Memory Will Serve
We’re at the water’s edge right where Old Fireplace Road becomes Gerard Drive in Springs, steps away from my wife’s old summer cottage, sold with regrets many decades before. It’s our annual pilgrimage to the shrine of her youth, a shrine ravaged by time. The cottage is in deep disrepair. Tarps cover the failed skylights. Windows are cracked and totter over the rotting remnants of sills and flower boxes. A network of weeds and thorny plants dominate the small yard out front. A rusty Pod has been sitting on the road since I can recall, and an old station wagon filled with household debris leans close by. On the waterfront side where we swam and fished and plotted our lives entwined in a dinghy as the sun rose over Gardiner’s Bay, winter storms have erased the small lawn exposing much of the jetty. The shingle walls are badly pocked. The chimney is precarious, the back steps untrustworthy, the ocean approach impossible. Needless to say, if an aerial photo was taken at just this second, one would suspect a hurricane made a direct hit on the cottage. Susan and I are no longer surprised by what we see. We fight through this present moment so as to be still served by an inspired past. Plus, on this perfect day in June, our only grandson, Dean, accompanies us. His presence makes up for any disparity in our recollections. His tentative steps indent the spit of sand on which we’re walking, his grandmother on one side, me on the other. When he untangles himself from our clutch, he’s off, first picking at the polished stones that slide into the lapping surf, then bending to taste a morsel of kelp, then dabbing a curious toe into bubbles of foam. He’s not aware of the ravages of time and his laser focus has become our focus and gives balance to our lives. I spent only one summer in Springs but it seemed I was there forever. Susan and I clammed in Accabonac Harbor and were paid for the bushels we dug. We were never born with a silver spoon. If we were, we would have sold it a long time ago. The clamming paid for our honeymoon camping trip to Bar Harbor, Maine, and helped defray the cost of our small wedding at Gurney’s Inn, when Gurney’s was financially viable before the great skyrocket in the Hamptons real estate market. But that’s mere statistics. What that summer in that perfect little cottage really did was solidify our feelings about each other and about the East End beaches and Island living. We knew from the moment that we said our vows that we’d be near this ocean and this Island the rest of our lives. Susan and I chose this life but Susan often says that, “This life chose us.” To be devotees of a specific milieu, to inhabit specific purviews, may be the clear objective, but it seems apparent that the necessary circumstances of day to day living redirect that passion or put it on hold, or put it to shame or put it, figuratively or tragically, to sleep. It took a long while to get back to own our special place. Maine was our first pit stop, our first jobs, our first child. Frenchman’s Bay, our old haunt by Bar Harbor where we camped, was pure and clean, the people friendly but wary. No one had money. No one cared. We swam in quarries, grew great stalks of corn, swatted black flies, dug more clams and even sold worms caught in the channels at low tide to Carolina casters. More children came. We still had no money, still didn’t care, but we did have a house in disrepair. The pipes burst, the walls were full of mice. Outside black bears ate berries. Neighbors shot rifles, sold wreaths. Our local lobster pot thief was found in a pot at the bottom of the bay. Justice, Downeast style. I took to dreaming. I dreamed of shimmering tidal pools, a curtain of waves, the hiss of ebb tide. Colored concoctions of green, blue and cobalt swirled together in Impressionist strokes. Though the cottage on Gerard Drive was sold, it was never a done deal. I returned to it over and over in my dreams. Like a buoy, it gave me perspective, a way back home, but it was never about the cottage itself but what it represented. We miss our siblings, parents. We leave Maine. A new job on a new Island, smaller, much smaller. Ferries to and fro. Fishers Island is part of the town of Southold on the North Fork. It lies close to Connecticut, but New York won the ownership battle. Fishers Island is unique in that it’s the antithesis of our modern temper. It’s a world apart, without rush hour and traffic jams, a world innocent of schedules and appointments, a world ignorant of outlets and trains to catch. Fishers Island is a respite from hassles, a place to call time out, a vision of paradise in the eyes of a snail. Memories will do. I remember the Fishers sky this time. The night is approaching fast, so I head towards the beach for my daily ritual – prayer and reflection – and then head towards home. It’s Sunday, a few days past the winter solstice and the sky fades into a nondescript pallor, the color of inconsequence. But one last strand of pale ruby light stretches like a long arrow, south along the Sound over towards Orient Point. It seemed like a directive. The years have flown by and now it was time to go. We packed up again. Another job. New concerns. Dreams deferred. We were back on Long Island in a northern center, Poquott, near Stony Brook. A quasi-college town, quaint like a picture book. We owned a hill house overlooking Port Jefferson Harbor. Tourists. Power plants. A hurricane. More ferries. More children, happy, thriving, except for one. We felt the growing pains. We needed land, elbow room. We head south to Bayport. Small house, cottage, barn. A giant sycamore. Great sprawling neighborhoods. Easy access to the city. We put a child in a special home upstate. We put a small boat in the Great South Bay. It had a tiny engine that somehow makes it to Fire Island every time. Blessed ocean, blessed beaches, splintered boardwalks. Hope. We can begin to feel it now, how close we are to our heart’s content. Why stop here? At last, children in college, graduation. Lives lived. Lives put on hold. Is it worth another move, the uproot, the dislocation? Why go now? We went. East Quogue this time. At last, the wash of magical waves at midnight, the herring gulls, the long beach walks, the sweet swims, the East End. It’s different here. But is it really? Children come and go. One child marries, then later, one child dies. Like the sweep of sand on the beach, all washes away. Nothing remains but memory. But memory will serve. We picked the East End rather than the mighty mountains of the West. We opted for the ocean rather than the Upstate lakes, New England streams and rivers, the Southern lagoons and ponds, the Gulf bayous and marshes, the Mid-Atlantic inlets and harbors. All else was a no brainer: the Northern plains, the Central wheat fields, the neverending farmlands. We rejected the West Coast altogether, taking sunrise over sunset, preferring the traffic on 27 and 495 to the ones called 110 and 405. For Susan and for me, coming home was always about the ocean. More about the ocean than about the light. It’s all about the ocean more than the brightly-lit houses on Dune Road, the brightly-lit celebrities in Ditch Plains, the brightly-lit night sky at Hither Hills, the brightly-lit light itself attracting artists to Springs. It’s all about the ocean and what it does to you when you see it for the first time, the first thousandth time, or the very last time. It doesn’t matter. And when there’s no ocean, yes, memory has served. My first recollection of ocean was at Rockaway Beach. My very first taste of sand, seawater and kelp. We gravitate to the ocean and like children, flee when the waves break too close and then scurry back for more. There is something about the ocean, our ocean, everchanging and everlasting, not one second the same but every second the same. In comfort, in sensory satisfaction, in harmony with who we are and where we belong. This may be Dean’s first helping of Hamptons water, but it will not be his last. Worlds can fall apart, come crashing to the ground, split into complete disarray like that cottage on Gerard Drive. But we’ve learned it’s not about that cottage or any structure at all. It’s, about the constructs of the mind conspiring to find a perfect peace, and for all of that, memory has served us well.