Is This Chicken for Sale?
If you’ve worked for years on women’s lifestyle sites, as I have, you know that in late afternoon it all comes down to chicken. People are searching for chicken recipes for that night’s dinner. The quicker and easier the better.
Chicken is always top of mind. And for many, wine. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been startled after we reluctantly put our Bridgehampton house on the market and held a tag sale, when a woman opened up our freezer, located the boneless chicken breasts, and asked if they were for sale. But I was. Just as I was amazed to learn that the “booze” had sold first (even the bottles labeled “bad wine” versus “good wine”), before the other crowd favorite, the outdoor furniture.
Truth be told, what was truly shocking was the behavior of the people who tramped through our house. The woman who pretended the red patent leather wallet someone dropped on the stairs belonged to her husband. The middle-aged man who relieved himself in the bushes. The older gentleman who returned the next morning to rummage through our garage and load a set of beach chairs into his car as I yelled, “Those are my friend’s chairs!” We’d sold ours, along with so much else.
Two years after the passing of my father and 23 years after moving in, we’d sold our shingled house, severing the connection to some of my happiest childhood memories: the corn and potato fields stretching as far as the eye could see, learning to ride a bike on a quiet back road, selling lemonade in front of the cows grazing in the field. Surprising as it may sound, we called the Hamptons the country. It was the early 1970’s. We were drawn to the beauty of the natural landscape, the flat roads perfect for biking, the charm of the Penny Candy store where candy actually cost a penny (the historic building now shuttered, listed for sale for $2 million), the taste of fresh berries, the novelty of yellow tomatoes, the sweetness of local corn.
Aside from the daunting task of emptying our house of its contents before the sale, filled as it was with generations of family belongings, there was the emotional toll. Everywhere, we found reminders of the joy my sweet, humble father, a true country doctor in the big city who occasionally made house calls at 3 o’clock in the morning, derived from the house he’d worked so hard to afford for his family. He’d taken such great pride in his trees, he’d even kept photographs of them alongside family snapshots in his office drawer to share with his patients. As the years passed, the trees grew, until the oak provided ample shade, its leaves touching the house. Here, my father truly relaxed, not on-call, reading his beloved books in the sun or under that ever-expanding oak tree. When the sun set, my mother marinated the chicken and my father manned the grill. We didn’t entertain much, preferring each other’s company.
Now “the last summer” had come to a close, my father was no longer with us, and it was time for us to leave and not return. We were saying goodbye to our much-loved house, but really we were saying goodbye to my father all over again, and goodbye to years of happy family memories, to years when the Hamptons felt more like the country, when there were more acres of farmland, when roads were less overrun by cars and new construction, when the Bridgehampton Candy Kitchen, with its homemade ice cream and retro decor (still flourishing, decades later) was more the norm and less the exception, when Main Street in East Hampton didn’t look like a replica of Madison or Fifth Avenue with shops such as Hermes and Tiffany & Co.
When we drove off, we tried not to look back. Our tag sale had felt like an invasion, so we were fortunate to be long gone by the time of the materials sale. Apparently the house was mobbed when the new owners sold every item that remained, including the shutters, the French doors, and the slate tiles. We learned that demolition gave way to new construction. Fall turned into winter turned into spring and then to summer. Verbal reports turned into photographs, and then photographs turned into real estate listings.
In Sag Harbor on business the next summer, I debated driving to the house. ‘I’m strong,’ I thought, ‘I can take it. I’d rather know.’ I eased the car onto gravel where our front lawn used to be. I craned my neck to look past the new, white, formal gate. I couldn’t see much, so I drove a few feet more to where the second new gate was being installed. There was yellow caution tape between the two posts. Almost nothing was recognizable. A grand driveway led to an estate, with 8 bedrooms, 9.5 bathrooms, a new pool house, pool, and tennis court. Up from what had been our land rose The Hampton Designer Showhouse! (Of all the houses in the Hamptons, it had to be our plot of land chosen for this, a further irony given my professional background in women’s lifestyle content.)
Dispassionately, I did what I do best and began to document with my phone’s camera. Gates: Click. House: Click. Pool house: Click. I allowed myself a moment of artistic license, shooting the new house partially obscured by the yellow tape, a perfect metaphor for what felt like bearing witness to the scene of a crime. I watched a bird fly over to the front lawn and dip its beak in a pool of water by a weeping willow tree, the only tree that looked familiar. I decided I’d seen enough.
I got back into the car and opened a plastic container of chicken shish kebab to fortify myself for the trip back to the city. I popped a chunk of chicken into my mouth and suddenly started choking. I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t breathe. Trying to drink water didn’t help. The sun was setting, and there was no one on the road. I thought, ‘This is it. My number’s up. This is how I’m going to die, on the side of the road, in front of our old house, choking on chicken.’ Then, I started gagging, disgorging that oversized piece of chicken, physically sickened by the erasure of so much I held dear.
We’d invited strangers into our home, with every window flung wide, every door propped up on its hinges, people tramping in and out, and there was no line they weren’t prepared to cross, no invasion of privacy too great or too small. We’d sold our house to people who dismantled it for parts, razed it to the ground, and built a mansion. They hadn’t stopped at the house, they’d ripped out the new pool to install a larger, more deluxe version, they’d removed nearly all of my father’s trees from the land. That was the most crushing blow, what truly upset me. In my naïveté, I’d assumed those would live on, would remain part of the landscape.
In time, I made my peace with the loss. Nothing lasts forever — not a cherished way of life, human life, or family home. I surrounded myself with reminders, including furniture, a rug, and two of the birdhouses my parents collected. I even salvaged my childhood toy chest, the worthless-in-dollar-value-yet-priceless-in-sentimental-significance item I’d reluctantly included in our tag sale, that inspired the return the next day of the old man who rummaged through our garage. As time passed, I let myself look through the thousands of photographs I’d taken over the years. I wrote about my experience. They say, “you can’t take it with you.” Yet the Hamptons — or rather, the country — and the memories of my father teaching me how to ride a bike on a quiet back road and reading his beloved books beneath that glorious oak tree, remain always in my heart.