I’m sitting on a cushioned beach chair in Quogue, saronged and sunscreened alongside The Ladies, as my daughter calls them. Blue domed sky, white tipped waves, the kids dash up and down the cliff before us: It’s a snapshot moment my inner Buddhist elbows me to enjoy. But instead I drift and stare across the white stretch– occasionally dotted by umbrellas and people small enough to fit between my thumb and forefinger– and think about this sand between my toes: this unique combination of rock and sediment at the chin of a peninsula that from a birds eye view looks like an alligator with its mouth open.
It’s a reptile I have called home for 40 years—and threatened to abandon for the last 20 of them.
So why exactly am I still here?
Growing up, I never disliked Long Island, but like most kids, I never gave my surroundings much thought. It was where we were, a world defined by four seasons and my sensory connections to them. Winter meant moonboots and Suicide Hill (every town had one, and I lived in a handful of towns, mostly on the south shore). Summer meant venturing to the rocky calm of Sunken Meadow or the reedy wild of Jones Beach, West End 2, where we complained about the endless walk across squeaky sand and would collapse at the water’s edge to chow down lukewarm egg sandwiches from the deli (which deli didn’t matter, they were, and still are, on every corner). In fall, Long Island was raking and bagging leaves, choosing flimsy, short-sleeved Halloween costumes in the throes of a warm September, only to find that the cold front had moved in right on schedule for the holiday and costumes were ruined with coats. In spring it meant learning about April showers and May flowers, but never seeing that direct connection because overnight the oak, maple and birch trees had bloomed.
It was in middle school that this peninsula first seemed to shrink. Probably because I was a reader. All those adventure novels set in faraway, exotic places dwarfed the ranch and cape house neighborhoods I’d lived in—made them, and the strip shopping centers that blurred past the windows of our station wagon, seem boring and banal. Perhaps, too, the attitude of the adults around me tainted my perspective. There were better places on this earth, I gleaned from their complaints, where the cost of living was lower and the government cared about its people. I knew little about economics and politics, so I had no way of knowing yet that they didn’t know much more themselves.
Still, there was something insular about this amphibian, I figured out by the time I was a teenager. One train ride with my friends on the LIRR to Manhattan was all the proof I needed to confirm that L.I. was behind the times. Big hair and shoulder-pads of the mid-Eighties hit the streets of New York at least a year before they trickled their way into our suburbs.
I started trying to see the world: flew with friends to cheap vacations in Jamaica, Mexico– saw palm fronds and tasted cuisine that made L.I. diners (also on every corner) seem unimaginative. But could I live in such fantastical lands? Not really; the thick vegetation and heady air—and all that distance from a major metropolitan American city– made me temporarily forget whatever burgeoning identity I was creating. Only when the plane touched down at JFK, did I snap to and remember that “iry” was not part of my vocabulary.
I took road trips during college (City University, a Long Island commuter’s school). Of course, I went to Florida; every Long Islander needs to test out the dream of living there. Along the way, I stopped in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia. I was young and judgmental, but the world also moved at a pace to which my caffeinated, L.I. self was unused. I tapped my toes waiting for change and reluctantly responded to overly-friendly comments about the weather. Didn’t everyone know you were supposed to look straight ahead and pretend not to see the strangers around you?
I headed west, appreciating mountainous Colorado and clay-colored Arizona, but knowing, having grown up near the ocean, that seascapes were non-negotiable. California had potential. But I needed a career. I was bartending and waitressing to pay for commuter’s college; studying literature hadn’t been the most lucrative of decisions.
After a few stints writing and teaching, I came up with an idea to open a coffeehouse, one of the island’s first. Why should Manhattan have all the fun? With a personal loan and a lot of hope, I began to set trends and influence the youth culture. I was gaining some financial footing, too, but still searching…
I went to Europe, South America, and began to notice how places made me feel. In Italy I had a strong sense of self but felt like a visitor. In Costa Rica I understood what it had been like to believe that the earth was flat; if I walked too far in either direction, I felt I could fall off the planet.
Still none of the porridge was just right.
I read about something called astrocartography– the connection of geography to our destinies. Was it nonsense? I had no idea but found myself interested when an astrologist explained that Florida held too much Neptune for me (no wonder!).
I was now in my early thirties. I jetted to San Diego and was courted by the beaches, “slow foods,” the sea lions of La Jolla. I came home and all but started packing, then met my future husband– who had kids here. Truth be told, I had my siblings here, too… the timing wasn’t right just yet.
We bought a house near the north shore beaches and spent summers “staycationing” in Montauk, the Northfork– beaches that travel magazines listed in their top ten best beaches of the world.
I could see that.
Still, wanderlust drove me in winter to the Caribbean, Hawaii– a possibility, with its fresh fish and 75 degree year-round weather…but my husband travelled for work and adding six hours to the commute seemed nonsensical.
Our daughter entered preschool and I got lost in calendar routines. But also, from the vantage point of motherhood, the world suddenly seemed less…predictable. Tsunamis, hurricanes, political unrest and religious fanaticism had me second guessing future plans of having her—and ourselves—experience Asia, Africa, Australia. What was the rush, really? Especially in light of high definition television, where one could virtually enjoy a Safari from the couch, minus the malaria pills.
My husband’s kids went to college and we were finally free to leave and make the big move. But where should we go? Alicante, Spain, where a good bottle of wine cost $5.00? Or Corozal, Belize, where relaxation is a part of life?
Ever a pragmatist, my husband created a list. What did we want? What were we looking for?
Access to an international airport.
Close proximity to a metropolitan city.
So, basically… things we already had?
Lower taxes was missing from his wish list; warm weather from mine. And yet, seeing from my daughter’s point of view, I began to wonder if the holidays would feel the same to her without snow? Or if the beach would seem as beautiful if she saw it 52 weekends of the year?
She entered kindergarten; we bagged leaves, sledded, trekked to the beaches. I watched her making seasonal connections that brought not just a rhythm, but a pattern, to life that was…reassuring.
Was middle age changing my perception of Long Island? Or was I realizing that geographical love—like people love– might be something that evolves? My husband and I had our honeymoon phase, but other factors play into our marriage ten years later—like history and familiarity, and how we helped each other become the versions of ourselves that we are, for better or worse. I might not be “me,” had I not absorbed its seasonality, or rebelled against its insularity, or worked in its restaurants or started a business or made great friends. I certainly wouldn’t know my husband or daughter– something I couldn’t even fathom.
This sand between my toes washed here originally some 21,000 years ago when glaciers melted. It came in three pulses—three glaciations, as they are called—which is why the peninsula’s beaches vary from shore to shore. Three times in history, rock and sediment flowed in this direction to create this cohesive land mass—kind of like the glaciation of my own personality.
Continuing to evolve is what I am still doing here, I suppose, though I may still leave just yet. And when I do, I will take this place with me.