From There to Here
Sometime around 1953 my mother realized I did not know how to swim. I was 10. When she was a child, my mother’s family summered on Staten Island a block from Midland Beach. My father’s family summered on the Jersey Shore. For some reason we summered mostly on Seeley Street in Brooklyn. There was no polio vaccine then so my mother would not let us go to Coney Island or any crowded public facility. No one had a pool. We had a fire hydrant and that was about it. It was fun but, let’s face it, you don’t learn to swim in the street in an inch of water flowing along the gutter.
Neighbors of ours went away for a few weeks every summer and my mother asked them where they went. Hampton Bays on Long Island. How were the beaches? Great. Were there trees? Yes. Recommend any place to rent? Parker’s Cottages on Newtown Road. And off we went on a tedious journey involving the Southern State Parkway and the Montauk Highway that seemingly went on forever. The comic relief came when our sweaty, bedraggled, cramped in the car family and an ever- pregnant cat got to Shirley and saw the billboard which read “Shirley. 45 minutes from the heart of midtown Manhattan.”
Finally we arrived in Hampton Bays and found Parker’s. The cottages were set back from the road and the property went all the way down to the Shinnecock Canal. Each cottage had a main all-purpose room about 15 or 20 feet long and maybe 8 feet wide. Off that was a bathroom and two bedrooms. Everything was clean but spartan. The bathroom had a toilet. That was it. And the toilet had a built in seat made of porcelain. No one wanted to be the first to sit on that cold seat in the morning. “No, you go first.” “No, that’s ok. You go first.” Eventually someone got desperate and the rest of us could breathe a sigh of relief. We also did not have a refrigerator. We had an icebox. That’s right. AN ICEBOX! Honestly, we kids thought that was a bonus. Every morning or so we would fight to put a block of ice into a Red Flyer and bring it home. Even lying on our bellies watching the melted ice water drip into the sand under the cottage was interesting. Much more exciting than a refrigerator. There was no oven. No hot water. The beds went from the door to the wall so there was no room to maneuver in the bedrooms. Who cared? We had a wooden screen door that went “thwack” when it closed and to this day that memory brings me joy.
The property at the canal was not bulkheaded and so I would spend what seemed like hours looking for fiddler crabs and killies. I was fascinated by the life among the sea grass. Then when the canal’s locks were closed, we would take a fish net on a pole and go to the Shinnecock Bay side and catch crabs as they surfaced, their journey to the Peconic interrupted until the tide changed and the locks opened. Some nights we would guide the crabs with a flashlight before scooping them up. Other evenings, my sister Jane and I would hurriedly finish washing and drying the dishes so we could walk down to Peconic Bay and watch the glorious sunsets. And some nights, our parents took us all, except the pregnant cat Daisy Belle, to Carvel.
As Catholics, Sunday meant Mass. This was the one day of the week when we didn’t get dressed in the morning in bathing suits which then stayed on us until dinnertime. When we first came to Hampton Bays, the only permanent facility for Mass was the small church. Clearly it was not large enough for Summer Sunday crowds. And so Mass was held across the street in a automotive garage. One side was the building exterior and the other three were canvas “walls.” They would flap in the breeze and make all kinds of whipping sounds. Pigeons would periodically fly over our heads and land in a roof beam. A great distraction to a child always totally bored by a sermon. Going to Mass in Brooklyn was never this kind of fun!
On rainy days we would pile in the car, leaving Daisy Belle at home, and take a drive. One favorite sight was the windmill at Water Mill. I didn’t figure that one out until I was an adult. The other was the pond in East Hampton as you made the left turn into the village. Swans. Real swans. Wow. At least once a year we would go to the drive-in movie. We did not have drive-ins in the city. Looking back I’m not sure what was such fun about being crowded in the car watching a movie, but it seemed like fun then. Maybe not as much fun as the teens in the next car seemed to be having before they kind of slipped out of view.
How sad it was to leave every year. One year we even left with Daisy Belle and her 5 newborns. Another seemingly endless trip for sure.
I no longer go crabbing at the canal. They put a fence up to keep people away. I no longer put on a bathing suit first thing in the morning. And I hardly ever go to Carvel. I don’t see fiddler crabs and killies anymore because of bulkheads and bad knees. But please know I am grateful for every moment I am here. As a year-round resident now, I am full of gratitude!
I still thrill at the windmill at Water Mill. I still get goosebumps when I get to the pond in East Hampton. I still marvel at the glorious sunsets. I miss Mass in the garage but love our “new” church. Carvel is open year-round. We can even gat pizza and Chinese food delivered. What more could a person want?
Oh, yes, I do not have a screen door that goes “thwack.” I am blessed with two. The thrill of it all!!!