as a prominent environmental lawyer.

Poppi relished that tale whenever it was told.

While we worked hard, the BPF crew also laughed loudly and often.

And we always enjoyed a nice lunch.

Along the way, Poppi and his brothers created works of art with stone…brick…cement and wood.

If you could dream it, they could build it—fountains and patios…kitchens and bathrooms….spas and steam rooms.

“No problem,” was Poppi’s typical response, no matter what the project.

He was unflappable, always able to figure out a solution for a problem that didn’t seem to have one.

And he did every job as if he was working on his own home.

In many ways, using that toolbox was Poppi’s way of showing how much he loved us.

And he dispensed a lot of love.

He renovated my homes…and all my brothers.

And as Gary has noted often….it was about much more than the work.

That time we had with him…in my case…often doing more harm than good as his “assistant.”

…was priceless..

Now, every time we look around….we will be blessed to see a piece of him.

“No problem”

One of the few times he ever HAD a problem was at a birthday party for my girls.

Poppi dressed as a clown and was given the task of handing out balloon designs to the kids.

No matter what they asked for—a dog or a hat or a heart…the balloons all looked the same.

Eventually one of the irate seven year olds pointed at him and shouted…

“Clown! You’re a fraud.”

Pops loved that kid’s spunk.

He also loved his friends. Many of you have known him since childhood.

Some like Uncle Richie helped save his life after a horrific car accident as a teen.

Others laughed with and comforted him over this last difficult year.

He cherished you all…and would tell you…not to be sad today…

But to celebrate the good times you all shared.

Good times…like the trip we took with Grandi and Poppi to Italy.

It was reality TV at its best—

Six of us, with 20 pieces of luggage…

And despite all that luggage, Poppi seemed to wear the same light blue sweater every day.

Joan was able to trace all the restaurants we visited by pointing to the collection of food stains on that sweater.

We toured Italy in a mini bus that was often the biggest vehicle on the road….

…barely able to squeeze through the narrow streets.

At one point, Joan hid on the floor as Poppi propelled us along a tight road dangling above a cliff overlooking Lake Como.

“No problem.”

With Poppi, of course, family always came first.

And through these last weeks….we saw what that meant to his family.

My mom…my wife and daughters…

My brothers and sisters-in-law….Gary and Gina, Chris and Mara, Mark and Bonnie….and all their kids….

They came to make Poppi laugh…to hold his hand…to cook him a meal.

And then as word spread about how sick he was….a flood of people arrived at the hospital, and then to his home last week.

His brothers, his sister, his nieces and nephews. His lifelong friends.

It was amazing to see.

Your love crushed his illness that day.

Poppi, we all know, had many physical challenges in his life.

And Grandi was always at his side to get him through.

Their bond was unique.

He hated phones ringing….she could never let one go unanswered.

She hoarded too much….He wanted to throw everything away.

But their bond was unbreakable.

They made each other better…

…especially as my mom helped him find his faith.

Much of the man Poppi was…..came from the woman with whom he spent 58 years.

On one of his last nights…Poppi asked that we turn up the lights in the family room….

He wanted….he said…to see his wealth.

No one understood until we realized he was looking at a photograph of his 10 grandchildren.

Emily, Kristina, Grace, Mia, Brooke, Nicholas, Alexa, Bruno, Francesca and Matteo.

Losing Poppi isn’t easy….It’s hard for all of us…

But I find comfort in something my brother Gary told Poppi at the hospital.

Dad….Gary reassured him…..You will always be in my head…and you will always be in my heart.

Later, I realized….It has always been like that.

Even when Dad wasn’t physically with us, his voice in our ears reminded us to work hard…to give your best no matter the task.

And to put the needs of others first.

The best way for all you grandkids…and really all of us… to remember Poppi….

…To honor Poppi….

…is to live like Poppi.

His life wasn’t perfect….but it made a difference.

The words of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up Poppi’s time with us perfectly.

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.


Music and the Mentor: An unlikely friendship

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It’s funny how certain things can trigger vivid memories of people and places from your past.

