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Family Travel

City Island – May 2, 2023

A coming home to an island that helped shaped my world view sixty years ago.

Not much has changed on City Island since I left it sixty years ago, thanks to a thirty-five-foot height restriction. This small island in Long Island Sound still features quiet streets shaded by tall trees and boat yards smelling of tar and salt water. It’s just as isolated as ever, a serene neighborhood a short drive south across the bridge from Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.

Bob and I last visited the island in 2011 and were unsurprised to find it, mostly as we’d left it, a rare gift in a world roiling with change. Today, we were here to meet brothers Bob, Joe, James, and James’ wife, Kathryn, for lunch at Artie’s.

One of Camille’s (eight) childhood homes

When Ann Somnitz, a flamboyant woman who worked with Grandpa Frank on Broadway, heard that Frank’s son, John, was looking for a place to move his tidy family of four, she knew the perfect place. And so my father, John Illo, rented the house at 393 City Island Avenue from 1958 to 1962. I had just turned four, and my little brother, John, was about to turn three. They called it “The Farm” because it sat on an eighth of an acre, and my mother intentionally kept half the backyard wild for butterflies and such so we could experience nature.

The neighborhood kids often came to our house to play and get their clothes caught in the pricker bushes. Our best toy was a steel water heater which we rolled across the flat upper lawn in our bare feet like circus performers, developing our bravery and balance. We’d walk the heavy cylinder back and forth until it veered off course and slid down the hill into the belly of the yard, and then everyone would heave-ho it back onto the level dirt near the house.

Where we kids were forced to nap while the rest of the world played

My brother, Bob, was born while we lived in that house, and a few years later, Joe. We all slept upstairs while Mom and Dad slept in their bedroom behind the living room. I became my mother’s “Centurian”—an extra set of eyes to tell her when my siblings were flirting with danger.

Once, John and I were playing down the street at Ellen Goulden’s, and her little sister dropped a big rock on John’s forehead. I looked at the little hole that rock had punched through his skin and ran home to get my mom. Ellen ran for her mother, too. Back then, nearly everyone had a stay-at-home mother standing by to rescue their little darlings from themselves.

My mother asked me to stay put and flew out the door to take John to the doctor. I flung myself across my little bed, terrified he might die, wishing I’d seen that rock coming, and prayed one rosary after another until they returned. Happily, John survived.

Artie’s

Artie lived next door, and we all played together, but he and John were closest. When Artie grew up, he took over his father’s pizzeria across the street and turned it into a steak and seafood restaurant.

Where Peck’s Penny Candy used to be

These were the heady days of penny candy, and we lived across Ditmars Street from one such purveyor. Imagine getting a chewy Mary Jane, a jawbreaker, or a tootsie roll for a penny! At Peck’s, they kept the candy in big, glass jars with the hole at eye level so you could reach in your hand and grab what you wanted after spreading your pennies out on the counter.

Two doors down from 393 City Island Ave

The movie theater two doors down from 393 is now a grocery store, but back in the day, Mom and Dad would take us there to watch family-friendly movies like Disney’s That Darn Cat.

Where Mr. Ryan used to live

Bob and I arrived at the restaurant early and took a stroll down Ditmars Street. I lingered near the tall back fence encircling what used to be my backyard, peering down the side at what used to be old man Ryan’s house. Mr. Ryan was a grouch who didn’t mind telling us kids to stay out of his lumber pile. As kids, we’d watched the moon landing and gotten it into our heads to build a rocket ship, so when we noticed some spaceship-worthy 2x8s crying out for a trip to the moon, we started dragging them off.

Walking down Ditmars Street
End of Ditmars

We walked the few short blocks to the end of Ditmars, where the island turns to marsh behind a low, concrete wall.

No swan action today

Here was where the swans lived when I was a child, substantial birds with snakelike necks that threatened us with their flashing eyes and sharp beaks. But we saw no devil eyes there on this day.

The field we used to fly planes in

Adjacent to the marsh was a field where Dad took us to fly a model plane with a gas engine tethered to a line like a kite, the grassland now populated with trees and brambles.

Bob walks back up Ditmars, past the stoops

I remember my mother sitting on the Ditmars stoops with the other women, all in bright dresses, laughing about grown-up things. One time I walked up with a preying mantis on my shoulder, and it jumped onto one of the ladies, scattering them all off the stoop.

Artie’s cousin, Joey

While we waited for my brothers to appear, a young man named Joey came out to wipe down the outside tables. We asked if he knew my childhood friend, Artie, and he said yes, that he was Artie’s cousin and that Artie had sold the business and retired to Florida.

The Bobs, born nine days apart in 1958

And then my brother, Bob, walked down the sidewalk—early like us.

Kathryn, Bob, Camille, Bob, and Joe – photo taken by James

After Joe, James, and Kathryn arrived, we ordered some food. While waiting for our entrees, I called brother John and laid my phone on the table. He told us how he and Artie used to play with wooden blocks on the floor of the restaurant kitchen to the slow, crooning hum of the industrial fan.

Eggplant Parm

I ordered eggplant parmesan, which is better than steak or seafood in my opinion. James had brought each of us a packet of old family photos, which we passed around, doing our best to keep them out of the pasta sauce.

Oldest to youngest: Camille, Bob, Joe, and James
James and Joe walking Bob to his car
St. Mary Star of the Sea church

Needing to work off lunch, we walked up to the church after dropping Bob at his car.

Looking like a bride on the day of my first communion

I was raised Roman Catholic, so the church was central to my young life. It’s where I said my first confession, received my first communion, and got myself confirmed.

Star of the Sea school behind the church

John and I started kindergarten at St. Mary Star of the Sea School on the block behind the church. I remember playing with our schoolmates on the asphalt yard overlooking the bay, the hot lunches, and the black-robed nuns who tried to teach us right from wrong.

Joe and Camille look across the bay from the south end of the island

Before we left, we walked to the island’s far end to stare through a chain link fence at the sound. I don’t know about you, but when I look across open water, I see time itself—past and future—as if the shore were a seat in a time machine.

City Island is where I started coming to terms with life, walking the edges, learning to swim in the buoyant waters, and standing on the prow of my ship in my unique space and time. It feels good to return here and find things reasonably similar to what I learned the world should look like as a child.

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

8 replies on “City Island – May 2, 2023”

What a quaint wee place! I love it! Not how I ever pictured Long Island. I’m so glad you went there and shared these great memories. I feel like I was watching TV, looking back on your words. Sharing the photos over an Italian dinner is priceless, isn’t it? Wow. What an epic trip.

You would love this place, Steph. Let’s go someday! Even though tiny City Island is just across the bay from Long Island, they are worlds away from each other. Also, I just realized that my childhood initials, C. I., match the island’s.

Camille, that was a beautiful story and reflection of your past. Thank you for sharing. You made my day.

Thank you, Henry! I’m glad you’ve retired and so had time to read it. That was a long one!

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