The East End is enchanting. It’s like a siren that lures you in with its special song of sea, sun and air. Despite the long, grueling drives to get here and the maddening summer crowds, it has always inspired art, ritualistic behavior and traditions that literally feed the body and nourish the soul. Resistance is futile. This is my personal account.
My family name is “Halsey” which is significant in these parts but I wasn’t born here. In the local and rather unflattering vernacular I was raised with all the other unfortunates “up Island”, West of the Shinnecock Canal, in a sleepy little town called “Malverne”. Despite it’s relatively close proximity to the Hamptons, I made just a few day-trips to the East End before the summer of 2000. That summer I spent two weekends in a share-house near Atlantic Beach and fell in love. Ultimately, the relationship with the guy didn’t last but the romance with Amagansett is still very much alive. They say things happen for a reason. I will be forever grateful for his introduction.
Back then I was living on the Upper East Side. I always dreamed of having a little place where I could garden, cook and unwind. Memories of Amagansett loomed large but given the steep price of real estate, buying a beach house seemed a remote possibility. So, like all the young people trying to make it in the “City of Dreams”, I just kept working and dreaming.
I was in New York on the morning of September 11th. Words will never adequately express . . .
This was my “carpe diem” moment. It sounds cliché, but I felt incredibly lucky just to be alive. I also felt utterly powerless. There was nothing to be done for the thousands we lost but in homage I promised myself that I would pursue my dreams with renewed vigor since they would never realize many of theirs.
The fear and sadness in the City was pervasive and strangely paralyzing. I needed to escape. My first thought was of Amagansett . . . it was suddenly like I had been infected with a disease for which there was no cure. I spent hours searching HREO for a place I could afford. I got very lucky. After only two trips out, I found “the house”. We drove down a long dirt path in Springs and parked in the circular drive of a quaint salt box. I hopped out and took a look around – nothing but Pin Oaks as far as the eye could see and the sound of the wind. I remember it like it was yesterday. I said to Agnes, my broker, “Unless it’s a total dump inside, this is the house”.
My offer to buy the house was accepted on Christmas Eve. I was incredibly excited – couldn’t wait to close and make the place my own. This was going to be the best summer ever! Dreams do come true. I had kept my 9/11 promise by realizing one of mine.
In hindsight, it was natural to return to the place where my family has such rich history and a tradition of farming. It was like completing a cycle that began long, long ago. I’m no farmer, but I do have a green thumb and, as my friends will tell you, I’m a great cook. Every summer, I have a delicious crop of cherry tomatoes – “Matt’s Wild” is a favorite – and an overflowing herb garden. Early in the evening I’m often found in the kitchen communing with my purchases from the local markets and the obligatory bottle of wine. Julia knew more than a thing or two about how good wine makes you a better cook 😉
Beyond cooking tasty meals for friends and family, I enjoy many East End rituals and traditions. To name just a few: trips to Round Swamp for warm fruit pies; long walks on the beautiful beaches with Darcy, my Labradoodle; Goldberg’s on Sunday morning for amazing white fish salad and bagels; July 4th fireworks at Indian Wells on Labor Day weekend (thank you, Plovers); spending Thanksgiving day in pajamas until we dress for dinner with friends at 1770 House (pre recession) or Harvest (post recession). However, I have one tradition that’s uniquely mine.
My friend, Lauralouise, once told me that necessity is the mother of invention. It was certainly the genesis of my holiday tradition. It began the Thanksgiving of my second year in the house when it came time to decorate. Having a Christmas tree in a weekend house is quite challenging. Cut trees need lots of water to stay fresh and retain their needles. I learned this the hard way the prior Christmas. I came home to a ring of needles around the beautifully decorated skeleton of a criminally expensive ten-foot Douglas Fir. This year would be different . . .
I have 2+ acres of Pin Oaks, a few ugly Scrub Pines and, in front of the house, way off in the woods, a lone wild Holly. My friend Herb had the bright idea (no pun intended) to run a super-long extension cord into the woods and light up the tree. No maintenance required – or so we thought – just needed a cord, an outdoor timer, lights and a little juice from LIPA. And so it began . . .
The first year was easy. It was one of those unusually warm fall days. We plugged the cord into the timer and trudged into the woods. I’m a petite five-three and back then the Holly was all of six feet tall. We generously dressed the tree with little white lights and emerged from the woods excited and brimming with anticipation. You would have thought we were planning to light the tree at Rock Center! The timer was set for six o’clock.
That night, just before the appointed hour, we stood on the front deck of the house and waited. It was dark and chilly, the sky was crystal clear and the stars were shining brightly. There was an audible “click” from the timer and voila! The little Holly glowed and twinkled in the middle of the woods. The effect was positively surreal. The tree is visible to everyone who visits and it never fails to solicit a wondrous, child-like reaction from those who see it for the first time.
At the end of January, we simply unplugged the Holly, left the cord in place and put the timer in the shed until next year. We congratulated ourselves on the execution of this new and creative no muss, no fuss decorating scheme. Basking in the glow of our success, somehow these truths were NOT self-evident:
• A tree will continue to grow whereas I will remain five-three.
• Tall ladders are rather tricky in the woods.
• Any God fearing, tree-decorating Christian will tell you that the profoundly annoying thing about Christmas lights is that inevitably they tangle and fail.
• Fall is NOT always warm.
• Holly is rivaled only by the cactus for being crazy prickly.
• The tick population would positively exploded in the years to come!
Ten years later, the Holly is about twelve feet tall. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars replacing lights and every year it takes at least one more set to do the job. I have teetered on an unstable ten-foot ladder with frozen fingers stringing lights and cursing as the holly pricks me through my clothing like a child protesting a hat. Of course my pant legs are tucked into my socks and I’ve doused myself with enough “Deep Woods Off” to qualify as a mobile toxic waste sight, all to avoid becoming a meal for a hungry family of ticks. And then there was the year that all the lights were dead. I tried to save some time and money by asking my friend Gary to pickup some new lights on sale at Home Depot on his way out. That night, he delivered the goods happy to come to the aid of a damsel in decorating distress. I eagerly opened the bag only to discover that the lights were multi-colored, not white! We all had a good laugh over dinner when Gary said, “Note to self – don’t send the nice Jewish boy out to buy Christmas lights!”
Why might you ask, do I continue with this annual mission that has become so seemingly torturous? Because every year since Herb and I first decorated the Holly, the person who helps me is my Mom. This special tradition belongs to us.
Most things worth doing aren’t usually easily. As much as I sometimes dread the effort and grumble, each year when we light the tree, we’re still in awe of the simple beauty of our now not so little Holly. We reflect on the year that has passed – memories both good and bad – how lucky we are, our hopes, and most important, our dreams for the New Year to come.