The scent of the same perfume worn by my first grade teacher can instantly place me back into Mrs. Felt’s classroom at Flower Hill Elementary School. Listening to Sirius Radio’s 80’s channel transports me back to college. Taking the back roads to Walt Whitman Mall, the same roads that led us to the home of Eugene Selesner, always remind me of our too short, but, important time with him.

Eugene (Gene) Selesner was a retired music teacher who taught for 20 years at Simpson and Finley Junior High Schools in Huntington, and before that, in Newark, New Jersey, until he relocated his family to Melville in 1968. But to us, during his last years, he became our daughter Kristina’s piano teacher and mentor, and dear family friend.

This is a story of an unlikely friendship between a reticent high school sophomore, and a fast-on-his-feet octogenarian who left an indelible imprint on her psyche. To do it justice, I will tell the story in a literary duet of both mine and Kristina’s voices – hers extracted from a college application essay she wrote to describe a memorable person. Kristina’s words appear in italics.

And so the story begins.

My mind raced.  I had waited eagerly for the start of my piano lessons, but never anticipated being instructed by some “geezer” who, from my own assessment, looked as if he had been out of touch with the world for the last decade. Seeing this wizened man standing in the threshold had taken me by complete surprise, but not the kind of surprise one looks forward to. I glanced back at my mother in the car, fighting off the urge to run back to her and vent. However, my next steps were through the doorway and into his depressing abode.

In observing this scene from my car, I remember applying a Kung Fu grip on the steering wheel after catching a glimpse of Mr. Selesner’s stern-looking face peering at Kristina from behind his storm door. We selected Mr. Selesner by word of mouth, and therefore had never actually met him. I watched my daughter take a few anxious steps backward. Her teen instinct had her poised to bolt on a moment’s notice. Picking up on her subtle hesitation with a well-honed radar for typical teen behavior, Mr. Selesner waved at me in my car and quickly escorted Kristina into the house. As the door closed behind them, I crossed my fingers and headed to the mall to kill one hour.

We were both silent for a few moments. As he tidied up his living room, I was able to stand back and fully take in my surroundings. The house was eternally dark, despite the 65 and sunny forecast for the day. It was furnished with orange colors and styles dating back to the 1970s and the smell of cigarettes was potent, all but knocking me off my feet. We walked into what I assumed was the living room-turned-music-room that housed an impressive grand piano and vast collection of CDs and musical compositions. Two black shelves stood tall at the back of the room, sheet music spilling out from every angle.

Mr. Selesner sat down in front of the piano and called me over to him. As we sat side by side, I still questioned whether I would be able to stick it out with this man for the next hour, let alone any future lessons. “Play me something,” he said coolly. All I knew at the time were a few songs from memory which I began to play as best I could. From my peripheral, I saw him studying the movement of my hands across the keys and hoped he wasn’t doing so disapprovingly. When I finished, I looked up at him, bracing myself for the anticipated criticism. To my surprise, my new piano teacher complimented me on my ear for music and said he saw immense potential. I could feel myself slowly relaxing in his presence as we dove head-on into our first lesson. 

Maybe I would give this guy a shot after all.

Walking the mall, I kept a close watch on time. It felt like one of the longest hours of my life and I wondered if Mr. Selesner would be successful in getting Kristina to utter more than her usual one to two-word sentences.

Our talks ventured from music, to literature, to geography, and then, to just everyday life. I was amazed at what a conversationalist this old guy was. He was opinionated, had razor-sharp wit, and could talk the paint off the walls. Most importantly, he was someone with whom I could somehow relate. I no longer felt intimidated by the years he had on me, and if I closed my eyes, it was almost as if I was talking to one of my peers. I left Mr. Selesner’s house feeling completely proven wrong, but I was oddly okay with it. 

That first piano lesson was the beginning of an important learning experience and friendship for Kristina, who up until that point had never spent time alone with anyone above the age of 65 other than her grandparents. These were uncharted waters for a kid who at that time barely wanted to be within ten feet of her parents for an hour’s time, let alone an elderly stranger.

