It has never been my full time home, yet the East End will always be a true point on my personal compass.
The smells of East End summers form some of my earliest childhood memories. Soft, salt spray-scented bedsheets, slightly damp in a lazy, potentially adventurous sort of way. Sea tang, creosote, suntan lotion, zinc oxide, gritty grapes and fried chicken on the beach. More fried seafood, fish fillets and shrimp and clams at Gosman’s; soft ice cream after a bitterly contested round of miniature golf. My ordinarily nutrition-minded mother allowed our summer visits to be spiced with slightly degenerate food choices, including cinnamon doughnuts hot from their frying journey through simmering lard.
Each summer visit was endowed with reminiscences and rituals to be repeated, but also with rites of passage. The return to the beach meant the passage of another year, the mark of a new milestone, the acquisition of new privileges. The first year I was allowed to go to the ice cream truck alone; the first time I dove through a wave without clutching onto my father; the first year I was allowed to take the family car.
Our family compass pointed at the East End for many summers. Sometimes we stayed in Montauk, other times in Amagansett, and one memorable year we lived in a creaky old Victorian home in Bridgehampton, where it first occurred to me that people made their lives and not just their summers here. We were four kids returning to a familiar place, back from college or summer jobs, both sheepish to be at the beach with our parents and happy for the brief chance to be our summer childhood selves again.
Our connection was cemented in my early twenties by my parents’ purchase of a small house in the Amagansett Dunes. Suddenly, we were not just summer visitors, but residents granted a tenuous belonging by the mundanities of needing to know a good plumber, where to buy grout and groceries, how to get a permit for the dump. We learned people’s names and what the sunset looks like in October.
And then I moved to another sea a world away. The sea is omnipresent in Greece, and the saltier waters of the Aegean and relentless sun narrated summer in a different language. The colors and the smells were both exotic and seductive, and I found myself navigating unfamiliar rituals that seem to require a different set of senses. I spent some summers away from the Atlantic beaches, the lobster rolls and the cinnamon doughnuts fresh from the fryer, given over to learning a new set of unspoken rules devised by another people whose lives were intimately entwined with the exigencies of another sea. The effort of belonging in both places felt like being the rope in a tug of war, and so I loosed my Atlantic mooring.
With the birth of my first child, my compass once more pointed to the East End. I found that I needed for my son to belong to both places, to know the feeling of having his sandy little feet in both seas. The waters of the Aegean are comparatively languid, composed of human-sized coves of pebbles and sand meeting shallow waters in endless shades of clear blues, without the drama of the bottle-green waves and implicit threat of the undertow. But I wanted to be his guide to Amagansett summers, too, to make sure that he would not grow up to look at the growling waves in trepidation and ask, in with undertones of fear and distaste, “You actually go in there?”
And I found that the effort to instill in him my love of this place rewarded me with a fresh joy and appreciation for its small, quiet, every day gifts. We fed the ducks on overcast days, stared in wonder at deer casually strolling along the road with their spindly-legged fawns, built endless sand castles, and collected perfect shells and pebbles and stinky horseshoe crab shells. We canoed off Louse Point, excitedly pointing out loons and scrawny-necked baby ospreys to each other. We ate hot dogs and ice cream cones and I hugged him as he shuddered in terrified delight at the booming fireworks on the Fourth of July. He competed with his cousins over miniature golf as fiercely as I had ever done with my siblings.
My second child was born after my parents had made Amagansett their permanent home. We continued to come for summers, but we also formed new connections as we visited for Christmases, enchanted by the sight of Town Pond under ice, the windmills decorated with lights. My childhood revelation that whole lives could be lived in these beautiful villages was confirmed in experience after spending one anxiety-filled March living in Amagansett and commuting to a local medical facility, consumed with worry over my child’s hearing. The wet, earthy promise of early spring is forever entwined in my memory with the other hopeful harbingers of that time.
Amagansett gradually became my only sure mooring in the U.S. Each year, the drive from the airport was enlivened by familiar landmarks and gossip over the changes that the intervening months had wrought. I watched and savored my children’s summer rituals and milestones – cheering the first triumphant solo boogie board ride, laughing at the first encounter with lobsters, taking pride in the first summer job in East Hampton.
In recent years, one of my most poignant memories was visiting the Montauk Lighthouse one Thanksgiving, my heart breaking over the beauty of its lights in the awareness that this would be the last time my father saw them. Its steadfast permanence in the blustery night was both comfort and a goading contrast to the fragility of our human presence.
My sons are now grown, navigating their own seas as I navigate a new phase in my own life. Each of us, for our own hearts’ reasons, has chosen to fix the East End on our personal compass. I no longer arrive as a transient vacationer, but as a traveler returning home. It is my safe harbor, rich in beauty and memories, to which I return with love.