A Map Of My Heart
Living on Long Island is essentially an affair of the heart. We fall in love with the place, despite all the logical reasons not to. It doesn’t matter where we’re born, or raised. What matters is the tuning fork wisdom of the heart that recognizes home.
We came from different backgrounds, a group of women from twenty-something to nearly ninety. The only thing we had in common was a love of the written word and each other’s company. We were an odd writers’ group, oddly formed and oddly bonded. Dorothy had grown up in Maine. Then in her seventies, she would regale us with tales of snow so deep she and her brother would have to periodically shovel the roof so that it didn’t collapse under the weight. Mary was the eldest, and could make us all giggle with her stories about turn of the century Manhattan. Eugenia had come from Greece, and Marie-Louise from Germany after World War II. Betsy was homegrown, from a corn fed Midwest childhood. Only a few of us had been born and raised on Long Island and we’d all met at the Women’s Center of Huntington.
After a few years of weekly meetings, we were a tight group of poets, playwrights, authors and friends. We decided to rent a house in Amagansett for a long weekend of what Brenda Ueland once called moodling “–long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” We had the whole place to ourselves, a rambling shingle farmhouse beside the remnants of an abandoned orchard. It was early spring, just a glimpse of pink at the edge of the buds on the apple trees. Still, it was warm enough to leave the windows open a crack. Just enough that the sound of surf would carry and drift through each room, binding us to the sea.
On that long ago weekend, the youngest of us trekked the quarter mile to the beach, and then another quarter mile or so down the shore to someplace still void of houses. I remember a vast expanse of seagrass to one side and ocean to the other. We’d brought a thrown together picnic and tucked ourselves and our feast in the hollow of a dune.
Lying back in the sunlight I closed my eyes and gave myself to the low murmur of voices and the salt tang in the breeze. It was good to be in my own skin again. Not a mother or a wife, just a woman in good company with hours of unscheduled time. I could feel my breathing settle into the regular rhythm of the surf. In the distance I heard the shocked squeals of Maureen who had rolled up her jeans and tested the water. As a native, I knew the water wouldn’t warm up for months yet, but I smiled at her child-like delight. Kathy had wandered off in search of shells and beach glass, while Laurel was deeply engrossed in something beside me. I assumed she was reading her book.
When I opened my eyes, a red kite floated above me, rag tail flapping in the wide blue sky. Suddenly, I was six again, vibrating with the desire to clutch the string and feel the wind fight me for possession. I leapt to my feet, my grin as wide as my joy. Wordlessly, Laurel handed me the spool, her smile a reflection of my own. No offices, no time sheets, just the hallelujah of sand in my shoes and the sun on my face. We stayed until that sun was low on the horizon, then trudged our way over the dunes and back to the house.
Over coffee that night, we shared our beach afternoon with the others who had stayed behind. We shared other things, too. Stories of who were were and who we hoped to be, stories of the families we’d come from and the families we’d made for ourselves. Maureen and I dried the last dinner dish to find someone had lit a fire in the living room. We sat on afghan covered sofas sagging in the middle, and propped our feet on the ancient pine coffee table. The room filled with companionable silence, the kind of stillness shared by friends who have nothing to prove. Occasionally the far off sea would breathe, a softer sound beneath the crackle of the apple wood fire.
I glanced up to see the first moon shadow on the lawn. Again, I felt that bone deep vibration of nameless emotion. “Let’s go see the moonrise on the water.”
Half of us sprang from our seats. The older half smiled gently. “You go ahead,” Ceil said. She was one of our oldest members – a feisty firecracker of a woman who wrote with a playful recklessness I wished were matched by her health.
“The spirit is willing,” Eugenia sighed, “but…” Her voice trailed off.
Dorothy got a far away look in her eyes. “I’ve never seen moonlight on the ocean.”
As if by one will, we younger ones gathered everyone up. “We’ll carpool down there!”
Quickly, coats were found and we actually dressed each other, each of us helping one another with hats and gloves and giggling. Giggling like a bunch of five year olds on the way to the circus.
“Who’s got the house keys?”
“Oh, God, I’m too old for climbing in windows. Somebody better have the house keys!”
We tumbled out the front door and on to the moonlit porch, each of us stunned in turn by the beauty of the night sky, swimming in stars. The trees were deep silhouettes and the lawns looked as if they were covered in silver fairy frost. We piled into cars and drove the short distance to the beach.
Breathless with anticipation, we watched the sky grow bigger as the ribbon of road disappeared. We parked at the edge of the asphalt. Sand drifted over the lot the way a dream drifts into morning. As frenetic as our boarding had been, we disembarked from the cars slowly, the younger of us supporting our older sisters as they stretched their bones and made sure of their footing.
There are few things as beautiful as the moonrise on rolling surf. You’ve probably seen it in old movies. The new ones spend too much time in bed or blowing things up. I remember the balcony scene in the movie Notorious with Cary Grant romancing Ingrid Bergman in Rio while the moonlight dances on the water.
This was better.
We approached the beach reverently, as if entering a cathedral.
“Wow,” Laurel breathed.
“Yeah.” I looked over at Ceil who was clutching my arm for balance. Her face shone. Tendrils of her hair had escaped her head scarf, and for a moment I caught a glimpse of the young woman she had once been, when her life had been in front of her. Beyond, the whole beach stretched out – a wide strip of sand that went on and on, undulating as each wave would crash and then recede. When I looked in the other direction I saw myself and how I felt, mirrored in my friends’ faces.
The moon on the ocean is a moment that lasts a lifetime, both rooted and unbound. I close my eyes and I am back there with my friends. The heart chooses. Yes and yes again. I am flesh. I am prayer. I am home.