But before our eyes, the unexpected occurred.

With each lesson, I gained a better understanding of the piano and of Mr. Selesner himself. He was brilliant, and it didn’t take me long to realize that there was a lot I could learn from him. He had so many stories to tell about his own experiences as a performing pianist, and later, as a junior high school music teacher. I could tell he was dying to share them with the world, or whoever would listen anyway. Our lessons would go by in one, colorful flash of an hour.

We all could not seem to get enough of Gene. Following Kristina’s lessons my husband Greg and I enjoyed hearing him tell stories of his experiences playing the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills with stars like Harry Belafonte, Barbra Streisand and Alan King. Gene was big on “name that tune” and would keep us on our musical toes by drilling us with a vengeance until we summoned the correct answers. He took delicious glee in stumping us.

My weekly lessons with Mr. Selesner became a routine part of my life and were just about necessary to my sanity. They were my escape from the stresses and anxieties of high school, college preparation and everyday life. During this time, the soothing sounds of the piano would transport me to a place where my troubles were nonexistent. After the lesson, Mr. Selesner and I would shoot the breeze and talk about current affairs and books. If there was one thing he loved more than music, it was the written word.  He wanted to know what and who I was reading. Mr. Selesner enjoyed a good read almost as much as a melodic sonata by Mozart.

Indeed, Gene was a true character, full of life and enthusiasm in his love of music, art, books, politics and good food. He had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. In a note to Kristina, Gene wrote: Dear Kris,  Saw the article on your winning squeeze bunt. Congratulations! And you’ll always be a winner. Hope you’re settling on your college of choice. By the way, can you still tell the difference between the black and the white keys?  Love to your parents and as much to you.  -Gene Selesner. Soon Greg and I were trading books and recipes with Gene, and were introduced to his lovely lady friend, Honey, herself an artist whose paintings adorned Gene’s music room.

On Saturday nights our family would head to Cooke’s Inn for dinner and to listen to Gene entertain diners on a small white piano like a seasoned lounge performer, where he also enjoyed playing “name that tune” to test our music IQs. It wasn’t enough that we could name the title of songs, we also had to name their composers. Gene’s playing would, without fail, lift people from their seats and onto the floor singing and dancing like Broadway performers. Gene knew exactly which tunes would elicit these Broadway moments, and quite skillfully, slipped them in between dinner and dessert. Afterwards, Cooke’s Inn guests raised to their feet to cheer and applaud Gene and all those who spontaneously joined him to share their own talents.

It became evident to me that Mr. Selesner’s main passion in life was music. His face would light up every time he heard the word “concerto” or spoke about the brilliant, yet troubled composers of ages past. Mr. Selesner once told me that music was more of a feeling than a sound. The more time I spent with him, the more I understood what he meant by that. Through his stories, I realized that the piano had become a vehicle he used to transport himself through a gateway to opportunity and adventure. The piano had taken him so many places he never expected to go. 

One place Kristina never expected to go was on the bench in front of the little white piano at Cooke’s Inn, when one Saturday night Gene took great delight in introducing his student, and invited her to play a piece they had been working on together that week. Greg and I braced ourselves for Kristina to decline the invitation, but instead, she approached the piano with complete confidence and played beautifully for the crowd. Nobody was more proud of Kristina than her mentor, who basked in the resulting applause with an almost fatherly pride and joy.

One day it all became clear to me. From all outward appearances, Mr. Selesner’s dim, smoky house seemed unappealing and gloomy, but to him it was paradise. There in that unassuming music room he created a sanctuary to do what he loved most in the world – playing the piano. During that moment of clarity, I put all my superficial judgments aside, and instead reveled in how he was able to achieve so much self-fulfillment. It made me aspire to find the same kind of passion and peace in my own world.

