Mr. Wolfe, You Can Go Home Again

Another week has come and gone; it’s time for Mother’s bath. A practice, I must admit, that holds all the charm of a broken record, never changing; never seamless. As I get her ready, I reflect for the umpteenth time on how time turns all children into parents and all parents into children; on how my decision as a dutiful daughter put 4,000 miles of watery distance between me and the spousal Yin to my Yang of thirty-one years. It was a decision that has had me on an emotional rollercoaster from the moment I stepped off the plane at JFK. In the initial months, my struggle to adjust was haunted by the words of Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again.” I worried that Wolfe’s warning would carry the same disillusionment for me, the seeds of our stories having both been sown in Munich, Germany. Was I destined to be as much a stranger in my own hometown as he was? The words of Dorothy Gale of the Wizard of Oz provided a counterpoint: “There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home.” Admittedly more Hollywood than hallow, her words redirected my thoughts away from care to the carefree summers of my formative years, the years that made me who I am today. Those were the summers spent in Mattituck, a mere freckle on the index finger of Long Island. It was the early sixties, when, if there wasn’t a yard sale or a band warming up on the many town commons that dotted the Main Road from Riverhead to Orient, nature provided its own matinee and evening performances of katydids and catbirds, crickets and toads. Much as we looked forward to the annual Fourth of July fireworks, the unexpected ones were just as much a treat. On any given hot summer night, a curtain of dark clouds might part and Mother Nature would put on a dramatic demonstration of pyrotechnics that would be the envy of any modern-day rock band. Since every story has a beginning, ours began with a phone call. It was an early autumn afternoon when Mr. Silkworth, the then sole real-estate agent of Mattituck, rang my mother, instructing her to come with my father immediately to his office. Asking no questions, my parents jumped into their hand-me-down Plymouth, with me in tow, and made the 74-mile trek east along Jericho Turnpike. Had there been a Long Island Expressway, we might have arrived even sooner at opportunity’s door. But alas, the Expressway ended at Exit 49 in Melville. In retrospect, opportunity practicing a little patience on that day inevitably opened a window to Providence. This call was to be the pivotal piece of the puzzle of events that began with an invitation to a barbeque on Bailey Beach, ultimately leading to our investment in a piece of paradise. Mr. Silkworth’s call was prompted by one of his own to Mrs. Horton, who owned an acre of land overlooking the Long Island Sound. Mrs. Horton was pretty determined not to sell the property. Her reluctance was understandable though. The property simply held too many fond memories of her and her recently deceased husband driving out to their special spot high above the Sound to watch the sun slip into the water and drench the length of the horizon with splashes of red, peach, and mauve. Had it not been for their friendship, Mrs. Horton might not have agreed to Mr. Silkworth’s suggestion to meet my parents. Providence smiled on my parents for Mrs. Horton took an immediate liking to them, and agreed to sell. Her asking price was a mere 4 figures; unfortunately for my parents, one and a half figures too many. But Providence smiled a second time on our family that day. For Mrs. Horton not only agreed to sell but also agreed to finance the sale. The monthly mortgage payments came to a mere $53. Neither party ever regretted the arrangement, one that would span 15 years. For my parents, it was a dream come true to own property that literally knocked on Heaven’s door; for Mrs. Horton, it was a way to vicariously enjoy Mattituck through the eyes of my father as recounted in the bread-and-butter notes that accompanied his monthly check. It was a time before Tanger, the LIE, vineyards, and jitneys. Those were the days of the Apple Tree, now Four Doors Down, where folks from as far as the “City” came to dance to the music of The Drifters and The Young Rascals. There was Love Lane, even back then, a mere 300 paces long from Pike Street to the Main Road. It was where the locals got together to talk about potato prices, politics and gossip, not to text about them. No, you were never a stranger on Love Lane, at least not for long. The locals of those bygone days still remembered me even after I had lived abroad for so long. “You’re Steve’s kid, aren’t you?” they’d say. “Sorry to hear about your dad, good man.” I spent most of that first summer sitting next to my father in the Plymouth as he made his daily rounds from Penny to Reeves lumber yards and finished up at Raynor & Suter hardware. I remember the long drive to the freight depot in Riverhead. It is where the Stop & Shop currently stands, but then it was a field with a curious crop of whitewashed roof-covered loading docks. It was there where we picked up our summer “home” – a 12-by-12 army-issue tent. It was the summer our family – mother, father, grandparents, two sisters, and I (the baby of the brood), moved into our tent to spend six glorious weeks sleeping under the stars, exploring the marshes and thickets that hugged our shoreline and the inlet. We’d awaken to the cooing of the mourning doves resonating off the canvas while the aroma of father’s Coleman-stove breakfast, on the other side of the flaps, threaded its way through the eyelets. Breakfast dishes were washed while watching the dolphins make their morning commute west. Through my eyes of seven, the horizon looked like a line of semi-submerged cartoon cars, bobbing along an imaginary highway. Dishes done and stowed, it was time for the adults to tend to the chore of clearing away the poison ivy while the kids checked the thickets for wild berries that hung beneath the brows of the bluff. As the sun gradually began its descent, the family, grandparents too, would run, slide, or roll down the sandy bluff to cool down in the Sound. So clear, so alive was the water with schools of bait fish nibbling at our toes. Back on top of the bluff, we’d shake off the sand as we’d watch the dolphins make their commute back at the end of the day, thus signaling it time to set the table for dinner. So regular was the timetable of nature that we rarely bothered to look at a watch. We synchronized our day to the sun, the tide, the dolphins and, the stars and the moon. As for shopping, our grocery store of choice was the many make-shift stands along Oregon and the Main Road with hand-painted signs and mason-jar tills selling anything from freshly caught lobster and puffers to freshly picked tomatoes, potatoes, and corn. The North Fork was (and still is) a veritable cornucopia of agriculture and aquaculture. Back in the day when Rockefeller had a hankering for oysters, they’d be delivered fresh from Greenport. The North Fork never needed to “put on the Ritz.” As a matter of fact, it supplied the Ritz with oysters, scallops, clams, steamers and ducklings. As the sun got ready for its twilight dip into the Sound, we got ready for bed. For once the afterglow of sunset was replaced by the dark coverlet of evening our only lights were the stars. I wake up from my musings to find myself no longer giving my mother her bath but tucking her into bed. What a blessed distraction from the mundane these memories of Mattituck are. Once warped with worry over the warning of Thomas Wolfe, I find my point of view has changed. All things considered: the distance separating me from my husband, the loneliness of a 24/7 caregiver, I find myself disagreeing with Mr. Wolfe and joining Dorothy in saying there is no place like home. Yes, Mattituck and the North Fork may have gone from sleepy to smart, from local to touristy, from thrifty to trendy, but no matter what changes the march of time might have wrought on the North Fork, the sense of ‘home’ is still very much present. It may have taken several decades in Munich and an aging mother for me to understand, but here I am, Mr. Wolfe, proof that you can go home again.