Mr Wolfe You Can Go Home Again
Another week has come and gone; it’s time for Mother’s bath. A practice, I must admit, that holds all the charm of a broken record, never changing; never seamless. Mother washes whatever her nonagenarian limbs can still reach and I wash the rest. After doing the rehab shift-and-swivel out of the tub, I massage her from head to toe; kneading the muscles in her arms and legs as if I were the baker and she the dough. I reflect for the umpteenth time on how the years turn all children into parents and all parents into children; on how my decision, as a dutiful daughter, put 4,000 miles of watery distance between me and the spousal Yin to my Yang of thirty-nine years. It was a decision that has had me on an emotional rollercoaster from the moment I arrived at JFK.
In the initial months, my struggle to adjust was haunted by the words of Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again.” I worried that Wolfe’s warning would carry the same disillusionment for me, the seeds of our respective stories having been sown in Munich, Germany where circumstance left an indelible impression on both our lives. Was I too destined to be as much a stranger in my own hometown as he was?
However, the words of Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, provided the counterpoint: “There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home.” Admittedly, more Hollywood than hallow, her words redirected my thoughts from care to the carefree summers of my formative years, the years that groomed me into the daughter I have come to be.
Those were the summers spent in Mattituck, a mere freckle on the index finger of Long Island. It was the early sixties, when, if there wasn’t a yard sale or a local festival along the many town commons dotting the Main Road, from Riverhead to Orient, nature provided its own matinee and evening performances of katydids and catbirds; crickets and toads. Much as we looked forward to the annual Fourth of July fireworks, the unexpected ones were just as spectacular. On any given hot summer night, a curtain of dark clouds might part and Mother Nature would put on a dramatic demonstration of pyrotechnics that would be the envy of any rock band today.
Since every story has a beginning, ours began with a phone call. It was an early autumn afternoon when Mr. Silkworth, the then sole real-estate agent in Mattituck, rang my mother instructing her to come with my father immediately to his office.
Asking no questions, my parents threw me into the backseat of our hand-me-down vintage Plymouth and headed east at a blinding 40 miles an hour.
Had there been a Long Island Expressway, we might have arrived even sooner. But alas, the Expressway ended at Exit 49. Noodling our way east, in retrospect, Opportunity practiced a rare bit of patience by opening a window to Providence.
This call was to be the pivotal piece of the puzzle of events that began with an invitation to Bailey Beach; ultimately leading to our investment in a piece of paradise. Mr. Silkworth’s call was prompted by one of his own to Mrs. Horton, a descendant of one of the founders of Southold, who owned an acre of land overlooking the Long Island Sound. Although she was pretty determined not to sell, her reluctance was understandable. The property simply held too many fond memories she and her recently deceased husband shared of sunsets drenching the length of the horizon with splashes of red, peach, and mauve. Had it not been for their friendship, Mrs. Horton might not have indulged Mr. Silkworth’s suggestion to meet my parents.
Providence, however, smiled on my parents for Mrs. Horton took an immediate liking to them, and agreed to sell. Her asking price was a modest 4 figures; unfortunately for my father, one and a half figures too many. But Providence smiled a second time on our family that day.
For Mrs. Horton not only agreed to sell but also finance the sale. The monthly mortgage payments came to a mere $53. This was the beginning of a relationship that would span 15 years; a relationship that neither party would ever regret.
For my parents, it was a dream come true to own property that literally knocked on Heaven’s door; for Mrs. Horton, it was a way for her to vicariously enjoy Mattituck, through the eyes of my father, as recounted in the bread-and-butter notes he accompanied with every check.
It was a time before Tanger, the LIE, vineyards, and Jitneys. Those were the days when ‘city’ folk braved the dark local roads to dance to the music of The Drifters and The Young Rascals at the then Apple Tree. There was, and still is, a Love Lane, some 300 paces long from Pike Street to the Main Road. It was where the local farmers gathered to talk potato prices and politics, seasoned with gossip. No, you were never a stranger on Love Lane, at least not for long.
The locals of those bygone days still remembered me even after I had lived abroad for two-and-a-half decades. “You’re Steve’s kid, aren’t you?” they’d say. “Sorry to hear about your dad, good man.”
I spent most of that first summer of 1961 sitting next to my father in the car as he made his daily rounds. I remember the long drive to the freight depot in Riverhead. Although it is now home to a Stop & Shop, it was once a field with a curious crop of whitewashed roof-covered loading docks. It was there where we picked up our summer “home” – a 12-by-12 army-issue tent.
It was the summer our family – mother, father, grandparents, two sisters, and I (the baby of the brood), moved into our tent to spend six glorious weeks sleeping under the stars, exploring the marshes and thickets that hugged our shoreline and the inlet.
We’d awaken to the cooing of the mourning doves resonating off the canvas while the aroma of father’s pot of coffee percolating on the Coleman stove, threaded its way in tantalizing wafts through the eyelets.
Breakfast dishes were washed while watching the dolphins make their morning commute west. Through the eyes of a seven year-old, the horizon looked like a line of semi-submerged cartoon cars, bobbing along a nautical highway.
Dishes done and stowed, it was time for the adults to tend to the chore of clearing away the poison ivy while the kids checked the thickets for wild berries that hung beneath the brows of the bluff. As the sun gradually began its descent, the family, grandparents too, would run, slide, or roll down the sandy bluff to cool down in the Sound. So clear, so alive was the water with its schools of bait fish nibbling at our toes.
Back on top of the bluff, we’d shake off the sand as we watched the dolphins make their commute back at the end of the day, thus signaling it time to set the table for dinner. So regular was the timetable of nature that we rarely looked at a watch. We simply synchronized our day to the sun, the tide, and the dolphins. As for shopping, our market of choice was the many make-shift stands along Oregon and the Main Road with hand-painted signs and mason-jar tills selling anything from freshly caught lobster to just picked tomatoes, potatoes, and corn.
The North Fork was (and still is) a veritable cornucopia of agriculture and aquaculture. Back in the day when Rockefeller had a hankering for oysters, they’d be delivered fresh from Greenport. The North Fork never needed to “put on the Ritz.” Instead, it supplied the Ritz with seafood and ducklings.
As the sun got ready for its twilight dip into the Sound, it was time for bed. For once the afterglow of sunset was replaced by the black coverlet of night, we had but one nightlight – the moon and the stars.
I wake up from my musings to find myself no longer giving my mother her bath but tucking her into bed. What a blessed distraction from the mundane, these memories of Mattituck are.
Once warped with worry over the warning of Thomas Wolfe, I find my point of view somewhat changed. All things considered: the distance separating me from my husband; the loneliness of a 24/7 caregiver, I find myself disagreeing with Mr. Wolfe and joining Dorothy in saying there is no place like home.
Yes, Mattituck and the North Fork may have gone from sleepy to smart, from local to touristy, from thrifty to trendy, but no matter what changes the march of time might have wrought on the North Fork, the sense of ‘home’ is still very much present. It may have taken me several decades in Munich and an aging mother to realize, but here I am, Mr. Wolfe, proof that you can go home again.