Gene Selesner enjoyed a life long love affair with music. Upon his retirement from School District 3, he continued to teach music privately to both students and adults, and also directed the Choir at West Hills Methodist Church. In addition to his weekend gig at Cooke’s Inn, he wrote and performed original scores for silent films shown at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre.

Knowing Mr. Selesner not only gave me a deeper appreciation and connection with music, but also gave me something even more valuable.  Our friendship showed me that outward appearances and the judgments we pass on people mean absolutely nothing. I now look back foolishly to the first day we met, only to realize how narrow my view of people and the world was. 

On October 23, 2008, just before Kristina was able to put the finishing touches on her college application essay about Gene Selesner, Honey called us to share the sad news that he had suddenly passed away. Some time later Cooke’s Inn closed, ending an era marked by the fabulous food of Juanita Cooke, combined with the lively piano entertainment of Eugene Selesner enjoyed by so many on Saturday nights.

 As I sat at his funeral service and watched people get up one after another to speak their piece about this marvelous man, I thought about the countless lives he had touched during his eighty two years. Many people, like me, had the blessing of having been taught by, or having simply known, Mr. Selesner. With both tears and a smile, I entertained images of him in heaven shooting the breeze with Cole Porter, Chopin, and many other great pianists in history. 

While countless junior high school students, private students, music colleagues and friends alike have discovered through Gene Selesner the power and magic of music in connecting and celebrating humanity, Kristina especially learned a profound life lesson. I think Gene would be proud to know that she is now forging her own path in college to enter the arts and entertainment world as a filmmaker, in part, fueled by his own passion for the arts, his friendship, and last but not least, the confidence he bestowed in this once reticent teenager.


Following Larry's Lead

Larry_Kushnick.jpg

This week Huntington lost a devoted son, 51 year old Lawrence (Larry) Kushnick.

Larry’s untimely death was a horribly bitter pill to swallow. After learning the sad news I pondered the idea of our Town and a life without Larry in it, and simply could not process or accept it. How could Larry be gone? Among many things, he was a powerful life force, an intellect, a successful lawyer and businessman, a traveling sideshow comedy act, and, a generous spirit who endlessly and joyfully gave, expecting nothing in return. And he did it all with such ease, like it was nothing. And just like that, Larry was gone.

Life could not have sent us a more powerful or cruel reminder of its fragility.

Larry had a superb sense of humor and loved to make people laugh, which may have been one of his most endearing qualities. I first met Larry nearly twenty years ago while working on a campaign to help preserve Huntington’s OHEKA Castle. Larry loved Huntington, his hometown, and made it his business to advocate for the best of anything our Town had to offer. So, it was no surprise that Larry appeared on the scene to do his part to save a priceless architectural and historic Long Island Gold Coast mansion.

It was in the trenches of the OHEKA campaign that I first got to know and appreciate Larry. So many years later, and with a heavy heart over his life cut short, I manage a half smile remembering Larry dressed as a rather homely bride at a 1996 OHEKA Halloween party, complete with intentionally misapplied red lipstick for a creepy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? effect. I believe that Larry would be pleased and proud to know that I, and probably a great many, still recall his grand, but clumsy, entrance into the Castle as Bridezilla all those years ago.

In more recent years, I had the pleasure of working alongside Larry in his leadership role at the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce, attending many meetings with him and other business leaders to discuss important economic development issues and initiatives. A scant two weeks ago, Larry invited me to his May 21st breakfast inauguration as Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce Chairman. During his very inspiring Powerpoint presentation and installation, Larry repeatedly referred to the event as his “inauguration/bar mitzvah,” generating much laughter in the room. He was having a great time and we were all so very much looking forward to working with Larry to fulfill the many new goals and visions he outlined that morning in his inaugural address.

The days, weeks and months ahead will be difficult and painful as the Huntington Chamber and our Town work to regroup from this monumental loss. And, Huntington will surely never know another son quite like Larry Kushnick.

