I was 2,000 miles away in the bold sun and vast, blue skies of New Mexico when our family home was sold. No tears or farewell waves on the final drive from the yard. It stood there on Route 25 in an aloof stance, not facing the road but not away from it either. Its corners pointing out toward the crawling traffic from the west end to the Hamptons. Even the circular driveway was ambivalent in purpose. It didn’t lead you to the front door or the dilapidated barn at the property’s edge. It led you right back to where you began, neither a welcome nor a dismissal. The yard was not a testament to nature but rather to the fastidious care of my aunt and grandmother. Each tree, shrub and flower bed planned and plucked with fervor.
That’s how I remembered it and the image kept me rooted to it, connected to a place that was no longer mine. The home was part of our family’s heritage but not its legacy. Part of our family’s history but not part of its future. While my aunt and grandmother had moved away, I needed to visit the farmhouse of my youth. Foreign cars in the drive and weeds in the yard would bring me closure. A vacation was planned with my second husband, his first to the island, and my last trip as a native. That’s how I felt- a loss of identity with the sale of that home and the migration of my family. I’d be relegated to the rank of tourist.
We are newlyweds on this bittersweet visit. Still content in each other’s company where conversation is fresh and charged with sexual energy. It makes the mundane seem exciting as I talk about holiday feasts, summer barbeques, lazy afternoons spend in the neighbor’s pool. Everything is a revelation- from personal history to personal hygiene, values to vices, backstory to body parts. These discoveries are new and endlessly fascinating to us. I share details of my childhood that a fledgling spouse should know. After all, our visit was for just this purpose- the exploratory trip to the hometown. A time for tender reminiscence and trepid introductions. My new husband faced the judgement of family members, introductions to exes, and interrogations by best friends. The trip had all the makings of prime-time reality television. And there had been a few moments of near-conflict like when my well-intentioned friends asked my atheist, scientist husband to pray at dinner.
But it is just the two of us now. Our day trek out to Orient Point is a blessed break from social calls. The drive will take us right past my family home as I’ve been quick to remind my spouse again and again. Our conversation reflects the passing landscape- the stark angles of city bridges then the suburban main streets struggling to survive now the improbable green spaces of the east end. The further we travel, the more anxious I become to see our home. Someone else’s home. The home that contains other people…city people…imposters.
“Ted, do you think they’d show us around if we stopped in?” There will be little satisfaction in simply driving by like a celebrity homes tour. I’d like to get a feel for this family. See what they’ve done to the place.
“Who? The owners of your aunt’s place?” He looks at me, confused for a moment.
“Yes. Could we explain who we are and ask for a peek inside?” I open the window to a humid breeze that smells of fertilizer and exhaust fumes.
“No! We can’t. You can’t just knock on someone’s door and ask to be let in. It’s New York for chrissake.” My Midwestern husband is cautious to a fault and a bit unnerved by his surroundings.
“But…I’m practically family! I was raised in the place.” Just a slight exaggeration. I spent holidays and long weekends there between the ages of six and sixteen. An entire decade! A decade of tradition during my formative years.
“No! You’re not part of their family! Why should they let you in?” He glances from side to side as though something might jump out. He’s spooked by the building traffic while I study the passing scenery. It’s at once familiar and foreign. So much has changed since my last visit.
“Uuumm….for posterity?” The scenery turns pastoral with fields and farm animals, stands selling fresh produce. The dichotomy of Long Island revealed in a single drive like Bert’s sidewalk, chalk drawings right outside my window. I feel like Mary Poppins enchanted by vivid landscapes- once imagined then made real.
“You can’t just invade a family’s privacy like that. It’s inconvenient and…it’s an imposition on their time.” He pulls his brows tighter than the cars aligned in front of us. I see the Midwesterner all over him as he wipes his brow on his shirtsleeve. He drips Midwestern sweat of courtesy and pragmatism.
“Were we imposing on family and friends with our visits last week?” A horn sounds behind us to move the six inches the have opened between vehicles. Ted glares in the mirror and looks at me wearily. He can escape the ensuing argument with a simple, two-letter word. But he won’t. He can’t see shades of gray or the rainbow beauty of chalk drawings melting in the rain.
“These people are strangers who aren’t expecting us. With your family, it was planned. We were invited. It’s different. But still….it might have been imposing on them. It required something of them.” Required and appropriate are two of Ted’s favorite words as though he teaches Catholic school to wayward teens.
“So anytime an effort is require of another person…it’s an imposition? That’s ridiculous, Ted.” Maybe I’m taking it personally- this indifference toward the places that define who I am, this worrisome clash of values.
“I don’t want to argue about manners. I…I don’t want to stop there.” A horn blares behind us for no discernable reason. Ted jumps in his seat. It was cruel to make him take the wheel but driving in New York builds character. Not that Ted needs this. He’s a man of values and integrity. Salt-of-the-Earth and all that.
“How about we pull over so I can take a look at it?” A motorcycle whizzes by on our right, trailing pebbles and impatience. It occurs to me that perhaps…I’m punishing Ted for being who he is with perilous driving and demands that challenge his logic.
“Where would you like me to pull over?” He glances around in frustration, overlooking the vineyards fertile with fruit. His focus in intent on the vehicles and asphalt that guide us.
“How about we stop at Paumonok Vineyard and I can take a few photos through the bushes?” I raise the camera and aim the lens at Ted. It captures defeat while I was hoping for compromise. A bit of enthusiasm, interest even, would go a long way. He sighs with resignation.
“A glass of wine sounds good. We’re just sitting here anyway. Then I can rest and you can see your aunt’s house. It’s a break we both need.” He reaches over to squeeze my knee. And this is what I love about him- an optimism that trumps his steadfast nature. It’s this foolish confidence that led him to marry me, a single mother who was homesick and heart-broken. Sure that we could create a family despite his better judgment.
A mile later we pull into Paumonok’s parking lot. It is a place transformed from my last visit with a tasting room ringed by a wooden deck. Beyond the building are mature vines as tall as me, thick with ruffled leaves. A compromise between earth and ethos. The land coaxed to this strange crop with the persuasion of gentle hands. Something stronger, more fruitful than what was there before. I lay my hand on the back of Ted’s neck and rub away the stress.
While I do some snooping, Ted samples wine in the shade of a trellis that hides the road from view. Eventually, he finds me at the property line and takes a photo of my aunt’s house with me crouching in the shrubs like a thief. But it’s what I need to say good-bye, done without bringing shame or embarrassment to my sensible husband. We continue our journey east, content and relaxed. By the time we reach the Island’s farthest end, I think he’s ready for my latest idea. I ignore the dangers of drowning or trespassing. Intrepid with hope for our future. Fearless after a flight of crisp chardonnay. I decide we’ll visit the the Orient Point lighthouse and take photos from the widow’s walk. Or maybe Ted will photograph me from below, balanced on the railing with arms spread wide. Now that would be a photo for the family album.