When I was a child, Nana’s house was magic. Nana Lulu was my great-grandmother; she lived in Montauk in an old gray cottage overlooking the wild Atlantic. It was a refuge to her in her widowhood. Ever since 1910, when she’d decided on the spur of the moment, aged 18, to drive to Montauk from Hell’s Kitchen where she lived, she’d wanted a house in Montauk. But her husband, my great-grandfather Edwin, didn’t want to buy. Her problem was solved one summer when Edwin died on top of his mistress on the Montauk bay side. Undaunted, Lulu promptly bought her own house on Old Montauk Highway in 1946, the old school house. The place she’d always wanted, her own house, no one else’s, where she could rent rooms, support herself, and be by the sea.
Every inch of that house was beloved to me; every stick of furniture, every bit of pottery, every worn blanket spoke of an intriguing past that belonged to my family. The chair I was sitting in had been trash-picked off a Brooklyn sidewalk by Nana in 1914. Nana’s mother had made her living as a seamstress on the ancient Singer in the living room. The faded framed embroidery on the living room wall had been executed by some dimly remembered Swedish ancestor; the many-colored dishes in the little kitchenette on the enclosed porch were collected as movie giveaways.
I particularly loved the porch; it was like a miniature house in one room, with a tiny undercounter 1940s fridge and a minute stovetop. The porch was rented occasionally to a lovely lady from Austria who my irrepressible father would sometime speculate was an escaped war criminal. If we children were out in the summer when the porch was rented, we were required to refrain from shrieking so much.)
Carved into the side of the house were the initials of children. They had been pupils when the house was the one-room schoolhouse in the nineteenth century. Upstairs in the attic, where I was only sometimes allowed to go (“You know you’re going to trip on the stairs!”), my mother had carved SUSAN IS A RAT on the wall while angry at her sister sometime in the 1950s. In the attic I discovered books discarded by summer guests, and more of my family’s past: some of the pipes my great-grandfather smoked, his stamps, his coin collection. I didn’t know why, back then, he was never to be spoken of.
On the side of the house was a connected shed known as Tony’s House. (All lawnmowers in our family are known as Tony for some unremembered reason.) Next to Tony’s House was (and is) the tiny guest cottage where we stayed as a family, four kids in one room, two parents in another, a kitchen and a minute bathroom. The kitchen of the cottage had worn linoleum on the floor with holes you needed to avoid with bare feet and a gas stove you needed a match to light; how I longed to be old enough to light the stove myself!
We children slept head to feet in four twin beds, shivering with sunburn after a day at the beach under wool blankets layered over heavy, crisp percale sheets Nana stole from her linen service (all sheets in our family for many years had “Central Laundry” stamped across one corner). The best part of the cottage was the screen door in our bedroom that thwapped and banged several times after being slammed shut by an excited child racing down to the beach; no sound, not even the Wings songs played incessantly every July in the 1970s, says “summer” to me more piercingly than a banging screen door.
Nana’s house was sold after her death in 1981 when I was sixteen. My mother couldn’t afford to keep it up. Mom left the 1914 trash-picked chair and the colored dishes in the house when it was sold. She said later she couldn’t bear to have the chair Nana always sat in around her house. It didn’t occur to her that her children might have wanted it. The Swedish embroidery hangs in my mother’s living room near the old Singer, though.
My dream has always been to buy Nana’s house back, but it has never been for sale when I could afford to buy it. I was able to purchase an old fisherman’s house several houses down the road in 1999. (My mother remembers it and the old lady who lived in it in the 1950s, who was a friend of Nana’s.) It also has a guest cottage out back.
I wanted to live in Montauk all year round, but I couldn’t. My husband didn’t want to. It was too far from the city, he said. There wasn’t enough to do, he said. The kids would be bored, he said. The house remained a summer home.
My problems were solved one year when my husband left me for another woman. I moved to Montauk by myself. I often live in the guest cottage, just like my childhood summers, and rent out the house to earn money. My children are required to refrain from shrieking so much.
And now I am here in Montauk. The place I’ve always wanted, my own house, no one else’s, where I can rent rooms, support myself, and be by the sea.