In addition to their beautiful daughter, the greatest gift my in-laws gave me was to take me to the sea. I grew up in the West Bronx, and summer water for me was the view of the Harlem River from the stoop of my home, or the occasional forays across the Borough on the hot, gas-stinking #40 bus to Orchard Beach or the crazy rock spit at the end of City Island. So when Helen and Earl loaded Ann and me and the boxes of kitchen utensils and beach gear into the 1957 Chevrolet for the pre-expressway schlep to Tidewater cabins in Hampton Bays, I saw for the first time the Atlantic shore with its powdery white sand, its galloping blue waves, its pastel sky sprinkled with flaky white clouds, all seasoned with tasty mild wind and light. It took my breath away and does each time I arrive, even after 50 years.
Each year we returned, graduating to a tiny space in Wainscott called the Cozy Cabins. Cozy indeed. It was (and is) steps south of Montauk Highway and consisted of a little village of separate, identical buildings, the sand our carpet, the pine trees our wall hangings. It looked and smelled delicious. Each year deepened this place, Wainscott, in our souls. Everything mesmerized us. Even the Labor Day weekend, when exiting Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Bridgehampton, we discovered our rickety Renault dead. We had two more days in our treasured vacation and so we stuck pregnant Ann on the highway with her thumb out. The tradespersons and migrant farmers in a delightful gesture of noblesse oblige, picked us up and cheerily chauffeured us to our destinations.
As our family came along we dreamed of August all year long. We moved across the highway to the D’Andrea Motel. Mommy and Daddy slept on the bed in the kitchen and the four kids spread out in the other room. Most meals were taken at the big table in the back adjoining the grill. As night descended the kids played with the fireflies and nibbled on the marshmallows. The smell of charcoal and sunburn and late-day grass filled our nostrils.
We never missed going to the drive-in. Dinner accomplished, baths taken, Dr. Dentons donned, we would drive west through Bridgehampton to the Carvel across from the movie lot. We get a good spot in the lot and the kids negotiated for good places in the back of the station wagon. As it got darker the little ones gradually fall to slumber unless it was The Night of the Living Dead, when all would stay awake to scream in unison as bodies come out of the grave on screen, once again to inhabit the earth. Then home, quick to bed and quick to sleep for all of us.
We made new friends over the years at the D’Andrea. Each family arranged to return at the same time. The kids had a pack to run with and the adults, well, we had adult company to click our glasses with as the sun went down. We had an annual ritual. Another father, Tommy, and I would take the kids on an early morning hike to Sag Harbor. The ladies were granted an hour or so of peace and quiet. Later they would pick us up at the Paradise Diner. We ambled down the highway, made a right at Sagg Road and crossed the wooden bridge. The kids gamely soldiered on. It was a long trek for little legs and potbellied men. But we always made it, and the suffering was forgotten as pancakes and bacon and eggs and rolls and jelly doughnuts and even a little ice cream was scarfed down. Forty years later my children, now spread all over the country, speak happily of the Paradise.
A year never passes that I don’t go back, if only for a birthday pasta at Conca D’Oro, an ice cream at Candy Kitchen, or a visit to our friends at Townline Road and Daniel’s Lane. And each spring I hop the Hampton Jitney at Hunter College, sit back and nibble on my muffin and look out the windows with my thoughts. I exit the bus at Wainscott and head south, varying my route to take in the homes I have loved for so long and that have given me so much pleasure. The quiet, peaceful, nourishing feel of the walk is unchanged. I smell the soil and the potatoes and the corn struggling to be born. The birds and insects party. A rollicking collie says hello. The honeysuckle perfumes me. Finally, I get to the opening in the dune and stand there, take a deep breath, and for some reason I am overwhelmed with tears. There is sand and sea without end. Sometimes there would be no one in sight, no ships upon the horizon. I realize that an Indian probably stood here 500 years ago or 10,000 years or more, even to the beginning of time. This was infinity.
And if I am lucky and all the conditions are right; if the sea is mild and the sun is bouncing off the little waves like scaled pebbles, and the smell of beached seashells reaches me, I may have an apparition: I may see a young woman sitting in a beach chair watching two little girls digging in the sand. A third flirts with the water as it comes on shore. A young man sits by, watching a boy race a sandpiper down the beach. On his lap, a worn, open copy of Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey.