For some, “the Hamptons” evokes images of fast cars, pricey estates and excess. The naturalists among us think of the white foam that caps the waves as they roll up onto the shore, the beach grass spiking out from the dunes, and the endless white sand. I associate the Hamptons with my father’s story: how he came to live his American dream.
My father’s lifelong love of the beach started with an uncomfortable journey. If I had to travel to and from the beach in a stifling hot subway car, sitting in an itchy (and on the way home, wet) wool bathing suit, I am not sure I ever would want to go back. Yet, for my father, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1930s, even a brief escape from his family’s tenement apartment was worth that price. He counted down the whole week until Sunday, when he finally could get to the ocean paradise at Coney Island. The apartment from which my father and his parents and sister were fleeing, although always overcrowded and overheated, varied from time to time. To entice renters, many landlords offered three months concession, or the first three months of a lease for free. As victims of the Great Depression, my grandparents often did not have enough money to pay their rent, so the family moved – often every three months – to take advantage of these free rent offers. The beach promised a welcomed respite, where the family could avoid their problems, if not the landlords on whom they had skipped out.
When my father was 18, he was drafted to serve in the Navy during World War II. When he returned, he took advantage of The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the G.I. Bill, which provided him with free college tuition for four years. My father, however, was relegated to his second choice career, accountancy, because the G.I Bill did not cover enough years of tuition for him to attend law school.
Although he never discussed how spending time at sea influenced his feelings about the ocean, I know that my father’s experience in the Navy did not diminish his affection for the beach. Fortunately, by the time he came home from the war, bathing suits were made from more tolerable fabrics. Besides that, the beach became not only a getaway from untenable living conditions and nagging troubles; it also served as a stomping ground for single young veterans to meet up with old friends and young women. The post-war beach presented a whole new type of paradise.
But there was something more than just hot weather and hot women that propelled my father to the beach. After he was married with four daughters and living in an air-conditioned house, my father still sought refuge at the beach. Weekend after weekend during the 1960s and 70s he took all of us through a fairly strict beach ritual. Wake up at the crack of dawn. Load up the car with coolers, chairs, beach umbrellas and everything else a family of six could need for the day. Fight the traffic from Queens to Jones Beach. Eat salami sandwiches on poppy seed rolls for lunch; top it off with a plum. Stop on the way home for dinner at Nathan’s. Nothing, except maybe the rain, kept my father from the beach. It was important to him that all of us kids share his enthusiasm for the beach, and that we learn to swim in the ocean. I swallowed a lot of salt water those summers, but my father’s passion was contagious, and eventually even I was converted into a beach lover.
My father was a hard worker. He put in long hours at his job, and he did all of his own snow shoveling and gardening, including growing tomatoes that were renowned throughout our neighborhood. We lived a typical middle class lifestyle, but my parents saved their money and prioritized a family beach vacation every winter. We went to Aruba for many years, and later to St. Maarten. My father spent from sunrise to sunset swimming in the ocean and soaking up the rays. He used to joke that his skin was made of leather, and he never did get a burn in my memory. My father, a gregarious guy anyway, always was in high spirits on these vacations. He made fast friends with the people who worked at the hotels, and he chatted up fellow guests along the beach. We were the lucky ones who were part of his family.
At the start of one summer in the mid-1980s, my parents’ best friends announced that they had bought a residence in the Hamptons. My father was intrigued by this idea, as he had not thought owning a place at the beach was attainable prior to this news. My parents visited their friends’ new home. My father fell fast and hard in love with the Hamptons: the endless beautiful beaches, the fabulous fresh food, the wineries, and the proximity to his friends, among other things. By the end of that summer, my parents were seeing a real estate agent, “just to look.” The following month, my father was in all his glory when he told me that my parents had purchased a place, “right on the beach.” Never mind that it was not one of those large mansions, it was just enough space for them, and for his children to visit.
As my father achieved more professional success my parents’ beach vacations become more exotic. They visited many high-end Caribbean resorts, and also ventured to the sands and seas of Hawaii, California and the Riviera. My father compared each beach he saw to the Hamptons and, inevitably, the Hamptons’ beaches were deeper, longer, softer, whiter, or in some other way better and more beautiful.
During the years that my parents owned their place in the Hamptons, before my father passed away, he savored every moment he spent there. He indulged my mother’s desire to walk along the beach, and they often walked for miles at a time. As the years went by, my father also abided my mother’s admonition that he swim near a lifeguard, as he often ventured out too far into the ocean for her comfort. My parents treated themselves to meals at many of the finest restaurants on the East End, and enjoyed the local ones, too. They shopped for antiques, and at farm stands. My father rarely turned down an invitation to play a game of poker or pinochle. He would say he won more games than he lost, but the stakes never were high, and the games were more about keeping in touch with old friends and making new ones.
When I visited my parents at their place in the Hamptons, I often would sit on the beach with my father while he took in the view, which included both his home and the Atlantic Ocean. On these occasions he inevitably would remark: “It doesn’t get any better than this.” What was it about owning this small place in the Hamptons that made my father feel so good? I never did ask him that question. If I had to speculate, I would say it had something to do with the idea that the mecca to which he had so desperately sought to escape was guaranteed to be accessible to that little boy. It was a symbol that he had achieved enough success that neither he nor his family ever would have to run from apartment to apartment for free rent. He did not have to endure an interminable subway ride, or get up in the wee hours of the morning and pack a lunch to get to the most perfect beach in the world. He had endured the tough journey, and he had arrived.
No matter what my father achieved, or to what beaches he traveled, he never felt more pride and happiness than when he was relaxing on the beach in the Hamptons. Why shouldn’t he: it was Hishampton.