I don’t know how they do it, how people in the middle of the country manage to live so far away from the shore. I suppose the amber waves of grain I’ve heard so much about perform a similar psychic function for them, but personally it’s impossible to imagine a life in which I couldn’t somehow make regular pilgrimage to the altar of the sea. Which is why, for me, there is no more profound a feature to living on eastern Long Island than the ancient waters that surround us on three sides and the hundreds of miles of coastline we’ve been given to dwell upon when contemplating them.
Sometimes it seems as though the water is central to just about every significant memory I have of growing up in Suffolk County. It was on the rocky beaches of the Long Island Sound, after all, that I idled away the hazy summer days of my earliest childhood, exploring the marshes and inlets that dot its shore with my best friend before diving into the cooling shallows for relief from the heat. We were world-renowned adventurers on those long, lazy afternoons, voyaging into the secret heart of the world around us, and our parents seemed more than happy to turn us lose and allow nature to teach us her lessons, the only requirement being that we were home in time for supper.
Later, when the mysteries of the natural world gave over to the more immediate imperatives of the flesh, the water was there, too, to support us in our explorations. How many dismal hours did we spend parading our teenaged bodies up and down the soft sands of the ocean beaches, searching for a partner who might look upon us with pity and join us in the misery of our adolescent despair? Too many to think about now without a burning sense of shame. But if we were ever lucky enough to find such a partner? That perfect vessel with whom to share our deepest, most intimate secrets with? Where would we look to take them in order to be alone together? To the water, naturally; to the beach at Smith Point or some more isolated waterfront off of Dune Road, where we’d lie out on the sand underneath the stars and disgorge the dark convolutions of our clamorous hearts.
I can still recall like it was yesterday driving over the bridge at Shinnecock Bay with a group of friends on prom night after the dance had ended and standing together on Ponquogue Beach, a tiny knot of boys in their rented tuxedos and girls in their shimmering gowns. We found ourselves there on a whim, suddenly struck silent by the enormity that faced us, and watched as the dark waves rolled in at our feet before receding back into the gloom. It was as though some collective part of our selves knew without having to say the words that it would be impossible to embark upon the voyage of our adult lives without first offering up thanks to the encircling waters of our youth for everything that had come before.
In the same way the waters of Long Island have continued to be there for me over the years, to mark the beginnings and the ends of most of the significant events of my life. A few snapshots from my personal photo album, by way of illustrating the point:
…That’s me in the middle, the one with the sunburned shoulders and freckled face, camping out with my family in Hither Hills for our annual summer vacation, the towering ocean waves crashing against the shore in the background…
…Me in yet another rented tuxedo, standing next to the woman I’d just married on a private beach in Bellport, the Great South Bay providing the perfect sparkling backdrop to our outdoor ceremony…
…Me, again, hoisting my newborn child up above my head ala “The Lion King” at Georgica Beach in East Hampton to show her the only thing I knew of that was deeper and bluer than her eyes…
…And, finally, in a picture-not-taken: Me, propelled by a powerful, blind rage to abandon my mother in the surf and march along the shoreline all the way from Gurney’s Inn, where we were staying that summer, to the Montauk Lighthouse, after she’d just finished telling me that there was nothing more they could do for him, that my father would soon be gone….
These are just a few of the pictures I can summon up in my mind in which the water played a significant role in what I was going through but there are more, too many more to recount in such a limited space. Suffice to say that in every one of these critical moments, the water has been there to bear witness to the positive developments in my life and to console me in my grief. Unlike our landlocked brethren living elsewhere, we Long Islanders have the supreme advantage of being able to carry our lives down to the land’s end whenever the spirit moves us and offering them up to the sea, in all their sorrows and their joys. And how can we help but come to see these two opposite states as one and the same when confronted with something as infinite and timeless as the sea? Happiness in the universe is fleeting and meant to be cherished, it seems to whisper in its endless, rolling susurrations. And sorrow, however painful, passes away, as all things must.
The solid plates of the earth, that appear so immutable to our eyes, shift and turn over time, rising and falling with the passing eons. Only the sea endures forever.
In the closing paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald has his narrator, Nick Carraway, try to imagine what it was like for the original Dutch sailors when they first arrived off the shores of Long Island and beheld the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” Looking out over the railings from their ships at the verdant greenery unfolding before them, Nick imagines each of these sailors coming “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Though I’ve always loved that passage because it speaks so beautifully of my island, I’ve always felt like Fitzgerald got the perspective wrong; that instead of standing on their decks and looking inwards towards the land, the sailors should’ve been standing on terra firma and looking back outwards over the vast ocean that had only just delivered them here to this strange new Eden.
What a gift we’ve been given, we who live on the eastern end of Long Island, to be able to walk down to the water’s edge whenever the events of our daily lives compel us to do so and experience once more, as though for the first time, something commensurate with our own capacity for wonder.
Stephen F. Kelleher
July 17, 2013