IF PEP WERE HERE TODAY he would tell you stories that only a lifelong bay man could. He would predict the next week of weather based solely on the tides, the way the wind had come ‘round, and the current phase of the moon. (He was usually right which was good since his life had depended on knowing how to read the weather when he was at sea). He would tell you the exact day the ospreys would return to Maidstone from South America, when the flounders would show up in the Shinnecock Canal, and when the blues would reach Montauk. And, in each of their 66 years together dad would reliably usher in spring when he brought my mother a hearty bunch of pussy willows before the first robins returned.
As weather patterns changed in the waning years of the 94 that he experienced, dad would shake his head and say to me, “You know what’s wrong with the weather these days?”
I’d heard his theory so often that I just took for granted what he was about to say, nonetheless, I responded and asked him for the umpteenth time, “What dad? Why is the weather changing?”
He didn’t need me to prompt him to go on.
“It’s because of all the oil that they are taking out of the earth. It’s making the planet unbalanced . . . tilting on its axis. It can’t go on. Just look at what’s happening.” He would slip into his thoughts for a moment and then speculate that fracking would do more harm even though he wasn’t quite sure what fracking was. His theory was based on “the fact” that it was against Mother Nature therefore, to his way of thinking it would unalterably change the environment.
My father wasn’t a complicated man. He had a routine that almost never changed. He was born and bred on Long Island and spent the vast majority of his life on her waters. From Montauk to Fire Island Inlet; from Greenport to West Sayville he plied the waters for their bounty and made a good living for our family doing what he loved.
I had been living and working in Hong Kong when I got the call that many dread. My mother, at age 80 had had a massive heart attack. They were transporting her in to New York Presbyterian Hospital my parent’s neighbor told me when he called; I needed to come home immediately. Someone was driving my father in to the city. He would meet me at the hospital. My mother was 80. My father was 82.
Little did I comprehend how my life would change once I returned to the place where I had grown-up. After all, I had been away for over thirty years leading a life that I could never have imagined as a kid from a small town. I had traveled the world for my work as a forensic gerontologist. I had had multiple books published, I had been nominated and won an Emmy Award for the first screenplay I had written for public television in Los Angeles. I had come to know and work with prominent people on every continent. I loved my work; it was my life. But, returning to Long Island to help my parents didn’t take me a second to contemplate. I got a flight, landed at JFK and arrived at the hospital before my father was dropped off in the lobby.
Dad was a fish out of water in the city. When I was a kid he always referred to the city as Sodom and Gomorra. I begged to go in to see the museums and galleries, to walk in Central Park, and ice skate at Rockefeller Center. But those experiences were denied throughout my youth. After all, my parents’ reasoned with me, what more could I want than all that I had on the east end?
My mother survived her open heart surgery. The first year had a lot of ups and downs and so I stayed for a while longer to continue helping and getting everything lined up for them to be able to stay at home and continue with the life they loved . . . clamming and scalloping together, going to yard sales, riding around the east end to note how the landscape was changing. One time on such a ride dad said, “All these new houses look the same. It looks like Levittown but I bet they cost a lot more.” By then dad thought that the three of us could live on $200 a week like he and mom had years earlier. He was beginning to disappear although it would be a long, slow, disquieting process.
Before I let myself notice dad’s gradual disorientation I went back on the road, pursuing my career and reconnecting with the work that breathed life into my spirit. My home base had moved back to Long Island so that in between work assignments I’d return home and be able to reassess how things were going for each of my parents. Three years passed before it became clear that I could no longer leave for extended periods. By then they were in their late 80s trying to put a good face on their lives together but it was clear that the weight of everyday life was becoming too much for them to cope with on their own.
I returned home once again only this time it was for the duration. I didn’t admit that to myself at first, nonetheless, it turned out to be the truth.
IN THE END
When dad was 88 he won East Hampton Town’s Biggest Clam contest. It was a stellar experience for him. He basked in the attention. When a reporter interviewed him for the newspaper he said, “I’ve clammed my whole life. When the war broke out I was getting sixty cents a bushel for clams in the dead of winter. I came off the bay, threw down my tongs and joined the Navy. Today I won over $200 in prizes for one clam. Can’t beat that, huh?” Both mom and I were so proud of him, each of us for different reasons. I was simply glad he finally got the recognition he so often sought.
In the spring of his 94th year he and I were alone. Mom had died two years earlier. There was a hole in my father’s soul that nothing could fill. Together, we kept dad’s daily routine only now I was the caregiver rather than his “little Buttercup”. Riding around Maidstone one early April morning he wistfully noted that the ospreys were late.
“Everything is changing, Nanc,” he said. “What am I going to do?”
I knew I didn’t have to answer him. He was increasingly in his own world.
The following fall one of the greatest events of his life brought new energy to him. He was honored for 75 years of service as a volunteer fireman. We went to the celebration. He was outfitted in a new uniform with a shiny new badge that read “Honorary Chief”.
People from the community poured into the firehouse for the celebration. As I looked around the room I spotted one very special person. It was dad’s first girlfriend whom he hadn’t seen in decades. I went up to her and asked her to join dad. She was in remarkably good shape and spryly walked with me to where dad was sitting. As we stood in front of him, he looked up and saw Rosie. I had never seen my father look so happy. She sat next to him as they caught up. On the way home dad told me, “You know, Rosie was my first girlfriend and the first girl I ever kissed. You can’t beat that!”
He could barely hear or see by then but he tried with every ounce of life left in him to be present at the ceremony. He got over 30 “Proclamations” coming from President Obama, Governor Cuomo, state senators and every local politician who wanted to have their picture taken with a true icon of the community.
As spring struggles to unfold this year I ride around Maidstone and watch the ospreys set up their home once again on the old perch. I look when passing the Shinnecock Canal to see how many fisherman are lined up along the dock. I ask my neighbor if the blue fish are showing up yet. And, pussy willows are in my mother’s favorite vase in the living room.