Heirloom

Written By: Ruth  Doran

My family bought the land on which to build our home during the mid-20th century. It was an era when life in the Hamptons was slow and carefully classified. There were many demarcations: Old Families and New Families. Old Money and New Money. Residents and Summer People. We were a New Family, hardworking and respectable patriots of solid stock, without scandal and with a check to purchase the latest parcel from the aging grandson of an Old Family. Presumably, he had either mismanaged and/or outlived the cash, but was rumored to still possess enough jewelry and property to fund a dignified lifestyle. Money or not, there was ambiance to maintain. Old Families could generate ambiance like no one else. After all, the proper ambiance made life worth living. Polished silver of ancient vintage. Pressed linens that had been dried in the sun. High tea at four o’clock followed by cocktails stirred with sterling swizzle sticks. Dressing for dinner at eight. Who maintains these rituals today? Only some monastic communities live with days defined by the cadence of age-old habits. The Old Families of the Old Money of the Hamptons had great style.

The Old Man needed to choose between two remaining parcels to sell: the acres that were directly adjacent to his residence, or the acres that were directly waterfront. Then, as now, obstructing the water view was unthinkable. Thus, our family bought the adjacent site and is how we became the next-door neighbors to the functional Lord of the Manor. It was clear to see what had been the original estate, which emanated for acres in all directions from his residence. The homes that had been built on the acres that were sold earlier were quite lovely, actually, and not too intrusive, but definitively not of the original bloodline. As a young girl, I laid claim to the whole place, and engaged in the atypical pass-times only the estate could provide. I raced my bike from gate to gate of a neighbor’s compound whose twenty or so Italian Greyhounds always beat me, but jumped in gleeful anticipation as I turned my bike around to do it again. I played tether-tennis in the yard of the Old Man, fed ducks and swans on the pond, engaged the quail in the woods in a chorus of “bob-white” calls, and skipped stones on the bay.

There were a few out-parcels to the estate, including a caretaker’s cottage and a chicken coop that had been repurposed and sold as residences. Most intriguing was the estate’s boat house. The Old Man had held onto it, and kept a meticulously varnished, wooden skiff docked inside. I only saw him in it once, dressed in his civilian-admiral’s attire, but I suspect maritime pursuits played a strong role in his past. The boat house had been in an electrical fire years before, but its bones were so solid that it was determined to just re-skin the entire structure and leave it as-is. Inside, every timber was severely charred, and, although it had been decades, the smell of burnt wood still mingled with the lingering scents of low tide, copious bird droppings, dried barnacles, and diesel marine fuel. I think I visited it every day with the reverence one feels at a site that had born witness to a major tragedy. It was the only spot on the estate where I felt like a bit of an interloper. Somehow, there were secrets here that were not for me to hear. History’s vapors lingered, yet, there was nothing vulnerable about this weathered place. It had survived not only a raging fire, but also every major storm of the century, including the Great Hurricane of 1938. I think I visited so often because I sensed almost a time portal there. I was enchanted by the place.

The Old Man fondly kept a watchful and paternal eye on our whole family. My frequent visits to the boat house had not escaped his notice. I’m not sure how it all came to pass, but one night, my father announced that the Old Man had given the remnants of a sailboat to me. It was a Barnegat Bay Sneakbox, or what was left of her. She had been abandoned to the elements on the far side of the boat house for so long, that weeds were literally growing through the gaping planks of her hull. There was so much wood rot; technically, she could only be considered a frame, but I eagerly took it on. This was simultaneously my personal ticket to the past and to the future. Her restoration became the major project of the winter of my twelfth year.

Under my father’s tutelage, I scraped, and scraped, then sanded, and sanded until all of the rot was gone. Fiberglass strips were then rather inelegantly layered inside and outside of the wooden frame of the hull until at long last she was seaworthy, although somewhat of an eyesore. I found an old and fragile volume in the town’s library with some grainy photographs of the Sneakbox line. Somehow, I could actually smell the boat house in between the pages of that book! I memorized every detail of the Sneakbox history, all the way back to the Lenni Lenape Indians. Although primarily used for hunting and fishing, the Sneakbox sailing adaptation vessels were the fastest in the nation through the 1920’s. It was this pedigree I adopted for my craft. We intently studied the photographs and the reconstruction of her sail became a family affair. My father measured the mast, gaff and boom and designed the sail. Mom sewed the whole thing out of bright, day-glow-orange rip stop nylon. I spent hours at the local hardware store selecting just the right grommets through which to lace the lines. I just couldn’t wait to be out on the open water aboard my boat! We canvassed her deck to disguise the patchy fiberglass job beneath and painted it red, as that was the only color that my father had on hand. She looked more like a Chinese Junk than a sleek Hamptons sailing racer, but to me, she was reborn in all of her glory.

I named her “Heirloom” and today imagine that made the Old Man quite pleased. I’ll save the story of her maiden voyage for another time, but for now, just know that this vessel sailed out of the ethers of time to ignite the dreams of grandeur in a young girl, while it rekindled the memories of the actual grandeur in an Old Man. I docked her in the boat house, of course, where all timelines intersected. At last, my boat and I were home.