As we support each other in this time of sadness and loss, let us take some measure of solace in the knowledge that Larry was allowed to stay on with us just long enough to scratch out a roadmap offering clear directions of where he was looking to take us as Chairman of the Huntington Chamber. I know, if we only follow Larry’s lead, and go on to achieve the many goals and visions to which he aspired, we will honor his memory in the very best way possible. And, Huntington will be better for it.

We must now muster our energy and resolve to move forward to the many tasks ahead to complete this precious and unfinished life’s work. And in doing so, we must remember to find the joy and laughter along the way.

Larry would want it no other way.


Co-authors?

Part I of Joan Cergol/Greg Cergol blog duet: "We look out the same window, why don't we see the same thing?"

 

JOAN :

After talking about it for years, my husband Greg and I have launched the inaugural installment of a blog series that will be dedicated to showcasing the ongoing debates in relationships.

During our thirty four years as a married couple, we’ve enjoyed many important collaborations.

Parenting two remarkable young ladies is at the top of our list.

After that, well, I actually can’t think of a whole lot of other fruitful collaborations.

That’s because, to tell you the truth, there aren’t many worthy of mention.

It’s not that we haven’t tried. There are a number of things we do as a team simply because we manage a household together.

We cook together. We paint rooms together. We close and open the pool together. Put up, and take down, the Christmas tree. Together.

There is a single occurrence that inevitably obliterates the blissful togetherness of our collaborative efforts.

Someone loses patience and snaps.

And I’ll give you one hint: it usually isn’t me.

Now let me state right here, as to avoid any possible misunderstanding: I adore Greg Cergol. And I’m pretty sure he likes me.

Greg is the smartest, kindest and most interesting man I know. He’s also an amazing husband and father.

There’s just one problem.

We can’t work together.

Greg has his ways, and I have mine.

And whenever he tries to coax me into his way of thinking and doing things, I resist.

That’s because my dear and thoughtful husband seems unable to take on a task without plotting everything out to the smallest detail as to avoid the possibility of any mistakes.

There’s something to be said for that noble approach if you happen to be a surgeon.

Luckily, so far none of our co-pursuits have involved an appendectomy.

I am frustrated by unnecessary delay in over-planning and prepping when there is a job to be done.

It’s not that I’m any less conscientious than The Man. We are both clear perfectionists. Here’s the difference: I like to dive right in with my all, and he likes to slowly ease into things, with a little of himself at a time.

Admittedly, there are times when my ways can run afoul, for example, when I’m attempting to assemble furniture following only a cursory scan of the instructions.

Meanwhile, Greg could be busy earning a Ph.D. on that instruction manual as the pieces remain scattered on the floor for days.

In the end, in my way of thinking, if the table stands solidly even though I’ve got a few inexplicable pieces of hardware in my hand at completion, that’s success.

How about this?

On the last project we tackled together, the repainting  of a bedroom, with a steady hand I eked out a flawless job of paint edging between the wall and the baseboard without the aid of masking tape. Greg was unable to process that I managed to skip this step and still complete the task. So what did he do? He taped anyway.

Are you getting the picture?

So here is my theory that I believe applies to the majority of life situations: the end result of a given project will be virtually the same with, or without, the fuss.

Provided you could make a decision about the project in the first place.

Therein lies another obstacle to getting any project off the ground.

Someone has to make a decision.

And unless I’m willing to wait until hell freezes over, that person has to be me.

But that’s a discussion for another installment.

For now, we have cause to celebrate that we are, at long last, on to what we hope can be the next successful Joan and Greg Cergol collaboration since launching Emily and Kristina into the real world.

Greg? Are you still with me?

 

GREG :

The realization came to me shortly after our lives intersected- Joan is the greatest person I have ever met.

Giving. Kind. Compassionate. My love and my life.

Yet, the thought of co-authoring a blog with her leaves me uneasy.

Like the feeling that always washed over Ricky when Lucy would smile and say, “Honey I’ve been thinking….”

My anxiety seems illogical. We’ve been married for 30 years.

Joan is an excellent writer. Creative. Thoughtful. An independent woman with distinctive views.

But my gut won’t stop churning.

