Making Life Fun
My father knew how to make life fun. He discovered East Hampton when I was about five. By “discovered,” I mean figured out how to make the ultimate beach vacation on a shoestring. Dad was not cheap; he was generous and thrifty. He found the Cottages (that was all the name they had) on Three Mile Harbor Road. They had everything we needed: a roof, a refrigerator, a picnic table, other people’s pets to borrow, and the perfect sunset view–just a short walk away. I think they went for about $100 a week then. One cottage (bed at one end, kitchen at the other) was plenty for a family of four—after all, we’d be on the beach most of the time. He bought a village beach pass for $25 (the town one came with the cabin), scouted out the nicest beach at each end, and we were set.
For the next 30 years, we did it pretty much the same way. He found all the stops that made the car ride fun: the Water Mill Museum, where everything from the lathe to the loom was hands-on; the Penny Candy Store, where life was sweet and toys were large; the little shop that sold homemade gingerbread and authentic sunbonnets. He became an expert at sniffing out the cheapest local corn, the best booze prices, and the bargain barbecue meats. And every penny he saved went into more fun: dinners at every lovely sunset restaurant (he was crazy for sunset specials), occasional splurges at the elegant 1770 House or the Maidstone Arms… and toys.
Dad was the kind of person who couldn’t ignore a wish. If he knew we really wanted something, he would surprise us with it—or a low-cost facsimile, if that could be arranged. My twin sister and I loved boats. We wanted the sensation of bobbing on the water, feeling the motion of every wave. He bought us a boat, an inflatable dinghy big enough for three. He bought a pump suitable for blowing it up. He did the blowing himself (no small task) and the deflating, which was even more burdensome and involved his lying spread-eagled on it to push the air out. Inflated, it wouldn’t fit in the car, so he would tie it to the roof with an elaborate rope system, the ends of which he and my mother would hold as he drove. It was not easy—on a breezy day, the thing would buck and threaten to fly off.
Presents from Dad were forever things: they became part of the East Hampton mystique and stayed with us for decades. Dad was an expert at repairing leaks with Shoe Goo (Gubbins, bless them, was the only source of Shoe Goo for several years). The Boat was subject to adventures. One was a windy day at Maidstone beach, when the water was very choppy. By now I was an expert rower, and I launched myself undaunted with my book and my best beach hat; I loved to ship my oars and bob and read. All went well until I tried to land my vessel. As I neared the shore, the waves got higher and higher, and as I started to put my feet out, the whole thing flipped over and dumped book, hat and me into the bay. I was never so surprised in my life. I have two regrets about that dunking: my hat, which was never the same, and the fact that nobody was videotaping.
Sometimes Dad would anticipate a wish you never knew you had. Some years after the arrival of The Boat, he bought me a shell. It called itself the Mirage Fantasy Shell. The box had a picture of a model riding it with the sourest expression you ever saw. I think she was going for a sexy pout, but she’d missed. We got our money’s worth laughing at that box. But the contents were even more wonderful. The shell was enormous and beautiful with its coral pink bottom and transparent top; lying on it, I felt like Botticelli’s Venus. Best of all, it worked: you could sit on it, lie on it, kneel on it, crawl around on it, and it wouldn’t fold up or capsize like other rafts we’d had. You could lounge on it endlessly, almost without getting wet, and the only risk was that on a breezy day, you might blow out to sea. To reduce the risk, I devised an anchor by filling a string bag with stones from the beach and hanging it from my ankle.
The shell had its own adventure. I was very proud of my shell and loved to share it with anyone who was interested. One day I lent it to a young friend. He let go of it and the breeze snatched it, and I watched helpless from the land as it scudded out to sea. The lifeguard must have been very bored, because he saw it go and bolted out of his chair to swim after it. He was fast, and we cheered as he gained on it steadily. Then, just when we thought he had it, another gust came and whipped it away. We turned away in despair, but the lifeguard had other ideas: he struck out again, faster than before, farther and farther out. We looked at the other lifeguard, who was watching him from the chair. “He’s crazy,” she said with a shrug. The chase was on again. He kept pace, getting smaller and smaller, until at last a stronger gust snatched the shell and tumbled it end over end around the point and out of sight. And still the rescuer didn’t turn back—he swam on after my shell until we lost sight of him too. He came trudging back an hour later, empty-handed. It was the most quixotic thing I’ve ever witnessed.
I must have had that in my mind a few years later when a beachball got away. I had been admiring it as a family tossed it around in the water. It was a glittering emerald green, and when I saw it fly out of reach, I was aghast. The young father took a few strokes after it and gave up, but I couldn’t bear it. I leapt into my boat and took to the waves in pursuit. The breeze was rather stiff out to sea, and one of my oars was wobbly, but I was making headway. I was a good way out when I came up close enough to see that it said TD Bank on it. Digesting the idea that I’d gone all that way to save a promotional giveaway, I reached out for it, touched the near side, and sent it bobbing just out of range. Then the wind got involved and gave it another good boost out to sea. By this time the land looked very distant, and my oar resembled wet spaghetti. I was pretty sure the duct tape repair was about to give out. But I’d come so far, I couldn’t give up. I struck out again, heartened to see that the ball seemed to be becalmed. Gaining, gaining, almost there…I had it! Delighted with myself, I plopped it safe in the boat and set out toward shore, where my sister was waiting, a tiny speck on the beach. And then it happened: my oar snapped. I gamely disassembled the other one and set about rowing with half-length oars. This and the opposing wind diminished my progress considerably—in fact, I wasn’t sure I was getting anywhere at all–and I began to feel downright silly. The lifeguards had all gone home. My sister was there, but I was fairly sure she’d be too embarrassed to call the coast guard. I thought I might be able to swim in if I abandoned boat and ball, but I wasn’t about to do that. So I gritted my teeth and kept paddling. After what seemed an eternity, I had made it halfway to shore, and my sister appeared by the side of the boat—standing up. It was low tide. She scolded me roundly for scaring her, and we took turns towing the heroic boat the rest of the way in. I returned the ball to the bewildered owners, who had missed the whole drama. Absurd as it was, I was left with an indescribable sense of accomplishment and sheer glee, which returns in a rush every time I think about it.
As for my shell, it was never seen again. But the day after its adventure, a new one appeared in our cabin. My father knew exactly which local store could provide a replacement. The man knew how to make fun.