Aunt Lil and Uncle Vinny

Written By: Ken  Nolan


We were Brooklyn kids so Riis Park, the crowded, tired public beach, was our refuge. We’d arrive early and stay late, drinking beer and diving in the ocean when the sun burned our pale skin. We had heard of the Hamptons, of course, its pristine beaches and wild parties, but it was too far and a motel cost money which we didn’t have. So it wasn’t until a law school buddy rented a house that I traveled to wondrous East Hampton, its magnificent homes and different world.

I was tired of soggy sandwiches and sandy bathing suits so it was time to spend summers where the beach was white and the water blue.  For a week, we subletted the neat East Hampton home, swimming in the pool, lounging on Main Beach and window shopping in the chic, yet pricey, shops.

“We can’t come out here and not visit Aunt Lil and Uncle Vinny,” my young bride insisted, referring to her aunt and uncle who had a home on Shelter Island. I really didn’t know Nancy’s aunt and uncle since he was a retired dentist who years ago traded their Brooklyn limestone for summers in Shelter Island and winters in Florida. They were rarely at Christmas, Easter or other family celebrations which, of course, made it more imperative that we visit. So I agreed, albeit reluctantly, and boarded the ferry for my first visit to that island between the forks.

Some days you want to live forever.  Clear sky, bright sun, and cool breeze make you forget the stress, the ugliness that is life. Those few and brilliant days bring joy and wonder, make even a grump like me smile. Shelter Island sparkled with beauty and tranquility and it didn’t hurt that Uncle Vinny was a world class cook whose pastas, pizzas and sauce rivaled any four star Manhattan restaurant.

We toured the island and its quiet New England feel, its ubiquitous waterways and green vistas. Just a tad different than the clamor and filth of my beloved Brooklyn. We saw deer, osprey—more wildlife than in the Prospect Park Zoo. Indeed, East Hampton was hectic and congested compared to the peace and serenity of Shelter Island. We did the same the following year, riding the ferry, swimming in the pristine bay waters, feasting on linguine with clams, freshly caught that day by a neighbor who kept the clams in a rope basket attached to a dock until Uncle Vinny pulled them from the water, cleaned and cooked them that evening.

I always envied those who knew what they wanted to be, who announced in 3rd grade that they would save lives as a surgeon, cause tears as an actor, or protect the vulnerable as a cop. Me, I wanted to be Mickey Mantle, but the athletic gene somehow went missing.  “I’ll get a job,” was my stock response to the constant query. I never sat silent contemplating life or even planned the next ten years. Indeed, I was once asked if I was happy. I quickly responded: “I don’t know. I never thought about it.” Once I saw the shocked faces, I quickly added: “Um, I guess so.” So it was never odd, at least to me, that we couldn’t decide where to live.

In 1977, a few years after our marriage, we bought a small row house in Bay Ridge. Those were the days when the middle class could afford homes in the city. But soon crime exploded, the subways were  graffiti-scarred wrecks, and the core of the Big Apple was rotting. Friends, family encouraged me to flee to Long Island, Westchester, even hated Jersey “before it’s too late”. So I did what I always did—nothing.

After another year or two subletting in the Hamptons, we mentioned to Uncle Vinny that we couldn’t decide where to live.  His response: “Why don’t you build a home next to ours,” pointing to the empty lot adjacent to their home on Shelter Island. On the drive back to Brooklyn, we discussed the idea. Nancy was hesitant, worried about spending summers in a place with small kids where she knew no one, and concerned that I wouldn’t get along with her aunt and uncle complicating family relations. “What’s the worst that can happen,” I argued, “we can always sell.” We eventually agreed, not only because it was beautiful and exciting, but so we could remain in our Bay Ridge home, postponing that decision yet again.

For a whopping $106,000, we built a small ranch next to Aunt Lil and Uncle Vin–the best decision we ever made. It was an adjustment at first, making friends, commuting, mowing the lawn. But after a few summers, it became home. Aunt Lil and Uncle Vin, who never had children, became grandparents to our children who would scamper across the lawn to their kitchen where they’d help make the pancakes or clean the clams. When I arrived exhausted and starving late Friday evening, a wonderful feast of pasta, fish, steak, salad or some combination would await topped off by homemade cheesecake, or fresh fruit marinated in wine. All made from peasant recipes handed down from Uncle Vinny’s mother who brought them from the small southern Italian hill town of Gragnano.

Shelter Island is an acquired taste. Not for everyone. Outside of the scene that is Sunset Beach, it’s quiet and subdued, lacking the glamour and glitz of the Hamptons. It’s for families and bike rides, skimming stones in the bay and hikes in Mashomack. If you’re after nightlife and celebrities, stick to the South Fork. If you want real people and natural beauty, come to Shelter Island.

It’s now been more than 30 years that we’ve been on Shelter Island. Our children learned to sail, golf, swim–even drink at the Dory and Chequit. Their island friends are as numerous and close as their Brooklyn buddies. One teenage daughter shocked us when she said: “Mom, Dad thank you for Shelter Island.”

Aunt Lil and Uncle Vinny now only live in our memories, yet my son cleans the clams as Uncle Vinny taught him and we still use the recipes from Gragnano . We never left Brooklyn so we still have that commute, but once the ferry leaves the dock in Greenport, the world and its problems disappear. I am content, happy.