By Susan Smith
Sometimes I wish I had come from a cute little town like Greenport – the wood-framed Victorians! The tall ships! The light! But if I had been born in Greenport, I know I would see it in a different way. “It’s changed so much”, I said to a friend recently who was born in the town. I have known Greenport for twelve years, and I was really referring to the expanded health store, the shiny renovated waterfront and the arrival of Noah’s and Calypso – annoying to some, I’m sure, but right up my sensory alley. My friend groaned, registering instead the traffic and the thick-waisted population of summer. She told me how, as a child, she used to look longingly across the water at Shelter Island’s beach front, which is exactly where she bolted to as an adult.
Bergson, a French philosopher from the early 1900s, said that no two people can see the same object in the same way, that you cannot divorce yourself from what you know and how you’ve lived when you look at, let’s say, a table. When you’re thin, for instance, people of average weight look heavy. When you’re fat, they look slender. Your view is affected by everything you are at any given moment – for example, the very young me could not believe that Lady Diana would marry an old fart like Prince Charles. God forbid, but when I see photographs of them now, they both look newly hatched and totally appropriate.
So the way I see Greenport is infused with my own story. I like few things more than running with my children on the wind-chilled empty beaches of winter. They remind me of the year-round cool coast of South East England. It’s not strictly true, but it’s the place I’m most likely to say I’m from.
Despite the fact that I am a cliché of a New York mother – my kids eat the grass-fed and organic, they take off their shoes in the house – I am comfortable with the stocky-limbed, greased-back Claudio crowd, well prepared by years of rock candy and arcade machines on Brighton Pier. Like Greenport, Brighton was a small fishing village that transformed itself, only more blindingly. In Brighton’s case, with the agency of the amazingly vulgar Prince Regent, later known as George IV, it swelled into a lazy grande dame defined by an over-the-top would-be oriental extravaganza, the Royal Pavilion, replete with all the gold leaf, marble and mosaic that the Prince could conjure up. It was the apex of glamor to my 5-year-old self, and I still adore it.
My parents had lived in Uganda for some years, but only waited for my arrival to fly me to England at three-weeks-old where I was met by an army of emergency personnel and an ambulance, having hit the floor of the aeroplane with some force during violent storms. This was a precursor to the constant uprooting that my father’s job would entail. We never lived anywhere for longer than two years, the stress of which led to the demise of the marriage. But even after that, I shifted haplessly between my parents’ homes and a boarding school so cemented in the century before it that, like Madeline, any trip out of meant changing into uniform and walking in two straight lines.
After Primo Levi flung himself down the center staircase of his solidly bourgeois home in Turin, I had two thoughts. One, that I really should have written to him when I lived near him (I gravitated to Italy as an itinerant young adult, and I think Se Fosse Un’ Uomo may be the best book I have read). And two, and I say this sadly, that I was jealous that he had died in the same house in which he was born. This was the only place he ever lived except for the year in Auschwitz and the year it took him to get back home.
When I was pregnant with my first child I came to the North Fork and was surprised to find myself so drawn to it. I had long ago assumed that there wasn’t a beach town for me in the vicinity of New York City. But the wineries and the burgeoning interest in food reminded me of Tuscany where I had spent much of my youth. The dunes and sea grass evoked Cape Cod, a later love.