A Shoebox in Westhampton

Written By: Jeffrey  Cohen

Impractical. Foolish. Dangerous. One can only imagine the sarcasm-laced verbiage directed at anyone who wanted to construct a shoebox cabin on a desolated strip of sand and scrub brush in a hurricane zone.

Yet build they did. The earliest photo of my mother’s house in Westhampton Beach is dated 1958. And a Cape Cod shoebox it is. With limited electrical power, you figure, and plenty of weather-related blackouts.

Twenty years later, the next owner modernized and expanded the little house on the bay side of Dune Road. He added a second bedroom. What a luxury. An outdoor shower was added to prevent family and lazy guests from tracking voluminous amounts of sand into the hip, little dwelling.

My mother bought the house in 1986. My three brothers and I rotated spaces in the available beds and in the living room. On the hottest of nights, you would lie there, listening to the never-ending party being hosted by the renters across the road. Whenever there was a lull in the activities, because someone called the village police, you prayed the lapping of the tide in the bay would help you drift off to sleep, before the cops left and “Copacobana” blasted at Level 10.

At the end of the summer, she announced, “I’m putting in a pool.”

“Where?” we asked.

“In the front, tearing out a lot of the scrub brush,” she replied. “I’ll landscape around it with trees for privacy.”

A pool in the front yard? What nonsense, we thought. Until the next summer, when we enjoyed such delicious nonsense that we couldn’t imagine what we’d done the previous year without a heated pool.

Although we now owned property in Westhampton, whenever we walked around in town, we still felt like tourists. You could tell the residents, who worked in the shops and knew exactly where to drive to avoid the congestion. We did not feel like we fit in, in this exotic and mysterious corner of Long Island.

That autumn of 1987 brought Hurricane Gloria. Thankfully the little house was not damaged. But when my friends went for a day trip the following spring, we found sticks coming out of the sand, where there had once been houses. At the end of the road, in Cupsogue Park, wreckage and ruin had been bulldozed into an enormous pile. It would have made one incredible bonfire, we remarked.

“I’m putting on a second floor,” my mother announced.

“Why?” we asked.

“So you boys can all come out at the same time and I don’t have to worry about waking up someone sleeping in the living room.”

The former shoebox now had four bedrooms. Of course, one of those was a master bedroom for my mother. But after all, she was the landlord and we were merely tenants.

For a few years, she kept a sailboat docked behind the house. I would hear the same two questions every week:

“Are you coming to the beach this weekend?”

“Do you want to go out on the boat?”

I would answer yes to the former and no to the latter.

There was one occasion when a friend said, “Maybe we could take the boat into the bay, maybe go fishing.”

When my mother asked the expected questions, I gave an unexpected answer: “Yes, I want to go out on the boat.”

“You can’t,” she said. “You don’t have boating certification.”

“Well then, why do you ask me every week DO YOU WANT TO GO OUT ON THE BOAT?” “You can go out on the boat,” she said reasonably, “if you ask one of your brothers…who is certified.”

The 1980s became the 1990s. Suddenly those bedrooms were not big enough, as my brothers and I began bringing our significant others to the beach. Who would not want to spend a weekend in the glamorous Hamptons? Even with the stifling heat at night – the ceiling fans were not installed until late in the decade.

The boat vanished at some point. I forget exactly when, since the only time I used it, one of my friends fell into the bay. After that, nobody seemed to want to go fishing again.

After a few years, the pool began to feel icy cold. “I don’t think the heater is working,” I informed my mother. “It’s working,” she said. “It just takes a while to turn on.”

The 1990s turned into the 2000s. Now when my wife and I trekked to the former shoebox, we had to pack the car with supplies and amusements for our son.

“Is he enjoying the pool?” my mother asked. “It looks like he’s giggling.”

“His teeth are chattering,” I replied, grabbing the toddler out of the water. “And his lips are blue!”

I called the maintenance company my mother used. When they arrived, we finally learned the truth about the pool. The gas line from the propane tank went nowhere. And the heater had rusted away from years of non-use. They dipped a thermometer into the water. Seventy-two degrees.

“I thought it was just slow,” said my mother, shrugging.

The 2000s blossomed into the 2010s. Now we were bringing two children. One of my brothers had become a local, living year-round with his family. So while my mother would shut down her house for the winter, we still had the opportunity to come east during the winter for birthdays and holidays.

Suddenly we had invested four decades in the Hamptons. We had introduced it to dozens of people who might never have experienced it. We celebrated good times with people who had become friends.

Erosion had taken its toll. Hurricane Sandy went clear under the former shoebox and moved the cement stones that made up the front walkway. It was time for storm-proofing. And my mother, now a hardened veteran and longtime citizen of the community, fought the city council and the state for reimbursement on a jetty for the back of the property.

She was not only fighting for her rights, she was fighting for her home, and she was fighting to preserve more than 20 years of memories.

On our first trip out to the beach this summer, I took a photo album down from the bookshelf. I showed my older son a photo of a little Cape Cod shoebox house, dated 1958.

“Where is this house?” he asked me.

“We’re inside it,” I said, “and it’s inside us.”

He didn’t quite understand what I was getting at.

I pointed to my head. “As long as you remember grandma’s house, it will always be in here,” I said.

He still didn’t understand. “Can we go in the pool?”

“Of course,” I answered. “Mom, is the heater working?”

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s just takes a while to turn on.”