Pioneers of Northwest Woods-1966

Written By: Mary Cecilia Miller

At the close of a summer’s day, a buffet is set up on an outdoor picnic table covered by a red-checkered tablecloth. The food there, locally grown, comes from our “Northwest Woods Farm” in East Hampton. Barbecued chicken and ribs, fresh corn, salads, vegetables and homemade breads feed all here. After enjoying the scrumptious meal, we all sit around a cozy fire. My father requests that I burn a marshmallow up for him. Setting it ablaze on a reedy stick, I giggle as he tosses the smoldering morsel into his mouth. My mother laughs saying, “Oh Larry, I could put you in a book!” Savoring the sugary confection, Daddy plants an affectionate kiss on her elusive face.

Around the crackling fire, tunes like “The Minstrel Boy” and “Tenting Tonight” resound. Grandpa Joe croons “The Wild Colonial Boy,” fetching tears in my young eyes. As the fire wanes, the song “Good-night Ladies” serenades guests dispersing. Some go into my cousins’ brightly lit home while most stroll toward their cars. Down a pitch-black driveway, as if owning the night, I walk home alone. Within a nearby pasture, our three Black Angus steer stand motionless together. Everywhere, flitting fireflies display their iridescent lights. Skillfully avoiding crevices in the road, I meander toward the dark silhouette of our farmhouse and the gleaming lamppost on the front lawn.

Ivy cleaves to the brick terrace there. Simply decorated with a rocking chair, glider, and a planter holding a fig tree, this charming setting is fragrant in the balmy air with perfumes of many flowers. Sitting on the glider, I see headlights shining and hear a familiar truck clamoring up our long driveway. Presently, my oldest brother Paul and his debonair girlfriend approach. In a kindhearted voice he looks over saying, “Go to bed, Chio”. Entering through the front door, they stay a while before again leaving. Soon, the lowly drone of his vehicle wends further into obscurity until fading inaudible alone Swamp Road. Amid the intermittent pleas of a nocturnal whippoorwill, the only sound remaining are insects chanting pervasively within the night.

Inside, I stand in the vestibule entrance. The glow of the kitchen light adorns a bouquet of zinnias on the dining room table. I walk into the living room, where my parents are reading, to say goodnight to them. My mother replies, “Goodnight Mary Cecilia, say prayers and God bless you.” I take consolation in the circadian delivery of that repetitious vernacular, recited to me most nights by my devout mother. “Goodnight Honey and shut that damn kitchen light off. It’s costing me money,” my father remarks.

Ready to turn in for the night, I climb a narrow staircase lit up by a pale moonlight. Upstairs, at an open window above my bed, I feel a sea breeze that lifts the curtains. In the other twin bed, my younger sister sleeps. Her brown hair cascades over her pillow. A print above my dresser of an Andrew Wyeth painting called “Christina’s World,” tells a story of an adolescent girl living life in rural Maine. Her partially paralyzed body lies supine in an autumn field. Christina’s face, though mostly turned backward toward a modest home, seems poised. Her homestead reminds me of ours, and the serenity it bares.

In the morning, the lush countryside sparkles from last night’s rain. Variegated blooms in a circular garden, embrace our manicured front lawn. A vegetable garden, also laboriously maintained to by my father, takes up a portion of the lower valley. Nestled in the distance above a density of trees, Northwest Harbor reflects seascape views in paramount color. I hear mom downstairs asking Paul to meet up with daddy later on down at the bay. “I’ll be there,” he answers, closing the kitchen door and quickly driving off apparently late for his summer job. An aroma of bread baking in the kitchen fills the house. A sister and a cousin of mine make a few batches to sell at sixty-five cents a loaf at their “bread stand” near our house on Mile Hill Road. A small sign nailed to a tree along the road markets the homemade bread displayed on a card table. All vend easily before long.

Stepping outside, I see my middle-aged father hitching his trailer to the back of his red tractor. Driving the squeaky cart downhill he stops at the barn to pick up the large seine fishing net piled up underneath the shade of an old hickory tree. I wander down the hill to help him load it up onto the trailer. From there, daddy drives the rig up to the pasture behind the barn. We slowly offload the net, draping it over fencing bordering the field. Operating a simple tool with calloused hands, my father weaves together the torn netting. Speaking in pithy sentences, he likes to comment on the task at hand.

After replacing a few floats and weights on the net, he looks up and says to me, “We’re going to use this net later on today down at the bay, but right now it needs mending.” After completing all of the repairs, daddy pries opens a bucket of black tar. I instantly step back, recognizing the strong odor of it, recalling when us kids played with that sticky goo and tracked it into our home last year. I stay put, giving my father a wide birth as he applies tar onto the repaired parts of the net. “We’ll leave it here for now to let it dry in the sun,” daddy tells me. A bossy rooster begins to crow nearby, sounding frantic in the wind. The barnyard he patrols, situated in walking distance of my aunt and uncle’s home and ours, contains a brown cow, a grey horse, and a few chickens. Leaving the tractor in the pasture, we walk past the barn. “Commander,” the big grey Plymouth Rooster, charges at us with one wing down preparing to attack. Daddy waves his arm at it, making it instantly back down. I look up at my father in admiration, being always afraid of that aggressive bird.

In the afternoon, our two families arrive at the foot of Mile Hill Road. The bay is empty. Wild roses and honeysuckle beautify the area. Seaweed waves from the fishing net, now on the beach. In small groups, four adults and us twenty-two children amble alone the shore. Some of us younger kids try catching our elusive shadows stretched out over yellow sand. Eventually standing still in the lapping waves, I soon notice blowfish nibbling on my toes. In proximity to me and out of the water, the “high tide rock” is totally exposed in the afternoon sun, a sign that it is now dead low tide.

Daddy and Paul start the arduous task of hauling the leading edge of fishing net straight out toward the middle of the bay. One at a time thereafter, my uncle, his three sons, and my other two brothers help walk the net further out. At a certain distance, my father and Paul begin looping the net back toward the beach. Orange floats, in single file, uniformly bob up and down keeping the whole thing afloat while unseen weights at the base keep it vertical. Almost at shore, daddy calls for help towing the line. A number of us happily take hold of the wet netting. On an incoming tide and with all pulling, we soon pile slack netting onto the sand. Bit by bit the net reduces in scope, while getting nearer to shore. The wild commotion of bubbling seawater alerts bold seagulls overhead. Calling out while swooping down, some take small crabs from the net.

The muddled school of disoriented blowfish tries to swim alongside the shallow shoreline. Giving the net a final heave-hoe, we successfully pull the last of it fully up onto the beach. Taking in salty air, blowfish puff up rough bellies making them easier to grab. Along with our haul, there are also crabs, dogfish (also called sand sharks), seaweed, and sea robins. Picked up in gloved hands and thrown back into the bay, sea robins make throaty sounds displaying sharp spines. Also caught up in the web, horseshoe crabs show pointed tails while blindly snapping their harmless claws in all directions.

A few years back, a friendly Bonac woman from Springs demonstrated a two-step technique to clean these blowfish, making preparing them easy work. The drumstick-looking food coated in flour and sautéed in butter, taste even sweeter to me because we harvest it ourselves. Along with the drenched net, enough blowfish for our two families weighs down dad’s trailer. Once cleaned, they’ll be the main course for dinner for the next few days, with the rest put into freezers for later use. With our adventure almost ended, we share a few more laughs before bidding farewell. Upon an unhurried departure from this tranquil bay, I stand a moment longer admiring an opulent landscape gilded amid a collapsing sunset milieu.