They say that home is where you hang your hat. Although I may have hung my hat in Munich for 25 years, my home, hat or no hat, has been and always will be Mattituck – for that is where my heart is, a jewel set on the finger of the North Fork. Although I returned a good seven years ago, my story really begins on the heels of my move to Europe.
I had just returned from a weekend in London in late October of 1984; my husband met me at the gate, but instead of being the beaming harbinger of welcome, he was the bereft bearer of bad news. My father had passed away peacefully at home in Mattituck. Although his passing was not unexpected, it did not make it any easier to accept. My husband, knowing that I would be in no frame of mind to make any rational decision, arranged for me to take the next flight to New York.
Already in August of that year, father’s condition had already taken a turn for the worse. Nevertheless, the family had held on to a tenuous thread of hope that we could all come together for one last Christmas. That was the purpose of my junket to London. A last-minute weekend invitation was the perfect excuse to put together a holiday package of Dickensian delicacies and delights. As I flitted from shop to shop, I pictured us all gathered around in Rockwellian style as my father lifted a glass making a toast to the tree, the gifts nestled amidst the tangles of string and crumples of paper, and to his four girls, my two sisters, Mother and me, with just one perfectly articulated word, “Be-you-tee-full!”
Upon my arrival, I was ushered into taxis, town cars and limousines; shuttled stem to stern from JFK to the North Fork; to the wake in Greenport, back to Cutchogue for the funeral; from the cemetery on back to my parents’ house perched above the Long Island Sound, where family and friends gathered for one last gesture of condolence before going their separate ways.
Maybe it was jet lag or the deadening drone of kindly meant anecdotes that drove me out into the late autumn afternoon. I knew that I should have been more stoical but I was suffocating in the wash of sympathy. I walked towards the edge of the bluff, looking for reminders of Dad. Perhaps there would be a sign, miraculous or metaphoric. It didn’t matter as long as it offered me one last opportunity to say goodbye. You could sense his presence everywhere. There was ne’er a tree, a flower, a nail or a two-by-four that was not touched by him, that did not carry his signature. Even the deck, on which I was standing, was a culmination of countless hours in the summer sun. Oh, how I remember my stretching out on one of the joists, face to the sun, and the sound of his hammer lulling me into a mid-day siesta. Like a tailor, he nipped and tucked the lines of each plank and board until the effect was that of a hat adopting a rakish attitude atop the brow of the bluff.
That deck, it was my father’s front-row center seat for the twilight show as the sun cracked open against the jagged edge of the Connecticut shoreline, spilling its crimson contents along the horizon and out over the Sound. As the flush of afterglow paled into mauve, he expressed his delight in the same concise, articulate way, “Be-you-tee-full!”
I turned back toward the house, peering inside from across the lawn at my mother seated on the sofa with my sisters on either side, a host of heavy hearts hovering about her. It was then that I finally understood why fishermen, when dropping anchor in the Sound below our house, dubbed it the fishbowl. The entire face of the house is a gable of glass. Like a moth to the light, the house drew me hypnotically back. I mounted the ten steps leading up to the front door, yet paused at the top to take one last look at the bluff. As it slowly disappeared into the mantle of night, it seemed troubled, furrowing its brow at the loss of its eventide companion.
The day, that had started 26 hours ago for me, was finally coming to a close. I accompanied our guests to their cars that October evening, watching as the light from their headlights trickled and pooled into the crannies of the rockery, circling around and disappearing one by one at the end of the driveway, stealing the last bits of light until I was left alone in the darkness. Standing there, I soon found myself thinking about my father’s rock garden. It was to be the centerpiece of the circular drive with its tiny pond and bower of bonsai. The fruits of all of his labor that he would never fully reap.
I never really understood my father’s approach to exterior design until years later when I stood before the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. He was a devoted follower of the philosophy of function and design. In retrospect, his idea to design a rock garden with the added touch of trimming each tree with tiny Christmas lights makes perfect sense, now that it is fashionable. However back then…
He began the project in winter, planning and designing the rockery, reading everything he could on outdoor lighting. Eventually winter thawed into spring: the time had come to turn a winter whim into a reality. As the work progressed, his rockery began to take shape. The temptation to let his favorite four syllables slip from his lips was indeed great. However, he resisted. He would utter those four syllables with precision and pride when the project was done. To conceal the mark of man, he dug a trench to lay a conduit of underground wiring from the house to the rockery. He then installed timers to magically turn on the lights at dusk and turn them off at dawn. Now that the preliminary work was completed, he tested each strand of lights before beginning the tedious task of wrapping the trunk and lower limbs of each and every bonsai that peered narcissistically into the pond. With the approach of Labor Day, the time had come to flip the switch. Alas, instead of a tiny canopy of twinkling stars, there was nothing – not a flash, not a blink, not a glimmer of encouragement came from even one of the hundreds of tiny luminous tree huggers.
Not easily discouraged, my father walked through the process step-by-step, summer for summer, trying to trace the problem back to its source. However, for all the times and all the summers, starting from scratch, as one season faded into the next, his nearly inexhaustible patience finally surrendered to defeat. I was there that summer day as he swallowed his prodigal pride and pulled the plug. He passed away, never to see his garden light up the twilight, never to articulate those four syllables.
While I was standing in the darkness staring off into the hereafter, a light coming from the rockery brought me back to the here and now. Odd, it was far too cold for it to be fireflies. Then focusing my attention in the direction of the rockery, I watched in amazement as each strand of tiny bulbs awoke, after slumbering a score of summers. The effect was so ethereal, so stunning that I was transfixed; afraid to move for fear that it could all stop as quickly as it had started. However, the twinkling continued throughout the night until dawn. It was the sign that I had needed. It was neither an adieu nor a farewell but rather a comforting reminder that wherever I may wander on our little patch of paradise perched high above the Sound, my father will always be there.
It’s been 31 years since we laid him to rest; 31 years since the rockery fell back into a timeless slumber. Yet I remember it as if it were yesterday. As I laid my head down on my pillow that cold October night, surrendering the thoughts of the day to sleep, I felt my father’s presence and heard myself say, “Be-you-tee-full!”