A Piece of Dirt

Written By: Maureen  Hossbacher

Our family has always been islanders, initially inhabitants of the emerald one from which my parents emigrated. My mother, born in county Offaly,raised in Dublin, was already a city girl when she arrived in New York at age 14. At 16 she was one of the founders of the Offaly Social and Athletic Club, and would later serve, intermittently, 8 terms as its president. It was on the island of Manhattan that she met and married a fiddler from county Tipperary, whose nascent dance band would grow in popularity over the years in Irish American circles, nicely supplementing his “day job” — actually night shift — tending the main bar of the Hotel Commodore for 33 years Soon after we children arrived, the family began to spend summers at Rockaway Beach, a fairly easy commute from NYC and, in those days, an extension of my parents’ social milieu, an enclave of bungalows and rooming houses with a famous strip of Irish bars and dance halls. We lived from June through August in a bungalow one block west of the Atlantic Ocean and two blocks south of Playland Amusement Park. The Rockaway of childhood was a domain of freedom and endless diversions; later, a safe environment to test the roiling waters of adolescence. But as our family matured, Rockaway deteriorated. So-called urban renewal targeted the bungalows and rooming houses; it would eventually obliterate the “Irish Town” ambiance altogether and put an end to our summer idyll. But we all missed the beach. Summer wasn’t quite summer anymore. Then, in the wee hours of a spring morning in 1960, my father arrived home from work brimming with news he could barely contain: he’d rented a place in Hampton Bays for the month of July. “Where’s that?” my skeptical mother asked. “Out the island!” he enthused.” “How far out?” “Near Montauk.” “And what do you mean you’ve already rented it Without asking me?” “It was too good to pass up, Kathleen. One of my customers, a regular, owns a couple of cottages out there, near the water. He won the property in a card game years ago and rarely goes out there himself, so he rents it, and he’s giving me a great deal on one of the cottages for July. ” “A card game!” my mother exclaimed. “I’ll be going to no shack way out in the boondocks that some customer of yours won in a card game. Are you out of your mind?” But my father prevailed, and so we discovered the Hamptons. The “shack” turned out to be a comfortable, if humble little place overlooking Peconic Bay, with wooden stairs leading down to the beach from a concrete patio. Sunsets to die for. A friendly neighbor with a motor boat. Fishing. Swimming. Heaven. My father learned how to drive. He began to entertain the notion that one day he might buy his own summer place — as he put it, his own “piece of dirt,” Our next Hampton Bays summer sojourn ended with a dismal rainy weekend, so Dad, my sister and I decided to entertain ourselves by perusing real estate ads and posing as prospective buyers. Somewhat reluctantly, my mother consented to go along with this gambit. It was 1961; if a “piece of dirt” was the goal, we needed to drive farther east. Our quest led us to an affable East Hampton broker, who I suspected was on to our joke, seemingly having as much fun as we were, as he ferried us around various bay-front and woodland lots, in a brand new development called Clearwater, in the hamlet of Springs. At the end of the day, he dared my father to put a downpayment on a wooded half acre in which we had feigned interest. My father hemmed and hawed. “Bob, I’m not a rich man,” he said. This is a big decision for me. I’m not sure I can afford it, and I’m not prepared today to lay out a lot of money.” “How about five dollars, Patrick?” said Bob. “Well, maybe I could manage that.” “So it’s a deal,” said Bob, as he whipped out the papers to sign. I think my mother was simply too stunned to raise an objection. To my amazement, she signed her name under my father’s. He wasted no time finding an independent contractor willing to tolerate funding doled out in erratic spurts, until our 3-bedroom ranch was the second house standing on Pembroke Drive the very next summer. Before long, Clearwater Beach morphed into a lively neighborhood of mostly summer homes. My mother loved the ambiance of East Hampton, which then was a place where you might run into Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson at the supermarket checkout, or find yourself chatting with John Steinbeck at the book table of the Fisherman’s Fair, or glance out your living room window to see Willem DeKooning peddling by on his bike. In our neck of the woods, there were plenty of ordinary folk, too, who like us had miraculously arrived in the right place at the right time. However, Mom felt somewhat isolated. She didn’t drive. She was running up hefty phone bills and was frustrated that the mail had to be picked up at a post office in East Hampton Village six miles away. Having recently heard of a thing called “rural free delivery”, she figured it would do no harm to drop a line to an old friend from back home in Ireland, Sean Keating, who at that time was NY Regional Director of the U. S. Post Office. Two weeks later a stranger rang her bell on Pembroke Drive. He introduced himself as Louden Rampe, Postmaster of East Hampton. Quite soon after that, the U.S. Mail truck was cruising up and down the roads of Clearwater Beach, Springs, NY. Eventually my parents installed a heating system. Other neighbors winterized and some became year-round residents with pesky grown children (like yours truly) descending on them in the warm months. But Mom had no desire to give up the City apartment. East Hampton was lovely in the summer, but New York was still her natural habitat. Yet, the Irish social scene of her heyday was fading; her coterie of Irish friends growing older. Then my father lost his job when the Commodore Hotel was torn down and replaced by the Hyatt. He moved on, from one unsatisfactory job to another, and Mom found work selling housewares at B. Altman & Company. until a car accident involving broken bones resulted in her retirement. Strained finances warranted that a choice had to be made between their house in the Hamptons and the rented apartment in the City, as they could no longer afford both. My father won that argument, too, and they became year-rounders in Springs. Surviving her first winter wasn’t easy for Mom. January, February and especially March — St. Patrick’s month — were grim. Her bones had healed but her spirit hadn’t. Dad did all he could to ease her adjustment, and when spring arrived, we kids, predictably, showed up more often; nevertheless, my usually upbeat mother wasn’t herself. My father instinctively knew the cure: “Why not try to start an Irish club here, Kathleen?” he suggested. “Here?” she said. “There are no Irish here.” “Well, you never know,” he countered. “Anyway, it wouldn’t hurt to try.” She put an ad in the East Hampton Star, announcing the formation of the Irish American Club of East Hampton. Six people showed up for a meeting at her kitchen table: a middle aged Irish-American couple from Amagansett; a pair of recently immigrated young marrieds from County Mayo; and miracle of miracles, a brother and sister she’d known back in the old country. They formed the core of a club that would swell to over 100 members. Which only goes to show that if you beat the bushes of any island, you’re bound to flush out a good number of the Irish diaspora. My sister and I now own the house on Pembroke Drive, which isn’t much changed since our mother ran the affairs of the IAC of EH from the kitchen table (as President, of course). Her spirit and my father’s are often strongly felt, especially when I’m out in back reclining on a chaise, basking in the charm of our “piece of dirt.” As my mother often declared, “There’s no place like East Hampton!”