Being a husband teaches you that logical thinking can sometimes result in mayhem.

Okay, maybe “mayhem” is too strong a characterization….but Joan can surprise you.

When it comes to work, she is an absolute lone wolf.

She lapses into what she calls “the zone,” and no one can penetrate it…not a co-worker, friend or husband.

When I check in during the day by phone, I know instantly if she’s there.

Her voice is distant; her attention light years away.

“Honey, I’ve decided we should dispose of all our worldly possessions and move to a mountain hut in the Italian Alps.”

“Sounds great, Greg.”

Silence.

At first, I thought something was wrong; but after a few years, I realized “the zone” was nothing personal. (Maybe we husbands AREN’T always the most perceptive.)

That silence has now become my cue to bid Joan adieu until later.

Even her staff has come to understand.

When “the zone” is entered, they post a sign on her door, warning outsiders to stand clear.

“The zone” doesn’t allow for creative give and take, for collaboration.

Thus, collaborating has never been Joan’s strong suit.

In part, it’s genetic.

She is, after all, descended from a royal bloodline. Her father, a prominent surgeon and proud U.S. Army veteran, was also an Italian count.

Royals decree; they don’t collaborate.

When we bought our first car, she chose it.

It was only AFTER I toured our first home that Joan revealed she had already agreed to buy it.

Parenthood? I was alerted when it was time.

When I vacuum the house, she always goes over what I have done. When I clean the kitchen- ditto.

Parsing words with her in a blog, I fear, could leave me a mere footnote.

After all, in this small piece of the vast internet world, I will be speaking for husbandkind.

I must be able to get a word in edgewise.

(And if you know Joan’s gift of gab, which comes from her delightful mother, you understand how difficult that can be.)

So, why proceed, you ask?

First, I have never run from a spirited debate. My siblings will attest to that.

Secondly, I am able to rise above, to live by the words of Arthur in Camelot.

“How to handle a woman? Simply love her.”

If you’re not buying any of that, realize this.

The bottom line is that Joan’s decisions have always proven to be the correct ones- whether I liked ’em at the time or not.

So if she tells me to write a blog….I’m there.


Master of the Kitchen

Part II of Joan Cergol/Greg Cergol blog duet: "We look out the same window, why don't we see the same thing"

 

GREG :

Psychoanalysts like to sometimes speculate that certain men marry women like their mothers.

In my case,  I married my father.

Joan prefers to wear the tool belt in the family. She loves to fix things, tinker with gadgets and work outdoors.

As she does, you will often find me in the kitchen, answering the call of a good pasta recipe or a complex dessert.

Sound unusual? Topsy turvy?

Visitors do an occasional double take when they see my wife toiling in the dirt and me behind the stove; but for us, it works.

Most of the time.

Joan has been known to take her “Mrs. Fix-it” role a tad too far.

Like the time she nearly electrocuted herself trying to install a new stove. Or fell into the fishpond while trying to clean it. (She survived both mishaps.)

I can just hear some of you asking with disdain: “How can a good husband leave these chores to his wife?”

I say, why not?

Joan has a passion for household projects while I have always been indifferent to them.

And “a man has got to know his limitations.” My dad’s pedigree as a prodigious home contractor never transferred to me.

And I get edgy when I am attempting things out of my comfort zone.

In fact, my wife loves to warn others to steer clear when I have a hammer in hand. So, I let her take the lead.

But that doesn’t mean I escape the work.

Often, I am pulled into projects to serve as the “grunt.”

Moving ladders here.

Cleaning up debris there.

Doing the bulk of the painting after Joan chooses a color for the walls.

Laborer to my wife’s role as supervisor. (Remember when I explained her ancestors were Italian royalty?)

And in the end, despite my efforts, credit for a job well done goes to the supervisor.

“Joan, the kitchen looks “beauteeful.”

“Joan, the bedroom color is stunning.” (Was I away on vacation when these jobs were done?)

Fortunately, payback comes at family gatherings and holidays.

