Growing up in Sag Harbor

Written By: Rolise  Rachel

It was a dark and bleak morning in November as I slowly descended the slightly creaky stairs of the 1926 Neoclassical farmhouse and started my day as a ten year old. Dawn was breaking as the crisp air warmed and John Cilli, from Cove Side Dairy just dropped off 4 glass bottles of milk, each with a quarter of an inch of cream on top.  They came in a well worn oxidized metal carrier. The bottles were heavy, smoothe and they glistened in the morning light. Each week we would leave the old washed bottles on the step so they could be returned to the farm. John wore the stereotypical light blue denim overalls and red Stewart plaid flannel shirt. His family and mine played charades every New Year’s eve with simple characters like Bambi the white-tailed deer or Psyche, the beguiling White Rock soda fairy who graced sparkling soda cans and bottles for almost 120 years. My grandmother and her siblings grew up with John while they summered from Brooklyn. My great grandfather bought a tiny beach house in Pine Neck across the street from the marina where he kept his sail boat. He would bring his family out Memorial Day and he would visit on weekends. Later he bought the larger Noyac marina with several cottages, it’s where the Bell & Anchor restaurant sits now. In Thurso, Scotland, our family was known for building three masted schooners and somehow it has never left our blood. One weekend  he found Einstein run aground on a schoal. Einstein was living on the North Shore, in Nassau Point that summer. Nassau Point is just North West via water from the summer cottage, ironically called Snug Harbor. The other Snug Harbor, is an 83 acres retreat with Neoclassical architecture and botanical gardens. It was originally created for wayward seamen and can be found on the north side of Staten Island. Today, the iconic landmark host weddings, events and visitors. What affiliation my Great- Grandfather George Geddie had to this part of seaman history is unknown. I assume it’s the sailor connection. Ironically,  I found myself working there for six month stint on a movie set. The property is filled with Masonic symbols and is an enigma in general. There are astro-globes, astrological symbols and large sundials mostly hidden under creeping crabgrass. My Great-grandmother was a Daughter of the Eastern Star, so I was familiar with the symbology. As far as Einstein is concerned, I often ponder what they discussed that day. They were both highly intelligent sailors, just one forgot to read the water as he was probably reading the mathematics in his mind’s eye. It’s another thing sadly lost to the past. There are so many things that we have lost in one or two generations, it’s incomprehensible what we have lost in many.

Next, the patinated galvanized coal hod filled with coal ashes had to be taken outside. The ashes would get thrown in the driveway where they mixed with broken clam and scallop shells. This is how they used to make driveways Out East. Eventually they amalgamated into what you could call a driveway. However, the mixture wasn’t the best for hardwood floors. The ashes would slowly make their way back into the house on the soles of shoes or barefeet. In the basement was a large coal bin that would get filled every few months via a metal shoot. The house would fill with a light film of coal dust and the victorian furniture would once again have to be cleaned with lemon oil. Once the dust settled, the ebony coal lay there glistening with a blue and green opalescence. The bucket was brought upstairs where its contents were put in the stove and the cycle continued.

The rooster crowed during the whole morning process and the chickens sat anxiously as they anticipated my visit. Each lady laid none, one or two soft colored brown eggs on a bed of hay. The coop had over 20 hens and of course Ned, the rooster. Ned was usually moody and he would often peck at my white faux fur coat. I’m not sure how I had the courage to take the eggs from the chickens and be pecked at by Ned but I continued to do so as long as we had them. The eggs were brought inside where they were cooked in homemade butter, in a tiny antique cast iron skillet that had been re-cured, on a victorian black cast iron coal stove with gleaming nickel trim. The coal stove was not only our mainstay for cooking, we also heated the hot water with it.  The over easy eggs were placed on homemade toasted bread dripping in butter, served with homemade bacon and rustic russet potato home fries from Bridgehampton. It was breakfast time.

After breakfast, I put on the kilt my grandmother bought me in Scotland. The Stewart Hunting wool plaid was abrasive, beautiful but out of sorts for school. I picked up my lunch in a brown bag on my way out the door. I knew what the bag contained. It was nothing glamorous. My grandmother had remarried a local Bonacker and was studying their vernacular in Springs, East Hampton. His cuisine was for a specific palate and not an everyday occurrence for a child. The bag usually contained fried clams, clam pie and if I was really lucky a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I would bring the brown bag to the bus stop where a hot dog truck was waiting. I would trade it for two hot dogs with sauerkraut and mustard. I would take the bus to school and I would change out of my kilt into more modern clothes before the start of the day.

Every afternoon, at the bus stop  I would be greeted by my little tom cat. He somehow knew when I would arrive he would patiently wait for me. He was fuzzy with light silvery blue hued stripes and a pink nose. He would follow me to Ellen Frankfort’s home behind mine. Ellen was a columnist for the Village Voice and had written a novel called “Vaginal Politics”. Ellen had been receiving hate mail in New York proper and wanted to create a safe haven and compound for writers and artists in the country. She found one parcel with several homes at the end of a long driveway in Sag Harbor and called it her country compound. Even though there was a vast age difference, she became one of my first friends. With her I met Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Ellen and I would take long walks in the wood as my sense of direction was somehow better than hers and she called herself “Lost in the Forest”. She did in fact get lost more than once.

Other days, my grandmother would bring me over to Elaine Steinbeck’s while she had afternoon tea. I would play on the beautiful but simple and rustic grounds protruding into Morris Cove, Sag Harbor. There was a deteriorating pool and a tiny gazebo with a cement slab. I would sit there feeling the smooth stones laid in the rough, weathered concrete. There was a quote created with pebbles “Aroint thee, witch!”  Oddly enough my Grandmother, Isabel Norton, also a writer mastered Old English, Middle English, Old German, French and Hopi. She even wrote a book in a spiraled form in Hopi. She told me that the quote that Steinbeck used is found in Shakespeare’s  (act 1, scene 3 of) Macbeth. I was later told that Steinbeck had a bit of sarcasm and the quote was a joke for Elaine. Here Steinbeck wrote “The Winter of Our Discontent” perhaps during the notorious, monotonous doldrums of a Sag Harbor winter. I’ve only experienced two recently and I’ve called them both a winter of discontent. The cure for a Sag Harbor winter is frequent trips to the city, or a trip away somewhere else. However, when I lived in New York proper for almost 15 years, I would rush out on the Jitney during a pending snow storm. I made sure I sat on the porch of the American Hotel to hear the crystals of the snow hit the ground endlessly. Nature is mathematical and the snow is a manifestation of the perfection of nature by way of using fractals in every flake. It’s a beautiful sound, especially in Sag Harbor, a magical  place.