Oral History: Hudson Street’s Helen Manca

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by Krista Madsen

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Helen Manca, 99, has lived in Sleepy Hollow her entire life. —Photo by Krista Madsen

Helen Manca, 99, is my next-door neighbor and popular with my two young daughters for her endlessly replenishing bowl of M&Ms. Since we moved here in 2009, we’ve enjoyed her stories of growing up in the very house she still lives in, so it felt special to be able to record them for this installment of the Oral History project.

Manca’s life story isn’t complicated and she doesn’t get too elaborate in the telling – she never got married, never had kids, but rather took care of her siblings’ children, tended to those of another family she worked for, helped patients at the dental office, and finally nursed her dying parents. She dropped out of high school, as most kids did then, and helped her parents by earning money. Eventually she was able to contribute to buying her mother a washing machine, which must have been thrilling for her mother after so many years of hand-scrubbing in the tub the clothes and linens for their family of nine, plus the three boarders who let rooms upstairs.

“No one had any money,” she reiterated, and most of homes had boarders. Many of the men in these rooms worked at GM, an ideal commute for the guys in Manca’s house just down the road. Hudson Street, the one-way whose corner the Bridge View Tavern now holds courts on, was called “Hunk Alley” in her day for all the brawny boys who lived there, including her two brothers, playing ball out in the street.

Playing in the street was pretty much the entertainment of the day. Few had a car – in fact, Manca has never had one. Her parents never had one either. “I walked every place.” (Sometimes I imagine I’ll live as long since we have this in common.) From the perspective of seeing nearly a century of constant change, Manca has a pretty blasé attitude about a lot of things people get pretty heated about around here – the new bridge doesn’t interest her any more than the last. You won’t hear her complain about the traffic or the parking or the height of new developments or fret about the toxicity of the soil she still happily eats tomatoes from.

“Dirty as it was, we were in there,” she said of swimming the Hudson.

During World War II, she remembers the scarcity and everyone doing their part – a lifestyle they were already used to. They would take the ferry to Nyack when word was they had butter. Her happiest memories seem to surround her mother’s Slovakian baking and the family packed on special occasions around the dining table that sat in what is now her living room. This is where we talked now next to her small Christmas tree, decorated with every manner of her father’s beloved cardinals.

But Manca’s restless more than nostalgic; she doesn’t want to sit still and hear herself going on for too long. She’d rather walk; it’s a nice day.

She said her youngest sibling, the only other of the bunch still alive, is “the strong one,” but obviously she is too. “I’m still here.”

Visit TheHudsonIndependent.com to hear the full interview with Sleepy Hollow’s Helen Manca. Next month: join us to talk about winter sports (ice skating, sledding, the frozen Hudson) when you were growing up here. Our “Winter Wonderland 10591” interview session will be held at Warner Libray, Friday, Jan. 15 at 1 p.m.

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