A Tree Grows in Hampton Bays

Written By: Kathy  Henderson

Within weeks of our daughter’s birth 30 years ago, I turned to my husband and announced, “It’s time to look for a house in the Hamptons.” We had been living in Manhattan for a decade, and as summer approached my flight mechanism kicked in. Riverside Park, a refuge in three seasons, felt oppressive with a fussy, sweaty baby in tow, and our apartment’s window ACs offered scant relief.

As usual when I suggest a radical life change, my husband put me off. He (reasonably!) pointed out that we couldn’t really afford a beach house, and besides, would we even use it enough to justify the cost? In response, I (relentlessly!) pressed my case, and six months later, we were tramping through the snow to look at variations on the same little ranch house in a neighborhood near the water in Hampton Bays. Legend has it that a builder plopped three model homes on the side of the Montauk Highway for post-war buyers to choose from, and we purchased one on a corner lot with three tiny bedrooms, one mint green bathroom, orange pressboard paneling, and dingy wall-to-wall carpets.

For the next dozen years, that house — transformed via refinished wood floors and 15 gallons of Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White — helped us balance our stressful New York City lives with suburban-style barbecues and long days at Ponquogue Beach with our daughter and her younger brother. By the time our son entered elementary school, the fourth bedroom we’d added by filling in the carport wasn’t enough to make our small ranch livable for the long term. After another year of prodding, my husband agreed to “look around,” which quickly led to the purchase of a one-acre lot across the street from Flanders Bay. Just weeks after 9/11, we moved in to our newly constructed two-story home.

Time passes more quickly the older you get, and my favorite way of marking our years on the East End is by looking up at the trees surrounding our house, and those at our former place on the other side of town. The cherry trees my husband planted at the intersection of two streets outside the ranch house are still thriving, along with carefully placed lilacs, irises, and azaleas. (His vegetable garden, alas, was plowed under by the new owners to make room for guest parking.) At our current home, which miraculously still feels new 15 years after we built it, the old growth cedars and towering oaks we saved have been joined by hydrangeas, rhododendrons, butterfly bushes, and roses of Sharon, plus a “secret garden” of shade-loving ferns.

I’m especially fond of a pair of birch trees, planted in 2001 on opposite ends of the house and now almost as tall as the oaks they nestle beneath. Their branches sway on a breezy day, a few leaves turning yellow and falling when the temperature tops 90 degrees. Every spring, the bark peels away from the tree trunks, prompting me to ask, “Are they okay?” and my husband to respond, “They’re fine.” And they always are, even through the blizzards and hurricanes and nor’easters that have eroded the bay beach below us.

As a child in rural Alabama, I never paid attention to trees, other than when grumbling over the chore of gathering nuts under the pecan trees that flanked our driveway. Even now, I’m no amateur arborist. But the restfulness of life in the Hamptons is inextricably linked to the beauty of shade trees that attract songbirds and cardinals, the leafy grapevines that produce delicious wines on the North and South Forks, and the blue of bay and sky. Parenthood pushed us east, but we’ve grown to love this place where summer is sweet and never quite long enough.