Recommendation for a Stone Man
I’m running up the long incline of the Ponquogue Bridge from the beach side. It’s July 2012 and this is part of training for my second NYC marathon in 13 years. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that November race would be pre-empted by Superstorm Sandy. All I know in this moment is that there is no shade and no breeze, but as I climb the bridge, air starts to move. The view becomes high and huge, water and sky. On foot, I’m able to take it all in slowly. When you’re driving over it passes too fast. Back when I was a kid, crossing the old wooden bridge, my eyes would go to the mussels in the water below. They were everywhere packed to capacity on the sandbars, just begging to be picked. When the tide was low, we walked out and brought back buckets full for my mother.
As I reach the top of the bridge, lost in this memory, my phone startles me by ringing. It’s the Stone Man. We need to arrange to meet sometime today. I blurt out my current location and that it’s beautiful up here, which likely sounds a little out of context to him. He says awkwardly that it’s good I’m out running. Maybe, when I told him where I was, he had thought that I was planning to jump? I smile, because even though I barely know him, I can tell he’s a nice guy. My husband didn’t like the first one we met with, and my sister said to find someone local.
I’m not local, although if forced to identify, I am what my $40 beach sticker says: “Resident”. “Resident” means my name is on the deed of a house in Hampton Bays that I share with my six siblings. We inherited the place from my father who was a year-rounder for his last 17 years, until he died in Southampton Hospital at the age of 88. “Resident” means that I’ve got a side rear car window full of past beach stickers. I’ve got a history here. My brother Fran found a black and white photo of me as a toddler, standing on Shinnecock Bay, drawbridge behind me. There is no date imprinted on the back, but since I’m all bundled up, I’d bet it was taken the in 1964, probably the spring before our family started coming out to Hampton Bays. Maybe it was a Sunday drive shot, my parents out to look at the house.
All those years ago, it didn’t matter that my annual pair of flip flops from John’s Bargain Store gave me blisters from the hard stem plugged to the bottom between my big and second toe. Because without something on my feet, my mother refused to let me outside and all that did matter was walking to the end of the dirt road as many times a day as I wanted, to sit on the steep, concrete steps that overlook Tiana Bay. Today I still walk to these steps, usually with a glass of wine at sunset, where I see several of the neighbors, some of whom I babysat for and now have kids of their own. I have no history with the Stone Man, but my feet were on a blistered journey during the summer of 2012, and he became a part of it.
Later that July day, I drove straight at the end of Springville Road, crossing over Montauk Highway, to meet him behind the Methodist Church. You’d almost think it’s a joke posted on the sign I passed: “Good Ground Cemetery”, except when you know that Good Ground is the original name for Hampton Bays, it’s not as much of an oxymoron. And when you actually have people in the ground there, it’s weirdly welcoming to read.
When I pulled in, the Stone Man was waiting in the back. My people are in the last row, with only a thin line of trees between them and the Sunrise Highway. In summer you can hear the cars whizzing eastward on concrete. It bothers my husband sometimes, but I’m used to noise, coming from a big family. My mother, the first one buried here 26 years ago, chose this place because she wanted to be where we couldn’t help but visit her. She knew we would keep coming to Hampton Bays. We buried my brother Bart, a year after my mother; both died from cancer. My daughter, the last to follow, came here by default. There was a vacancy because my father had bought a double plot for my brother, intending the other half for one of my sisters (she was single at the time). I felt badly taking the spot for Hayley but the others reminded me, it’s first come, first served. Being last in our sibling lineup was finally working for me. An older niece might get grandma’s diamond; my daughter got the extra plot.
At Good Ground, the Stone Man talked and I listened. He would need to pull out some of the plants, like the azalea next to my father, but the lilacs would be fine. He wanted to use a very dark gray stone, instead of black like my parents and brother have, so it would blend better. He explained their color had faded over the years. We looked at the designs on other stones he had installed. He said the rose we wanted to use could be etched on exactly as she had drawn it, or it could be carved to look very close to it. He said what was important was how the place would make us feel when we came to visit.
I kept to myself how I had felt when we buried my 20 year-old daughter between her uncle and grandparents. How I had literally sat on my mother’s stone watching as the mourners filed past, each one shoveling some dirt to fill the hole in the ground. It was a comforting seat from which to watch.
He took down notes on a yellow pad, asking for exact spelling and dates. Maybe he subtracted the years, but at some point asked what had happened. I remember I answered “suicide” without the word “committed” in front of it, and was able to say the word without crying. In turn, he shared with me that he has a son. In between the words I heard him saying that my loss could have happened to any one of us parents.
That day I gave him a check to buy the stone. The rest of our transactions were business by phone or mail. He sent a true-sized blueprint for my approval and signature. The job got delayed because of Sandy, and it was late winter by the time the stone was actually in. When he enclosed a photo with the bill for remaining balance my husband and I drove out to see it.
Since then, we have taken many Sunday drives to visit Good Ground Cemetery. We used to bring our fold up chairs, before my husband added a small bench. Sometimes I play Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” from the playlist on my phone. It drowns out the din of Sunrise Highway. Always, I admire the stone. It is very beautiful.
So, if you are looking for a good Stone Man, I recommend this one. Like I said, he’s a nice guy and you never know when you are going to need one. His office was on the Sunrise extension in Southampton, but I only met him at Good Ground. Use my name; he may remember me. You could tell him I’m still running, but not as much since I finally completed my second marathon in 2015. Please do tell him how much I enjoy Hayley’s stone, and that his help made all the difference.