A Place Called Home for 50 Years

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“A real estate agent took us to the house and opened the front door. We didn’t even go into the house. We were looking from the front door to the back door and we saw water, and that was it,” Dora Helwig said, recalling the day nearly 50 years ago when she and her husband, Winston, decided that a house by the bay on Beach 43rd Street would become their forever home. But after five decades in a home full of love, loss, friendship, hardship, hard work, memories and more, Dora’s chapter spent in her own personal paradise is coming to a bittersweet end as she gets ready to move on to the next adventure.

It took no convincing when the Helwigs stepped into their new house in 1971. With a backyard of a can’t-beat view and dock leading to Norton Basin, a tributary of Jamaica Bay, the small, two-story house sold itself. The price wasn’t too bad either—just $15,000 at the time. It wasn’t long before the house became a home. It would become the place where the couple raised their newborn son, Harry. Right on the water, it was the perfect place to raise a child to love the water as much as his parents did. “He learned how to swim here, scuba dive, sail, all kinds of wonderful things on the water,” Dora Helwig said of her son. Helwig also took advantage of the location where she regularly jumps off her dock for a swim, launches her kayak or spends time simply admiring the beauty of it. “The sunrises, the sunsets—magnificent,” she said. However, the home would also become a place of where the family faced hardship, as Winston Helwig died of lung cancer just five years after they bought it. “He was the love of my life,” she said.

As a single mother, Helwig continued to work at a career she’s worked in since she was 18 years old—lampshade making. She went from working for others in Manhattan until a boss offered the business to her, and she kept it going, but traded in the regular city commute for a home operation. “I put my son through college because of it,” she said. Today, at 88, Dora still makes lampshades. “I’m still working. It’s extremely slow, but it gives me enough money to buy my wine. I like wine,” the Italian woman said with a laugh.

Helwig’s son, Harry, eventually grew up, got married, and moved out—but not too far. “An opportunity opened for a place three doors away, so we bought it and he and his wife, Keelah, lived there for many years. They had two girls and I got to see them every day. That was magical for me,” Helwig said.

Harry and his family remained close by until the storm that changed everything. On October 29, 2012, Dora Helwig had a friend over as they were supposed to fly out of JFK Airport to New Orleans the next day. Hurricane Sandy had other plans. “We were upstairs and the water was coming in and my friend has her dog and she was panicking and said, ‘What if the water comes up this high?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, we have the roof.’” Ever the optimist, Dora kept cool, but the situation on the first floor was no laughing matter as her beloved bay flowed into her living room and kitchen. “The water came up six feet. My refrigerator was down, the furniture was floating, and the water was up to my neck,” she recalled. Hours after, when the water had receded late into the night, Helwig reunited with her son and his family, and together, they huddled on the second floor of her home. With Harry’s home being damaged beyond repair, he had no choice but to move. But Dora decided she wasn’t leaving behind her little slice of paradise. “We cleaned up, everybody got together, and we survived,” she said.

Despite no longer having her son and granddaughters nearby, Helwig has never been lonely. “I have the most wonderful neighbors. We are family,” she said. Helwig spoke of one neighbor of Indian heritage who has incredible talent in the kitchen. “She’ll bring food over almost every other day or I’ll go to her house. Her cooking is so phenomenal,” she said. Then there’s a next-door neighbor who she calls her “handyman son.” “He checks on me, he helped me fix my house after Sandy, he does little things for me. He’s been here as long as I have. I watched him grow up from a teenager and now he has a son that I’ve watched grow up,” she said.

Watching neighbors come, and go, and their families grow, has been one of the few changes she’s seen in the nearly 50 years she’s been here. “This area, this dead end, hasn’t changed much,” she said. Except for the street itself. “When I came here, the road was terrible. It was like a back-country dirt road with no sidewalk. People walked in the street. But as time went on, they gave us a street and sidewalks—but people still walk in the street,” she said. For the most part, Helwig says she’s only seen Rockaway change for the better in 50 years. Even the garbage dump across the bay from her home has improved. “That’s not an island,” she said, pointing out a beautiful green hill across the water. “That’s part of sanitation. That wasn’t there. They built that. It used to be ugly and smelly and now it’s green and pretty,” she explained. Speaking of green, as a vegan, Helwig was overjoyed when Edgemere Farm opened just two blocks away, providing her not only with a new place to buy produce, but a place to make even more friends. Helwig says, “Rockaway is looking so much nicer and better than when I first came here. But I still loved it then, and I love it now.”

That’s why leaving will be so hard. After living by herself for so long, Helwig’s son has finally convinced her to move in with his family. “He said, ‘Mom, there’s a lot of work involved with having a home.’ I’m used to doing everything by myself, but it’s getting more difficult. I’m getting old and I have arthritis. I’ve fallen a couple times. I have new knees, a new hip, and he said, ‘Mom, it’s time to be here under my wings.’ So, he convinced me,” she said. When—is still indefinite, as Helwig said she won’t leave until she knows the place that she’s called home for nearly 50 years, will be in good hands with the right buyer. However, Helwig will still get to enjoy being near the water. "I told my son that if there isn’t water, I’m not going,” she said. So, Harry Helwig and his family bought a house in Centerport, LI, near the water, where Dora will call her new home. While moving will no doubt be an adjustment, Helwig knows it will be for the best, and plus, there are perks. “I’m still not sure about it, but I will have the love of my family. I will get to see my son and my girls every day,” she said.

And of course, she’ll come back to visit. “I do not intend to just go away and not come back. I will be back to visit my beautiful friends and family here and I’m sure they’ll let me sit on my dock and enjoy a glass of wine with them. I’m not leaving this place entirely. My heart is here. My brain is here. My soul is here. How else can I explain it?”

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