My work in the kitchen has made me the de facto family chef. (My grandfather actually was one when he first came to the U.S.)

And no matter who cooks, I get the credit for a meal well done. (This can make my wife, a wonderful cook in her own right, a bit testy around clean-up time.)

Most amazing of all, I think, is the fact that our extended family has actually come to recognize and accept this reversal of roles.

That’s saying a lot in a clan of Italian immigrants.

Joan and I didn’t plan to be different. We didn’t make a conscious decision to shake things up.

We just followed our hearts and left the gender rule book to others.

 

JOAN :

So I prefer to tool around fixing things to perfecting a soufflé!

And I make the grandest of messes with all of my projects.

And despite what the man tells you, I never leave a worksite without cleaning up, leaving Greg the “grunt” to attend to those lesser chores.

Well, maybe now and again I will ask him to help lift something I cannot. But my various physical injuries are testament to my not asking enough.

Here’s a newsflash about Greg Cergol, the chef: when the newsman announces he is on to his next culinary creation I am both excited and mortified, continually reassuring myself it will all be good in the end.

The man has a knack for using every bowl, pot, pan, utensil and gadget in the kitchen.

Oh yes indeed, Greg is a cooking virtuoso! As for the kitchen clean-up, not so much.

The scene goes something like this:

Just after I have tackled, completed and cleaned up from some very involved home project I am called into the kitchen by Greg to inspect or taste his latest cooking or baking achievement.

As I scan the kitchen I have to wonder how much of the ingredients actually made it into the dish itself because by all accounts they are smeared to the refrigerator, sink faucet and oven door handles, splashed across countertops and caked into bowls and utensils piled sky high in the sink.

Sweet Jesus! Does the man ever wash his hands before moving from one step to the next?

Greg is oblivious to the kitchen catastrophe. His is in some Lidia Bastianich-induced nirvana.

Maybe it’s genetic. Greg’s already told you his grandfather was a fine chef. And that is really good for him, and, of course for me and our family, once we sit down to dinner.

But getting there can be a rough road because those same great chefs do not clean as they cook. In fact, they don’t clean at all.

Have you ever seen Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse wash a dish or a pot while the garlic is peacefully sautéing? Do you think they ever would?

I didn’t think so. No, the master chef soaks up his praise and then struts from the kitchen, dramatically releasing the ties from his apron, signaling his work is done. He leaves the clean up to the lesser-evolved cooking species.

So here comes the kitchen grunt.

Rushing to the sink like a firefighter to a blaze.

Yes, people, this time that grunt is me.

But I hardly mind it.

Those of you who have experienced Greg’s remarkable homemade pasta dishes, cakes or pies know it’s true.

He’s the master of the kitchen.

And I, his clever clean-up assistant/home-repair maven.

Welcome to the Cergols.


Lost and found in Gold Coast history

 

 

My brother Steve and I at the L'Ecluse Greenhouse

 

I spent a large part of my childhood in the late sixties and early seventies exploring the abandoned ruins of a now vanished Gold Coast mansion.

In 1964 my parents built their house on the property where the Milton L’Ecluse mansion once stood. The stunning Italian Renaissance Revival residence and estate structures were constructed sometime before 1919, and were designed by the M.I.T. and Ecole des Beaux-Arts-trained architect John A. Gurd (1870-1924).

The L’Ecluse mansion was sadly demolished in the early sixties to make way for a residential developer’s vision for a new waterfront subdivision in Huntington called Terra Mar Drive. Despite the modern residential development frenzy that at the time was causing the remnants of Long Island’s Gold Coast to disappear from sight forever, several vestiges of the L’Ecluse estate managed to avert the wrecking ball.

The abandoned estate vestiges were barely holding on by the time I was old enough to explore them. I could see some of them from my bedroom window facing the rear of our property. A horse stable. A greenhouse complex. A carriage house. Their inhabitants were long gone but I stumbled upon all kinds of clues that transformed many a summer day into a real life Nancy Drew mystery novel.

