Marguerite Rocholl traded in the shore for the mountains several years ago. But even though she calls the Catskills home now, Rocholl’s heart and mind are never far from the community she called home for much of her life — Broad Channel.
What brought her to writing “Before You Were Born” — her book about her rearing in the island community in the middle of Jamaica Bay — was less about the neighborhood and more about one of its residents, her own father.
“I always wanted to write about my father,” Rocholl said. “He had the greatest job in the world.”
Ed Clarity, her father, was a professional photographer for the New York Daily News and his career had always fascinated Rocholl. But when she sat down to write about him, she found it difficult.
“I could not even get one word down,” Rocholl said. “Then I thought, ‘what if I write it through the eyes of a child?’ And then it just flowed.”
And that’s when a story about her dad turned into a story about growing up on that island in Queens in the heart of the 20th Century and a cast of characters that together paint a picture of a quintessential coastal town — just one that also happens to be part of America’s largest city.
The title of the book is an explanation to her children about what life in the community was like before Rocholl married and had a family.
Rocholl’s father is a major character in the book, along with other family members and neighbors, many of whom still live in the community or have descendants who do. Rocholl herself still has family in the neighborhood, including her daughter and her sister, who is married to Broad Channel civic leader Dan Mundy.
The novel takes a reader on a tour of classic Broad Channel, showing just how different from the rest of New York City it is, yet how close to the fast-paced New York life they lived. Readers are taken to the first day of school at St. Virgilius and take part in the annual Mardi Gras parade on Cross Bay Boulevard.
But readers also become part of the mainly Irish Catholic culture that gives the neighborhood its unique charm. Family, community, work and religion intertwine in every scene.
We are introduced to Marguerite’s grandparents — the neighborhood’s early settlers who helped turn the small fishing hamlet into the community it is today. We meet her aunt, a nun who at one point we see riding a horse in a photo. Marguerite talks about her Uncle Marty who helped in the recovery of American Airlines Flight 1, which crashed near Broad Channel in 1962, killing 96 people.
Throughout the book, Rocholl brings to prose the very real feeling of isolation from the rest of the city felt by Broad Channel’s residents.
“There were city politicians who considered the residents of Broad Channel squatters, regardless of the fact that every homeowner paid an annual ground rent to the city and received very little in return,” she writes at the beginning one chapter.
Rocholl lived most of her adult life in Howard Beach. She figured she wasn’t cut out for life in Broad Channel, witnessing the flooding caused by Hurricane Donna in 1960, and settled on slightly higher ground just over the bridge. She relocated upstate several years ago, but still returns to Broad Channel often to see family and friends.