A Montauk Childhood
Montauk. I will always carry with me the raw excitement of knowing we were near upon arriving at the McDonald’s off the Manorville exit, the smell of the salt water growing stronger as we advanced down route 27, and the sound of the pebble driveway under the tires as we pulled up to our motel. For those of us who’ve vacationed in Montauk our whole lives, we know the then and now of what used to be a sleepy fisherman’s village. I am by no means long in the tooth, but I am old enough to remember when the options in Montauk were limited to days at the “IGA Beach,” dinners at Gosman’s (chased by the best soft-serve ice cream cones for dessert), and nights playing cards with however many cousins we could squeeze in one room at the Soundview Motel. There was no Soul Cycle, no brewery, and no vegan meal plans, but it was as awesome then as it is now. Montauk was really our only family vacation site, and so over the years I naturally began to associate it with happy times. I looked forward to this summer trip every year, I revered it. I spent my childhood in Montauk, and ultimately lost it there. Let me tell you what I mean by that.
I was on a week-long annual August family vacation, staying at the Blue Haven with my aunts and uncles. Though my parents and siblings opted to stay behind, I thought it a little odd, but didn’t perseverate on it. I didn’t even think much of it when my older brother and sister randomly showed up in the middle of the week to stay with us, without my mom and dad. I had a week filled with the sun on my face. I was 14 and in my favorite spot in the world: what could I have to worry about?
At the end of our vacation, my aunt and uncle dropped me off at home, and the moment I reached the front door, suitcase still in hand, I was met by my mother standing in the doorway, tears in her eyes, the first words out of her mouth not “hello”, but, “I have cancer”.
What had I just heard?! A million and one thoughts raced through my mind, but not one word would come to my mouth. All I could do was drop my bag and sit at the piano that was waiting for me in the living room just beyond our front door, my mother accusing me of not caring about what she had just shared.
Not caring?! I was 14 and although lacking life experience, was wise enough to know that cancer was serious business, not to mention the realization I had that the whole last week of my life was a sham: my entire family knew about my mother’s diagnosis, but not me. Suddenly it all made sense: why my parents didn’t come with us, the reason behind my brother and sister mysteriously showing up. They had come to break the news to me. They had lost their nerve and never did. In an instant, my happy week, my coveted Montauk vacation, evaporated. In that moment, I had lost my childhood. Left it behind. In Montauk.
I had no choice but to grow up and fast. A roller coaster of six years later, my mother passed from metastatic breast cancer. They say when something tragic happens in life that, although time helps, there will always undoubtedly be a hole left that can never be filled. I can absolutely affirm that statement, yet, some things do act as band aids: happy family times in a favorite place, for example.
I stopped going to Montauk for a few years. Life got messy, to say the least, after my mother left us, and my attention was diverted. I felt a rush to accomplish as much as I could, perhaps to keep my mind busy, perhaps subconsciously wanting to make my mother proud. One summer, with my older sister, we decided to return to Montauk, as she had separated from it somewhat, too. We booked a room at the
Montauk Yacht Club and did all the things we used to do as kids and more: we visited the jetty our grandfather used to fish from, ate ice cream cones that melted all over us at Gosman’s, had enough fudge to last a year’s worth of satisfaction at Fudge ‘n’ Stuff, and, above all, laughed like we did in the old days. In these moments, I realized the possibility of rediscovering cherished childhood feelings in Montauk, and it felt good.
My family is alive in Montauk, in the places and memories we created together there. My grandparents are there, my mother is there, my childhood is there.
I don’t know about my sister, but, for me, being in Montauk has become therapeutic. Since our trip, I’ve now made it a point to return every summer (it helped that my father lived out on Fenwick Place for two years, perhaps choosing to live in Montauk to return to the feelings of his youth). Each time I visit, all I want to do are the things we always did as a family: John’s Pancake House for breakfast, the beach all day, every day: wash, rinse, repeat. A Montauk vacation is wonderfully simplistic to me in these ways, but at the same time incredibly rich in meaning.
Today, I have a drawer full of Montauk t-shirts and several hurricanes filled with shells and rocks I’ve collected over the years, things that enable me to constantly cling to this fabulous childhood of mine, one that taught me about the fragility of life and, as a result, the importance of holding close those near and dear. For as long as I’m able, I plan on continuing my yearly pilgrimages to Montauk, with new friends and old, to relive and share that childhood, complete with the precious memories of my mother, who comes alive in the swimming pool she held me in as we posed for one of my favorite pictures of us.