Rosy-fingered Dawn at Louse Point
During his period in Long Island De Kooning rode his bike daily to Louse Point where he observed the water. –Stedelijk Museum
I spent the summer of 2002 throwing things out. My mother had died unexpectedly not long before; now, as her only daughter, I was responsible for dealing with what she’d left behind. Day after day I filled garbage bags with clothes, dishes, rubber bands, manila folders stuffed with papers. I kept her jewelry, or course, and her photographs, even her surprisingly large collection of prim white gloves. But gradually all these things began to horrify me, their materiality only underlining her absence. I thought of Jean Paul Sartre’s Antoine Roquentin, who, holding a stone, suddenly feels a “kind of nausea in the hands” when he contemplates its otherness. Like him, I was horrified by the stolid, indifferent persistence of the physical world. My mother’s presence on earth had been so vivid, so palpable: where, among all these objects, houses, and trees, had it gone?
“This is the most beautiful place on earth,” my mother would tell me each time we stood together looking out from Louse Point into Gardiner’s Bay. With its muted tones of beige, green, gray, and rust, the view is understated, one not everyone appreciates. Across the channel is Gerard Point, its low beach backed by road and occasional small houses; to the left Accabonac Bay, with its islands of marsh grass. On the right, the bay stretches flat toward Gardiner’s Island. There’s nothing exotic about the view, but my mother taught me to love it, so I did. I begin to think, in fact, that loving a place must be taught. Someone has to tell us to be quiet and look.
I’ve been visiting eastern Long Island since I was in utero. In the late 1940s, my parents bought a house in East Hampton—a house they sold as part of their 1960 divorce. But my mother and I would still get there most summers, by visiting friends, staying in motels, or renting, until finally, in 1976 or so, she bought a tiny cottage in Springs, an easy fifteen-minute walk from Louse Point. By then, she was on her way out of her second marriage and I was on my way out of a two-year relationship, an anxious and solitary graduate student wondering what on earth would become of me. We both tended toward depression and symbiotic dependencies. But at Louse Point all we had to do was be quiet, and an alternative world emerged, one shaped by needs and urges having absolutely nothing to do with our own.
There were sanderlings tottering along on toothpick legs, disemboweled spider crabs, the sulfurous smell of low tide, and seagulls everywhere: rocking on the water, hovering overhead, or dropping clams onto the black-tarred road. I would stand ankle deep in the bay, watching for movement around my toes, knowing that soon, on the apparently still sea-bottom, I’d see shells dislodging sand grains in tiny puffs. My mother and I didn’t talk much. I just sensed that this was a good place to be, perhaps because it was as far from our own thoughts as we could get. Far from our thoughts, yet part of them as well: those hermit crabs found their way into my psyche as surely as—and more deeply than—all the idiotic men I broke my heart over.
At Louse Point, non-human forms of life conducted business on their own terms. Seeing this, I felt not nausea, but calm, as if their busy, incomprehensible purposes removed a burden from me. Sometime around 1984, when I went to Louse Point with the man who later became my husband, we arrived at dusk to find hundreds of horseshoe crabs mating in the shallow water. Each hard black shell, a foot or so in diameter, was stacked on another, partially obscuring it. Leathery tails projected at odd intervals from these piles, which shifted slightly in the low waves. The crabs were so densely piled, one couple next to another, that the sand seemed black and weirdly animate. We felt we’d surprised the earth at some primal task we weren’t supposed to see.
That was enough to make Richard love Louse Point, but five years later, our daughter Madeline was less impressed. At three or so, she didn’t like the peas to touch the potatoes on her dinner plate, and she was terrified of seaweed. The seaweed at Louse Point is lush and varied: dark purple, with leafy, blistered arms that harden in the sun; silky puffs of rust and maroon; pale green escarole, that flops unpredictably; balls of tangled white threads resembling old Kleenex. Given her distaste for disorder, it made sense to me that she didn’t want wobbling shoals of soggy lettuce touching her legs. She sensed its otherness with all the repulsion of Roquentin.
But my mother was determined. “Come a little closer,” she urged Madeline one June morning at Louse Point, holding a piece of seaweed in one hand.
Madeline came within a few feet then stopped. My mother put down the seaweed and gave her a hug, then backed away a bit, but not as far this time. She picked up the seaweed again and urged her to come closer. They repeated the game over and over, until Madeline finally touched the seaweed. By the end of the day, she and her grandmother were sitting in the water ecstatically draping each other with seaweed.
Louse Point has eroded dramatically since my mother last saw it. A storm a decade ago tore off the point, sending it, along with parts of Louse Point Road, into Gardiner’s Bay. The pavement’s ragged edge overhangs the bluff, and the beach below is narrower than it used to be. The town dredges the channel and plants beach grass in desperate attempts to save the beach, while nearby property owners build revetments to protect their endangered houses—revetments that will intensify the beach’s erosion. Human intentions meet an inscrutable world.
There is a kind of discipline in letting the nonhuman world emerge in all its weirdness, in all its chaos of decay and regeneration, and still, somehow, managing to love it, to make it our own. That’s why the mock-epic title of Willem De Kooning’s painting Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point appeals to me. “Rosy-fingered dawn”? Homer knew the dawn has no fingers when he used the phrase in the Iliad 2,600 years ago. De Kooning, I suspect, borrows the epithet ironically, to underline our futile, poignant need to translate the world into our own terms. “The water reflects,” De Kooning said of the bay at Louse Point, “but I’m reflecting on the water.” The world works according to its own laws, indifferent as to whether we live or die, but we make it ours anyway—by slashing thick yellows onto a canvas, by playing with seaweed, by gesturing toward a landscape we love and saying, “Look.” Perhaps, in fact, it’s through sharing their affection for a place that the people we love gain whatever immortality they have.
Last summer, just a month or so before her wedding, Madeline came with her fiancé Michael to visit us on Long Island. My husband and I were spending a few weeks in what we’ve all taken to calling the “seaweed house,” left by my mother to my two older brothers and me. Our first walk, of course, was to Louse Point. It was chilly and overcast, a mélange of gray and beige, with the occasional cormorant livening things up by vanishing underwater at odd intervals.
“This,” I heard Madeline say to Michael, “is the most beautiful place on earth.”