Forward to the Past
Legend has it that my parents were looking for Nantucket within 2-3 hours of Manhattan. They drove east in 1951, met a real estate owner/broker/attorney named Dan Murphy and found a tiny cottage for $500 for the summer. Dan offered them a deal—rent for $500 or buy it for $3,000. My parent bought.
The house (cottage? shack? shelter?) was a dollhouse L-shaped structure on wooden posts with a 14 x 14 entry foyer, coat closet, dining and living room all-in-one. A black pot-bellied stove sat quietly in a corner opposite a gigantic 1897 Hazelton piano. There was a galley kitchen with a back door (so narrow that all appliances and cabinets were on one wall); two little bedrooms and a pink- tiled bathroom with a pinkish linoleum floor. The exterior was white wood clapboard with a knotty pine front and a red wood shingled roof. The front porch was painted deck gray and there were white shutters and window boxes filled with red geraniums. Uneven slate tiles made a walkway through the grass to the dirt road. And the little lot was filled with oak and pine trees pot bellied stove in the far corner. and wild blueberries bushes and strawberry patches. There were 9 acres of watershed property behind our backyard, protected from the children’s trespass by a rusty old barbed wire fence with lots of holes.
During the 1960s, my parents added a new wing with a real basement, two more bedrooms and another bathroom. The L became a “U” surrounding that front porch which became a “patio”. By then there were two children and a nanny, two cats, one dog, and a house full of family and friends every weekend (and every day and every month and all the time).
The house was “the country”. Almost every Friday we packed our suitcases and drove the Oldsmobile 98 Hydromatic (with a big front bench seat) to “the beach”. There was only a partial Long Island Expressway and a Southern route with too many traffic lights. This was the idyllic escape from city life with bare feet and cut off pants (when they became too short as long pants), t-shirts and woolen sweaters with moth holes. There was no such thing as “The Hamptons”.
The streets were “paved” with dirt mixed with rocks. Occasionally a major thoroughfare was repaved with hot tar and the smell of creosote on a hot sultry afternoon permeated the air. There were only 5 houses on our street and all the rest of the neighborhood was woods. To the north Mr. Harrower built his shingled cottage himself and he spent hours digging his basement by hand while we all watched. The Harrowers had the best climbing trees with cut off low branches and a rope tied over a medium high branch so we could swing across the red river (made of leaves and sticks and pieces of soft green moss). Mrs. Harrower did dishes by hand and I would watch as she put a stopper in the kitchen sink, filled it with water, and scrubbed the pots and glasses and then rinsed. To the south of our house the Millers built their house also but used a “starter kit”. They had four children and lots of bicycles. And at the ends of the block we rarely saw old Mrs. Foster in her giant two-story house, and the Tuttles who had a fortress house with tiny high windows (like we had in our basement) and a real swimming pool hidden from the world.
Those were the summers of the go-out-and-play. The pack of children met near dawn by a tree, we rode our bikes up and down the dirt roads, and made trails through the scrubby woods. Our parents had differently pitched cow bells to call us in for lunch where the Zuckermans had peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread but our mom gave us real cold cuts (like bologna and packaged chicken with mayonnaise). We built forts and told scary stories and played baby mouse (I think Harry’s sister was baby mouse and I was mommy mouse). We played hopscotch in the sand. We caught lighting bugs and were terrified of June bugs (buzz bombs). And every day we begged and whined and waited to be taken to the beaches where the cars parked diagonally on the dirt parking area and then backed out at the end of the day.
The milk was delivered every couple of days to the back porch. We liked to pull off the paper lid and drink the cream on top. Our father called religiously at 6:01 every evening during the week—that’s when the rates changed to “night time”. And the telephone…the joy of eavesdropping on the neighbors party-line conversations, and the frustrations of wanting to make a call but having to wait for those neighbors to end their conversations…. The electricity was forever going out. The heat lightning and low distant rumbles of thunder when Ruby (who helped take care of us) lumbered through the rooms unplugging the iron or the electric blankets and then praying with us because thunder meant that “God was angry”. The weekly trips to the local farm to get the eggs and chicken and home baked pies and Eddie from the chicken farm on King Street would sometimes let us walk through the chicken coops.
Evenings were boring. Television had only channel 8 which was ABC TV and all the other channels were “snow”. We were excellent at Go Fish and Gin Rummy and War and sometimes even King-in-the-corner. We read real books from our summer reading requirements. We played follow the leader on our bikes to the carvel and pooled our pennies and shared the banana boat and no one seemed to worry about crossing the highway or wearing helmets or shoes or carrying bicycle locks. We had to be home by dusk as we all knew that dusk was “a dangerous light” for being outside.
And then it grew and it “chic-ed” and it “celebrity-ed” and “traffic-ed” and turned into ….. The Hamptons. And then…. we sold the little house with the red wooden (and then moss covered) roof and got a staircase, a garage, a fireplace, a basement with an interior door, a swimming pool, and a paved road. We left behind the four metal porch chairs painted in forest green and the hammock tied between two trees where you could lie on it and look up through the leaves to the moon, and hear Mr. Foghorn’s melancholy mourn to keep the boats away from the inlet rocks.
And then our next generation enjoyed “The Hamptons”. The summers were camp at the college; and sailing at the yacht club; and swimming lessons in Rachel’s family pool off Halsey Neck Lane; and riding bicycles on paved roads in the cul-de-sacs of the subdivision. And repertory theatre and gigantic art shows replacing the visits to Lou Trakis’ studio in the woods. And play dates. And driving to carvel because…heaven forbid they ride bicycles anywhere near the highway.
I wonder about “Progress”. I would like the children’s future to be back to the past.