The former horse stables and barn were wide open and accessible. The decaying wood planks from the walls and floors offered up occasional whiffs hinting at the horses and equipment that once filled the stalls. I noted faded scrawl on the walls that I presumed to be horse’s names, numbers (their height?) and dates (their birth?). Like those before me, I figured out how to hoist myself high up into the hay loft that instantly became my secret club house. Rays of sunlight shot through large and small holes in the sagging roof, highlighting swirling particles of dirt and other debris. But it was paradise to me.

The greenhouse complex was a greater challenge and danger to explore. The floor was covered with shattered glass interwoven with clinging ivy and fallen leaves that had gained entry through the now windowless greenhouse frame. Generations of large box turtles made their habitats safely beneath the greenhouse tables in rich dark soil that heaved up squirming earthworms and other unsightly creatures.

It took me days to figure out how to access the locked and abandoned adjoining greenhouse caretaker’s quarters, and when I finally did, I felt like an intruder. The space was still filled with the former occupant’s furnishings and personal belongings, as if he or she had only just departed, although its contents were clearly reminiscent of an era yet known to or understood by me. I spent hours studying these fascinating objects but I dared not remove them in the event the mysterious occupant chose to return. I often let my imagination run wild and pretended it was I who lived in that lonely space lost in time.

The carriage house was nothing more than a large and terribly uninteresting garage until I discovered, it too, had its own adjoining living quarters. A rear window revealed a ransacked kitchen and on the soffit above the sink, a doll-like figurine hung on the wall. Oddly, she resembled sweet Aunt Jemima on the pancake syrup bottle label. Still, I grew terrified of that doll when one day I noticed with great concern that she had somehow changed her body position.

Upon leaving each day, I carefully examined and committed to memory exactly how the carriage house kitchen doll was positioned. Sure enough, the following day I noticed her arms were now to the left while the day before they were to the right. Each new day found the doll in a new configuration. I was convinced she was alive, or the place was haunted, or both. My older brother Steve later confessed to manipulating the figurine into ever changing positions to spook me. He succeeded.

One afternoon I found a way to climb into the loft of the carriage house, whereupon I unearthed the most exciting discovery of all, a trunk filled with very old toys and books. I shared my bounty with some neighborhood kids who started to follow me in my daily explorations. The spoils included an original Mickey Mouse picture book, a striped ball, and a few rag dolls in frilly dresses, among other things. Gauging from the musty smell inside of the trunk that was now consuming these objects, it was obvious they had not seen the light of day in many, many years.

I gave away all but one book that I still have in my personal library and treasure today.  It is titled Pinocchio in Africa and has a book plate inside that reads: “Private Library of Beatrice Boynton, April 10, 1912” inscribed just days before the fateful sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic.

In all these years I have never been able to find out who Beatrice Boynton is, and if she was related to anyone in the L’Ecluse family. My best guess is she was the daughter of an estate worker.

I am grateful for those early years of exploration in decaying estate buildings filled with interesting treasures and other surprises, some not always pleasant, but thrilling nonetheless. It was in those dark and dreary spaces that I found a way to further spark and light my imagination that was already well-fueled by the natural curiosity and wonder of a child. It was also there where my love of history and magnificent old buildings first took hold.

I continue to be captivated by Long Island’s Gold Coast, its history, and the glorious mansions that towered along the North Shore, the likes of which inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby.

Certainly the L’Ecluse mansion and its estate vestiges, some of which continue to stand in Huntington Bay today, will forever hold deep personal meaning to me. But more recently it has been OHEKA Castle, Long Island’s largest Gold Coast mansion, that has harnessed my heart, imagination and energies enough to co-author, with Ellen Schaffer, a book about its remarkable history, published by Arcadia Publishing. OHEKA Castle is available in bookstores or via Facebook, OHEKA Castle, the book.

I am grateful to have been raised in a time and place that enabled childhood exploration and curiosity to take hold long and hard enough to become an adult passion that in very many ways, continues to define who I am today.