Idyll Love

The expressway became a dirt road, back then, at exit 73. We cut through a ghost town called Riverhead and bounced up Main Road to Mattituck. I was eight when my father first took us on these day trips to satisfy his love of fishing. It was as much about their nibbling tug as it was eating them. The land was forested save for the homes and potato fields. All my aunts and uncles would seem to have a second house there. Thea Koula was the first to buy one, and we started bunking with Uncle Mike and our four cousins. We squished six extra people into the bedrooms and living room. Our excited chatter stopped only when the adults hushed us to sleep on the blanket-covered floors. Lining up twelve people for a single bathroom was harder, especially for the three guys among us. The biweekly trip from Astoria took almost two hours, but it was our weekend and summer getaway. Thea Voula was next on the growing list, and as we outgrew Thea Koula’s, it behooved my mother to have one, too. We had no expectations as we window shopped from our brown station wagon. After our extended flirtation with an embattled estate, a “For Sale” sign appeared the next year in front of a maroon, single-story ranch with an expansive plot of dirt. The contractor’s father had terminal cancer, and it no longer made sense to give him a half-acre property in the middle of nowhere. My father immediately made an offer. My first project was planting evergreen tree seedlings. I carefully measured and lined each side of the driveway, the cement path from door to curb, and against the yellow back. Next, I gave the vertical wooden panels in front a second coat of paint and meticulously filled in the gaps with a thin brush. I didn’t strive for perfection, but it all screamed for an even look. We became committed to a weekly trip. Especially me. I had to cut the lawn. I pushed that gas-powered mower for four to five hours, emptying the overstuffed bag at each end. Nary a sister lifted a finger. “I don’t want to lose my legs,” the twins argued. I appointed myself in charge and directed them in cleaning the house. My older sister handled the three bedrooms, the twins cleaned the two bathrooms, and I scrubbed the floors. They all whined when it came to the family and living rooms. “Oh, I won’t do that. I’m cleaning too much,” one would complain. “No, I’m cleaning too much,” another would snap. So those rooms and the kitchen fell to me. Our first Christmas at that house was magical. The snow was heavy and the world outside lost to the dark night, but I still remember the faux tree sparkling with lights and ornaments. Red stockings inscribed with our names hung over the crackling fireplace. We had eaten and played heartily, and then watched the hulking color television from our wooden couches. Those plaid cushions would never soften. Afterwards, we stuffed the tree and ornaments in the attic, never to be used again. My father wanted to avoid any snow, and my mother found decorating a hassle. We held my Sweet 16 in the giant backyard that April. My mother and Thea Vaso cooked all the traditional Greek food—pastitsio, moussaka, tiropita, and spanakopita—for the dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins in attendance. The best part was getting my driver’s license before my older sister. By then, my father gave me the wheel upon exiting the expressway and I meandered by the farms until we reached the house. My older sister would be traumatized until her twenties when she first assumed control. As we crawled around the neighborhood, she let go of the steering wheel to cover her eyes. She didn’t want to hit a cat that sprung from the bushes, but didn’t see a problem with crashing. My driver’s license offered many rewards. Three years later, back on the west end, my father purchased a luncheonette. I would have been exempt from the National Teacher Exam if I took a class that summer, but I wound up at the luncheonette instead. I started waking up at 4:30 to drop him off by the R train, returning home to sleep for another hour and trudging back to the station because of the dearth of parking. I continued this morning routine throughout the academic year and the summer that followed. I received a two-week reprieve when my older sister took a vacation, which we spent in Mattituck with Yiayia Argie, my namesake. My father somehow managed without me. Yiayia tended to the garden, picked up vegetables from Cooper Farms, cleaned the house, and cooked dinner. When we made her angry, she had a habit of chasing us through the yard with a broom. One day during the break, I was mowing when a white Volkswagen bus with a blue stripe pulled up to the driveway. A familiar looking man with neatly combed black hair, a mustache and thin beard stepped out. We had met at my godbrother’s wedding nine months prior: the only guy at our table of eight. The twins bet on whom he would ask out, after schmoozing my older sister and me, but nothing came of it. His older sister was forever the socialite, so she knew where we lived. I wore sweaty, grass-stained clothing, but he asked us out to bowling and an afternoon at the beach. I had no interest in the guy. He was 26, and I was the 20-year-old middle child. By Greek tradition, the oldest would marry first, so I left my sister with him, but at the beach he followed me into the water. What is going on, I wondered. It wouldn’t be the first time she was doing something wrong. She revealed that he liked me more, but I was clueless because he invited both of us. He didn’t want to leave her alone with my grandmother. I could finally escape my parents when we spent those weekends in Mattituck. We only dated for two months before getting engaged, and married two summers later. His mother liked me the minute she saw me, and his sister became another of mine. Two years later, I had my first of three sons, who skipped crawling at eight months and took his first steps with my in-laws at Easter. We were all ecstatic. Our children and their five cousins certainly enjoyed the Mattituck house. By then, my father had long bought a shiny red tractor for mowing, and suddenly everyone wanted to help. But as the children got older, those trips dwindled. They had to deal with homework, and I had to grade and prepare the work of thirty other elementary school students. There were certainly exciting times. We weren’t prepared for that one snowstorm. We all rummaged through the drawers to find child-size gloves. None matched. There was never fresh, clean snow by our Queens apartment, so the kids made snowmen and angels, and pelted each other with snowballs all day. Then there was the time when a three-day weekend turned into six when our blue minivan broke down on the expressway. We all missed school waiting for a replacement engine because we couldn’t afford another car. My parents increasingly spent their time in Mattituck alone, when they went at all. There were miscellaneous repairs to be made. Even the maroon and yellow exterior was replaced with a beige siding. My father refused to hire help, so the windows built up grime for three years and the grass inevitably stood thigh-high. I argued with my sisters that we go one weekend to maintain it, but there were excuses, so I convinced him to sell the house. He first asked if the four of us would buy it. I immediately declined. I started a successful business a few years prior and had to care for my own family. I was not about to purchase and maintain a problem for others to enjoy. My sisters taught me well. Fortunately, my nephew-in-law was looking for a house and I suggested he make an offer. My father wanted more money. After a few months of seeking a buyer, he sold it in the midst of the real estate bubble. We still visited my sister-in-law in Mattituck, who had rebuilt her house. As I watched from behind the window of our luxury car, I found many things to be the same. Cooper Farms offered freshly picked produce, and stands by the road sold crisp fruit pies. But I was crestfallen when passing our old house. The buyers erected a chain-linked fence and chopped down my evergreens. They also built a chicken coop out back and started raising rabbits and a goat. With the onset of autumn and the withering of their potted flowers, the kids imagined them running a makeshift survivalist compound. I couldn’t blame them.