How my stepfather’s modest home in Southampton taught us how to be a family. It wasn’t easy.
After my stepfather Nick died, my mother relaxed about their house in Southampton.
Nick was very particular about this house. A cedar-planked, 2-bedroom-1-bath, it sits unassumingly at the end of a narrow lane, nudged up against placid Middle Pond. The short, semi-circular drive is paved with pristine white gravel, and a seven-foot hedge borders the small yard. When my daughter was a toddler she’d wait breathlessly for two brown rabbits to emerge from the hedge and nibble the green grass. She called them “Max and Ruby” after the cartoon series. Pink geraniums wink from their elegant white planters on the deck, as the bay sloshes against the empty boat slip.
Only geraniums, pink and red, have ever graced those planters, which are also white and positioned to greet you at the front door, to dot your view of the bay, to remind you to shut the sliding glass door (not just the screen door) when you come in from the deck for the evening. God-forbid any air conditioning escape on muggy August nights like this one.
Nick was also particular about who could visit, and who could stay. The house is small, so whomever visited must be comfortable with the close quarters—but more importantly, Nick had to be comfortable sharing his house with them. My boyfriend became my very-serious boyfriend before he got an invitation. Few in my brother’s succession of girlfriends saw the sunset from the white slipcovered couches, but his wife did (she was only his wife for a short time, though she remained in some of the photos on the mantle until recently). Nick was also particular about what sort of art could be hung on the walls, he didn’t like nails mucking up the crisp white paint. He preferred to hang black and white photographs, or something he’d painted himself—at one time, long before I knew him, he’d painted a sailboat in muted pastels which now hangs over the fireplace. Whatever it was, it shouldn’t distract from the main attraction, the water, the sky just beyond the windows. Nick wasn’t only particular about what was on the walls, but the rhythm of what went on within them. All eating took place at the table, together, preferably the white plastic picnic table on the deck—never on the couch, in bed, or in front of the television. I’ve been sneaking snacks in bed in his house for as long as I’ve been coming here—this summer marks twenty-two years.
My stepfather was the son of Italian immigrants; he grew up running the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in the 1940s. He was a scrappy, brilliant kid who knew struggle, and fear. But he also knew joy, and humor, and the value of a good meal eaten slowly—pasta with simple marinara; much later, shrimp cocktail and fresh corn from the market in Hampton Bays. His first summer job was herding sheep on Tenth Avenue back when the meatpacking district was known for packing meat, but he quit that job when he learned the nubby animals he’d grown to love were headed for the slaughterhouse. In his twenties, Nick joined the Fire Department—where he eventually became lieutenant—to work his way through law school. As a young lawyer he represented New York City firefighters in personal injury lawsuits that made him, and them, wealthy men—though years of exposure to toxic smoke weakened his heart. This house, which wasn’t cedar-planked and surrounded by topiary when he bought it in the mid 1990s, was one of the spoils of his hard work, hisheart work. He was tireless in his defense of those firefighters, but he could relax at the little house on Middle Pond. It was his pride.
It’s true that when my daughter came along Nick loosened up about his house. As a toddler she trailed sand and smeared fingers on the glass coffee table. She threw fistfuls of smashed avocado onto the shining wood floors. He thought it was, she was, delightful, hilarious, perfect. He’d compete with her for the last mini-cupcake or bite of ice cream from The Fudge Shop on Main Street—a good natured competition that went on almost to the very end of his life.
My stepfather didn’t have the privilege I did, didn’t have a modest 2-1 to spend lazy summer weekends in—he earned that spot on the bay with pure grit. When he started dating my mother I was 19, and utterly unaware of what it took to make one’s way in the world. My own beginning was comfortable, at least physically. Though my parents’ relationship and then divorce was fraught, my brother and I never went without—we went to summer camps and enjoyed the house my parents rented in East Hampton the summer I turned eleven, a two-story Victorian I was sure was haunted. After the divorce, my mother found herself raising us with no financial support from my father, and certainly no budget for summer rentals. She focused on growing her Public Relations business and providing for us—her two fairly ungrateful children. When she was introduced to the charismatic lawyer from the West Side she was awed by his talent, his fluency in Italian, his quick wit and generosity. I focused, instead, on his rigidity, the way he insisted on arguing politics and religion with me with the same intensity that made him a success in the courtroom. I was intimidated. Who wouldn’t be? He was a force of nature. I was sure that my chosen path, not as a lawyer or doctor, but as a writer and musician, would never impress him. I’dnever impress him.
My stepfather was among the last of a generation of New Yorkers—self-made men, boot-strappers who rarely showed their feelings. I can count on one hand the number of vulnerable conversations we had, but one of them—one I’ll never forget—took place one summer night a few years ago, on that white slipcovered couch, the perfect spot to watch the sunset through the windows overlooking the bay. My daughter was asleep in her pack and play, my mother was in their bedroom, and my husband was watching television (and not snacking) in bed. I found myself alone with Nick in the living room. I’d recently had an essay published online—a minor accomplishment in the strata of my ambition. I was sure he hadn’t noticed, though I was also sure that my mother told him about it—she trotted out my minor accomplishments like show ponies when they were alone. The setting sun made the sky over the water rose-gold, and a family of swans who came to the boat slip for the stale bread we tossed their way were protectively herding their babies toward the cove.
“Good job,” Nick said, over the din of Fox news blaring from the TV. I waited for him to say more. “Your mother told me about your essay. Nice work, Cameron. I’m proud of you.”
I was stunned. We sat for a few more moments in silence. I wondered if he’d say more. I sat up straighter on the couch and took a sip from my sparkling water (the only permissible beverage on the white furniture). The walls seemed less austere then, the invisible boundary between us less pronounced. His words opened a desire in me I hadn’t allowed myself to acknowledge. I wanted my stepfather to be impressed with me, as I was with him. Though I’d only just begun to admit the former to myself. He winked, and smiled—a smile that lit up his face, lit up the room. In the modest 2-1, surrounded by pink geraniums at the end of the narrow lane nudged up against the bay, I understood his love, the way he expressed that love, for the first time. “Thank you,” I squeaked, my cheeks burning.
I’ve returned to my stepfather’s house this summer with my husband and daughter, who is now 12, in tow. It’s the first time we’ve been here since we lost him to a long battle with heart disease—a battle that began when he made his living running into burning buildings. As our little family spills out of the taxi, dragging our bags behind us, the last of the sunlight fades behind the baronial new homes popping up like gingerbread houses along the shore. Once inside Nick’s house, I can see that the sky is a deep, sparkling blue, the color it turns just before the stars turn on, one by one, like distant porch lights. I settle on the white couch—the view is perfect as ever. Over our week at my stepfather’s house, I’ll fuss at my daughter to eat her snacks at the table, though she’s lost all interest in mini-cupcakes now. I blame her changing tastes on adolescence, but I know in my heart it’s really grief. I’ll remind my husband to use a coaster under his coffee mug, and I’ll keep the sliding glass door tightly closed. When we eat our dinner of shrimp and fresh corn at the white picnic table we’ll tearfully raise our glasses to Nick. I light a candle as I type this though, something my stepfather-the-firefighter would’ve never approved of. This house on Middle Pond Lane is where we learned, are still learning, how to be a family. For that, I’m grateful.