A Brief Family History: Between Two Cottages
On Egypt Beach, multicolored umbrellas flutter in the wind while leathery couples lounge under their shade, probably sifting through Dan’s Papers or the pretending to be engrossed in a Jared Diamond book. Children dart toward the greenish waves, gripping to their parents’ forearms and squealing as the foam touches their toes. And towering over the entire summer scene stands a massive estate, the “Nid de Papillion”, or, “The Butterfly’s Nest”. It epitomizes most large Hamptons “cottages”, with wind and salt-stained shingles, tall darkened windows that provide those coveted ocean views, all situated above the grassy dunes and driftwood fences that line this beach.
Just south of the estate is an even larger Hamptons cottage, boasting the same oceanfront location and castle-like superiority over the lowly inhabitants of Egypt Beach: The Maidstone Club. This territory is marked by royal blue umbrellas forming a barricade around the Hampton’s most elite brood. Rising above the sea of umbrellas sits an overly-tanned, overly-toned, Zinc-drenched lifeguard, suggesting the guaranteed safety of the children of the 1%, while we of Egypt beach must fend for ourselves as Mary Lee, the recently spotted Great White, lies just beneath the surface in Jawsian delight.
I sit between these two Hamptons landmarks, and cannot help but feel rooted in them. In 1917, my great-great-grandfather Robert Appleton built the Nid de Papillion. And in 2002, my gregarious grandmother Patsy Dodd, granddaughter of Robert, marched her way up the estate’s hill only to charm the current owner into letting her peek around her family heirloom. In 1956, a much younger Ms. Dodd met her future husband, Ron Fraser, who was tutoring her for the summer before she began her senior year of high school. She was 17, he was 24. It was here that my grandfather tried his best to woo her, even asking to marry her at the end of the summer—an offer my grandmother graciously declined.
Years later, Ron’s beloved first wife, Sophie, died. He had two young daughters, Nina and Alison, and he found himself drawn again to that beautiful young woman who was struggling with Algebra at the Maidstone Club ten years prior. Ron and Patsy, those two star-crossed lovers, were married at St. Luke’s Church in 1966, and held their reception at that beachfront establishment with the blue umbrellas and haggard golf caddies baking in the sun and housewives in floppy hats and conservative swimming costumes chatting about how lovely Tuscany can be in the summer months.
1989—My mother, Jennifer Fraser (Ron and Patsy’s youngest daughter) married Bruce Gregory at St. Luke’s Church. And later that night, at the Maidstone Club, they took their shoes off and danced to Bing Crosby’s “True Love” and ate carrot cake and kissed their relatives and received congratulations and unsolicited marriage advice. My parents always tell me that September night was a blissful blur, that they could only dwell on their childlike excitement that they were actually married. My mom was 22, my dad 25.
2001—My only memory of visiting my great grandmother’s home on Apaquogue Road can be summed up by a pink play shed in the backyard, and a deep sleep in the car on the way home. I was four years old, and my great grandmother, Florence Appleton Dodd, had died fourteen years prior. Patsy and Ron owned her East Hampton property after she passed, and a few short years later the house would be bought, demolished, and replaced with another wind-battered, brown-shingled Hamptons cottage—only much more stately and twice the size. The pink shed was gone too, and in my musings I presume some highly acclaimed landscape artist laid expensive potting on the gritty soil where the shed used to stand, letting the new grass eat up the old foundation. The only remaining vestige of the Appleton name was a massive Beech tree in the front yard, hundreds of years old, a silent protector of the little house cowering behind it.
My mother and my uncle would climb that tree when they visited Florence as children. They would take their gifted dollar from grandma to the 5-and-10 on Main Street, and bounce their new shiny balls on the pavement all the way back home. They would take their crayons and towels and beach hats to Georgica and scream at the jelly-fish infested waters. But my mom says that they spent most of their time up in that Beech tree, watching passersby underneath—children biking, lovers walking hand-in-hand, mothers pushing strollers down the manicured street.
2008— I, as a gangly pre-teen spend my summers in much the same way, squealing at oceanic critters with my sisters on Georgica beach, watching the swans glide across Town Pond, and occasionally strolling by that Beech tree on Apaquogue.
2016— My grandmother, my mother’s mother, Patsy, “Tiggy” as we called her (after Beatrix Potter’s children’s book Mrs. Tiggy Winkle about a friendly hedgehog who loves laundry and tea) passed away at age 77. On August 14, my 19th birthday, we buried her in the Appleton family plot across the street from St. Luke’s Church, beside the swan-filled pond, beneath a low-hanging tree, bowing its head in sadness over a lost generation. That day we came down to Egypt Beach. There was no squealing, or childlike mirth at the mysterious power of the ocean. Only a heartbroken family remembering the laugh lines and spaghetti dinners and overwhelming hugs of a matriarch that brought together us in that place. It was a very still day at St. Luke’s, the wind barely rustling the leaves on the low-hanging tree. And we laid white lilies on her grave and held each other close, and said “see you soon” to our collective favorite person.
2017—In April, Patsy’s husband Ron passed away at age 85. My mother, in the span of nine months, lost both of her parents. Her parents who sent each other love letters from Belgium to New York City, to Rome, to East Hampton. Who danced in their living room to opera music during a family talent show while their grandchildren sat on the floor and marveled at the resilience of love. Who said their “I do’s” at the same church they would lay to rest beside. Ron was ready to be with the love of his life, and he finally sped out of the window of his retirement home’s medical wing and rose up into the clouds where I like to imagine he saw Patsy again, Andrea Bocelli wailing from some celestial boombox, her hair done, in her best dress, with a rose between her teeth, ready to dance with him into eternity.
Some days later, we buried him with her, and laid little toy Cardinals on his grave, an homage to his St. Louis upbringing and undying love of baseball. It was much the same scene, except we had a sort of collective peace in our hearts, that they were together again, the way they should be. When we buried him, I saw a white heron skim the surface of the pond behind the graveyard, breaking the stillness of the afternoon. I think we all took a collective sigh when we saw that bird, somehow viewing its royal presence as mother nature’s reminder that things would be alright, that the world would keep turning even after we proceeded in a darkly-clad procession toward our cars.
It’s summer now, and here I’m faced with this hundred-year history of my family every day. Between the Nid de Papillion and the Maidstone, on Egypt Beach, my mom and I found two butterfly wings while walking through the bathing hoards of Hamptonites. It’s hard not to see those little wings as some sort of symbol of my family’s roots in this ever-changing place. Maybe one day, on a walk with my daughter, I’ll find a piece of sea glass and think of my mother, or run frantically from a jellyfish and think of my uncle, or see a white lily peeking out from the dunes and think of my grandmother, 17, laying on this same beach, reeling at the thought of having said yes to that Ron Fraser. I hope I get to go on that walk someday, and I’ll stand between those two beachfront estates and remember the lot of it.