Returns of the Day
“Blue and green or yellow and orange?”
“Blue and green or yellow and orange. Which do you like?”
“Are we talking solids?” I asked, just to be polite so I could get on with reading “Peyton Place.”
“Florals, plaids, solids and weaves,” my mother said.
My mother had just returned from Roosevelt Field where she had gone to buy a dress. “Those are the only colors Macys has?” I asked. “Blue and green or yellow and orange? What happened to fuscia? You look good in fuscia.”
“Nobody looks good in fuscia. Blue and green or yellow and orange?”
“If those are my only choices, blue and green.”
“Good. That’s settled. One less thing to worry about.”
My mother was wearing a emerald green taffeta shirtwaist dress. She was a stylish woman who rarely wore prints. Now all of a sudden she was talking florals and plaids and weaves. Her martini sparkled in the late afternoon sun but she hadn’t taken even one sip. I knew because I was in the habit of checking.
“So…you bought a dress. When are you returning it?”
“I did not buy a dress. I bought a house.”
“You couldn’t find a dress?”
“Macy’s had houses in the parking lot. I bought the small one.”
“You went to Macy’s to buy a dress and you came home with a house,” I said.
“I liked the name. ‘Leisurama’”
“So, we’re moving.”
“We are not moving. This is a summer house. I’ll probably return it.”
My mother was fond of going “house hunting” – putting a binder down then finding a way to get out of the deal. I knew she was counting on something going amiss so she could return the house. House or dress the thrill was in the return.
“You can return a house?” I asked even as I knew the question of whether or not a house can, once purchased, could actually be returned like a dress was of no consequence. “Really? You can return a house?”
”There is always a way,” my mother said.
“Where is the house?”
It was at the end of the world. That’s where Montauk was. We drove out to choose a lot on a Sunday and stopped for lunch in a small town. Something Hampton. When we finally arrived in Montauk there was nothing there but a tall white building, a drugstore and a Chinese restaurant named “Shagwong.” We met the agent at his office where he showed us our lot already marked by a red push-pin. Then he drove us to the site.
Flamingo road was unpaved – all sand and bumps and holes and ruts. I sat in the back and miserably endured being bounced around, the agent making no attempt to avoid any pits or rocks. He made a left off Flamingo, then a few more turns before he stopped the car, got out, forged ahead and promptly disappeared down a ravine into the brush. He stumbled and found his footing, turned around and waved at us. This was it. This was our lot! My mother, arms folded, shook her head and back to town we went. Another lot was found. Another drive, another wave, another shake of the head. And so on. Each drive back to town was faster, bumpier, more frantic as the agent’s hysteria grew. My mother wanted to be on the water. Those lots were beyond our price range and, anyway, were, taken. What about near the water? Those lots were all gone said the agent. So sorry said the agent. So sorry said my mother.
There is something very powerful about intending to return a house even when it cannot be returned. There is something powerful about not caring. Suddenly the agent found my mother a lot directly across from the beach. Not on the beach, mind you, but directly across. Perfect.
The houses were built in time for the summer. My mother’s friend checked it out and observed with certainty that the house would never survive the first storm. On the appointed day huge trucks arrived throughout the newly constructed development bearing boxes filled with blue and green or yellow and orange furnishings. Our street had four or five houses. Things got mixed up and sorted out. Neighbors met one another and by the end of the day the houses were set. Draperies were hung (blue and green for us) pull-out sofas moved in, towels, sheets, dishes, flatwear, pots and pans, toothbrushes and Melmac dishes- all color coordinated – were put in place. Everything was “guaranteed for life.“ (Years later the guaranteed-for–life thing came into play when my mother backed over a plate. The details are unimportant. My mother marched back to Macy’s and pointed out that the set was guaranteed for life and should be replaced. I don’t know what the lawyer who wrote the guaranteed for life thing was thinking. Whose life? The owner’s? The plate’s? The clerk was no match for my mother. Defeated by my mother’s reasoning that the pattern he was offering was slightly different and, anyway, he couldn’t give her just one plate, he handed over an entire set.)
My teen summers were spent on beaches getting tan, and devouring steamers at Gosman’s dock. The old Gosman’s. Way before it got all fancied up. The beach across from us was wide and glorious offering a walk straight to the dock. But I preferred the ocean beach – fewer families and more boys. My mother sniffed that she was sorry “our” beach wasn’t good enough but she let me take the car after I promised I would think about getting a license.
The house wasn’t mine though. Any thought I might have had about hosting wild weekends never had a chance. Even if I knew any wild people – which I did not. When I got married my husband, two children and I had the house for one weekend and one week each summer as well as some random weekends. By that time my children were firmly of Montauk.
My mother died and I inherited the house. A broken marriage came with it all. That happens sometimes – one loss generates another. My friend Terry came out to Montauk for a few days. We sat at Gosman’s and I began my tale of woe. But first we ordered lobster rolls. I recounted the past few months, detailing my heartbreak, reliving the pain through the telling. Terry nodded in sympathy and went for two more beers. I continued to talk, tears flowing freely now. Terry patted my hand and went back for fries and steamers. The sun was setting as she brought an order of clams to the table.
“I’m happy,” I said, “ I haven’t hurt your appetite.”
Years later my son saved the life of a man who lived up the street. Truth to tell I never cared for the man’s wife who I blamed for luring my mother on a one-way trip out of a hard-won sobriety. I went to lunch with my mother and this woman who wore a white silk dress and heels to Lennys. After lunch she invited us back for after-lunch cordials. I demurred but my mother did not. I know that blame is mean but it serves a purpose when one is trying to understand the impossible-to-understand. Anyway, that couple sold my son their house. I like to think they gave him a good price but I don’t know that. I do know that the owner left an abundance of sheet music especially composed for the accordion.
My husband and I bought our own house on the Sound for the sunset. No matter that it threatens to slide into the water. No matter that wave action makes it vibrate or that on some nights sleep is impossible because of the crashing sound made by the waves as they hit the boulders piled in a (vain) attempt to protect us from nature’s compulsion or that the salt and wind make flower boxes on the deck a dream denied. This was a house I used to see on my beach walk to Gosman’s. The same house minus a few hundred feet of sand.
My daughter and her family spend summers in the house that wasn’t meant to survive the first storm. My son and his family are on that same block. We cook, dine, play together and, at the end of the day, retire to our respective abodes. We toast my mother on her birthday and thank her for giving up on the notion of returning the house. Only now we call it foresight.
I love when people ask how I came to be in Montauk. “So,” I say, readying myself to tell the story. “One day my mother went shopping for a dress at Macy’s and came back with a house.”