A Bridgehampton Do-Over
It’s April, 2004. I’m 40, a married mother of a three year old girl and one year old boy. But instead of bubbling over with domestic bliss, I felt angry, anxious and afraid. Merlot had become my companion. I was a Brooklyn girl who took pride in surviving the tumultuous ‘70s, when the city- the world- seemed hell bent on destruction. I had endured the bullying of the neighborhood kids who had mimicked the funny accents of my West Indian parents and mocked me for “talking white.” I had realized a childhood dream and graduated from medical school. I had leap frogged and double dutched my way into the upper middle class. Why was I so unhappy?
I’d convinced my husband, to spend all the money we had (and any that we would borrow) on a little piece of paradise on the South Fork. Driving down Route 114 in Sag Harbor, we saw a cute little bungalow with a for sale sign out front. When we rang the bell, a brown skinned woman with a round body and a head full of curly hair, opened the door. She wore a long multicolored caftan. Between puffs on her cigarette, the edges of her mouth curled up in a smile. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Shirley. Come on in.” She greeted us like old friends – not like potential buyers. Shirley waved her arms to and fro – like she was conducting an orchestra – as she showed us the kitchen, the two small bedrooms and the backyard. Both Shirley and the home radiated happiness. There was jazz music playing while two gentlemen enjoyed cocktails in the living room. In that moment, I wanted to be happy Shirley. I turned to my husband. “What do you think? I like it.” He responded dryly, “I want to see the boiler, hot water heater, the mechanicals.” Shirley took us out back and pointed to the crawl space under the house. “I’m not going under there,” he said gruffly. With those five words we were done. I said goodbye to happy Shirley and the Sag Harbor bungalow.
As we searched for our “home away from home,” I felt my heart beat slower as we we edged down Route 27, past potato fields, orchards and privet hedges that masked stately mansions. Eventually, we settled on a small cottage in Bridgehampton, tucked between newer, spacious homes of weekenders and modest shingled homes of older African-American residents. We threw together old and new furnishings, fenced off our yard, bought a swingset and put in a pool. I saw it as a childhood do-over. My children would have the childhood that I could have never imagined.
I decided to spend the month of July in Bridgehampton. Other than maternity leave, I had not had an entire month off since I finished high school. My husband would stay in Brooklyn. I made arrangements for a babysitter to travel with us. I ticked off a list of things I wanted the kids to do and see: make sandcastles at Sagg Main, watch the fourth of July fireworks from Ninevah beach, puppet shows at Goat in a Boat, and story time at the Bridgehampton Library.
While making plans for my kids, I stumbled upon an advertisement for a writers conference at Southampton College. As I scanned the program description, a name jumped out- Frank McCourt – the author of Angela’s Ashes, would be teaching a seminar on memoir. I had know him as Mister McCourt, when I was one of his students at Stuyvesant High School. There was no possibility that I could commit to preparing a submission and with two toddlers, I didn’t want to do spend my evenings doing homework. I took the chicken’s way out and opted to audit the class.
With the exception of a head of white hair, Mister McCourt was as I remembered him. His tongue wagged with Irish brogue. And his stories, so many stories and tales of outwitting his brother Malachi. It took me three days to confess to him that he had been my teacher in high school.
“What year did you graduate?”
“Do you have your yearbook?” It felt like a silly question. But then I realized I had kept all these years, but it was tucked away on a bookshelf back home in Brooklyn.
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a physician.”
Frank seemed thrilled, as if all the years of teaching nerdy, quirky teenagers had not been a complete waste of time.
Why was I so unhappy? Now I finally had the time to ponder it and put it down on paper. In class we did writing exercises and critiqued each other’s work. Frank, having published his first book in his sixties, had become something of a patron saint for our class of frustrated, middle-aged, largely female and white aspiring writers.
One day he gave us an assignment to capture a moment in time. Frank asked me to read what I’d written aloud. I felt my palms get sweaty, my heart pounded and a tightness developed in my throat. My voice shook and I began to read.
One night, I am in bed with my sister, Leanora. I am six years old. Leanora is thirteen. Our bedroom is pitch black. I can hear the punching, the kicking, and the banging. I don’t hear our mother crying or screaming. I am afraid. I am struggling to breathe.
Leanora elbows me. “Ann, do something.” I lurch upright in bed. I am screaming in the darkness. I feel like I am screaming inside my own head. Then I hear his feet pounding, coming down the long, narrow linoleum lined hallway. He pushes the bedroom door open and I can’t see his face but I can smell his rage. He grabs me by the shoulders and pushes me down on the bed. My body stiffens. He stops and leaves the room.
After I finished there were a few questions. One classmate asked, “Were you hungry as a child? Did your father support you?” I felt a surge of guilt. Was I ungrateful? Was he really so awful and terrible? Had I given these white folks one more caricature of an evil black man to loathe. I sounded somewhat apologetic as I said, “Oh yes he did take care of us. We always had food and clothes.”
Frank made a few comments and suggestions. Then he said, “This is a story about racism, misogyny, class, immigration, and belonging. It’s a story that deserves to be told. I’ll give you three years to complete it. I see it on the New York Times bestsellers list.” I was stunned. It was a few paragraphs. A confessional perhaps but it was not a book. After class I headed out the door, avoided any eye contact with my classmates and darted into the ladies room. And then I wept. For the little fearful girl I was. For my dad and my mom. For the beautiful Bridgehampton cottage that could not heal my childhood wounds. And for the book I knew I’d never have the courage to write.