Out in the water, to the right, is a rock in the shape of a lion’s head. It rests its chiseled chin upon the salty tide. The rest of his body is hidden by the sea, like a lot of things out here. Some people are not sure that the rock genuinely looks like a lion, but I am. I have heard him roar.
My long childhood days of staring at that lion, out in Gardiner’s bay, were punctuated by endless conversations between me and David. The two of us were a match made in summer, sandy, childhood, friendship heaven. We were Hamptons’ kids, from wealthy families, yet steadily and vigilantly unspoiled. So, we didn’t ride the horses, but we did get to look at them a lot. We didn’t get swimming lessons, but we were masterfully self-taught.
We were both born out of unlikely stories of rags tattered by the Holocaust to riches sowed by our parents’ unbound motivation to survive and thrive in New York; and, by extension, the Hamptons.
We made our fun in the sand, the seaweed, and interminable beach glass searches. We spoke to the lion rock, and wondered if he would rise up when a jet ski or sail boat veered too close to his beloved den.
At night, when our parents went out to fancy restaurants, we coveted stories about how they scored reservations. Home with a babysitter, we knew those places weren’t for us. And when the kids around us got older and went to sleep away camp, we knew those places weren’t for us either. Camps, conceptually, were too painful for our families’ psyches to bear.
We were sent to work, not camp. Work ethic and determination were the keys to survival, always.
So we left our sweet days by the bay for summer work. Our pails were exchanged for dish bins, as we met daily in the bustling kitchen of the Honest Diner, me a bus girl, him a bus boy.
And when I got my driver’s permit, we decided to take our tips and sneak off to Sapore Di’Mare, one of the homes of the elusive dinner reservation. Perfectly positioned off route 27, we found our way to the classically graveled driveway and listened closely to the bumpy sound of our tires pulling in.
“Table for two?”
The host was ineffably affectionate: “but of course sir and madam, right away. Are you here for lunch or dinner?”
David said “dinner”.
I said “lunch”.
We were so nervous and nakedly reservation-less that we didn’t even notice what an odd time it was, 3:13 pm exactly.
The kind host, responded reassuringly, “Dinner for the gentleman, lunch for the lady”.
The view was soothing, the white tables clothes impeccably stainless, and the pasta was that kind of al dente everyone aims for but can’t quite achieve.
We ordered sparkling water and toasted to: “tips!”
With adolescent delight, we drove triumphantly back to David’s waterfront house with leftovers of red sauce and spaghetti; two woefully unsophisticated matching meals. Our leftovers were souvenir proof of our Sapore success story. We were electrified by our own faux adulthood, quixotic classiness, and we were ready to brag. We had arrived. We did the restaurant thing we had seen our parents do.
“Dad, we brought you leftovers from Sapore! We went to Sapore! Just the two of us!” David said.
Yehuda, David’s father, instantly became irate.
I think that the word is irate, but I can’t quite settle on one word to describe the disgust, fear, disappointment and rage that sailed right into his injured mind, his private den.
“Dad, what’s wrong?” David said.
“You disgust me. Who do you think you are?” Yehuda growled.
We had stepped on a landmine in the sand. We indulged, but had not properly suffered for it. Yehuda’s whole youth was a landmine. He was a holocaust survivor, who planned his own escape through Warsaw’s sewer system only to be transported to a German labor camp, and lost his childhood in the process, He had inhaled the smell of a gas chamber for his trips to Sapore. We had inhaled the smell of a high end diner’s kitchen for our trip there.
He ripped the aluminum containers from David’s hand, went to cliff’s edge above the water, and tossed them like Frisbees, into the bay. I looked out to my right, trembling, and glanced at my lion rock. The lion’s head peaked above the water and he opened his huge mouth. He showed me all of his daggered, piercing teeth and then roared. The lion roared from years of being slapped by careless water trying to wash away all of the expression in his ferocious face, all of the memories stored in his battered mind. Or Yehuda roared from the grief of his lost father, once a joyful carpet manufacturer, piled amongst too many lifeless Jewish fathers. Or perhaps David roared from the drain of bearing the brunt of his father’s unwinnable war between the past and the present; an ever changing dance between high tide and low.
The ugly dark red of delicately spiced tomato sauce, the stiff pieces of the undercooked spaghetti, the aluminum tins and their white lids intruded upon the tranquil bay water. In a neatly constructed line, it all drifted toward the lion’s head. Pulled by the tide, the trail became meddling litter that would ultimately disrupt sea life.
I went home to my father.
“Yehuda called. He was right. Who do you think you are?”
His own mother dodged the Holocaust by half a second, but lost contact with her brother and native land in the service of her survival. He knew how to live with less, why didn’t I? Even surrounded with so much, why didn’t I know how to titrate better, to sacrifice and suffer more?
My father, his mother and Yehuda, they understood each other. Nursing a single beer each, they would talk all night, sometimes lapsing into German, but mostly staying afloat in English. David and I and our spaghetti, were lost at sea, lost in translation.
Our fathers wanted kids, grandkids, summer houses. Right? They wanted our happiness. Right? They wanted us to revel in the fruits born of their inexplicable survival and subsequent success. Right? Yes, right. I think so. I thought so.
But, in actuality, bearing witness to our childhoods and any innocence associated with them, unleashed deep, un-abiding roars of pain, hunger and loss. Bearing witness to our carefree and relaxed capacity to feed ourselves, left them feeling unseen, unfed and unwitnessed. If we could do that for ourselves, how could their own experiences be held as true and real? The coexistence of our present and their past just didn’t make sense. Kind of like how the Hamptons don’t always make sense.
We know that we are all amidst inexplicable beauty, land manicured beyond what seems humanly possible; juxtaposed with natural ruggedness that tenderizes the soul.
We also know that there is meddling litter floating around us; ghosts of history and lost childhoods. We hold onto our land as desperately as we hold onto our memories; deep, ancestral, intergenerational memories. These memories came before us and are dying around us; as we lose our survivors to the passage of time rather than to the ravages of genocide. These memories cannot be readily seen beyond the hedges, beneath the sea. But they haunt this breathtaking land and water, nonetheless.
David and I sometimes remember this truth, but mostly we don’t.