“Summer people”…..that’s what we were called. My family was among the many that were fortunate enough to be able to “summer” in the Hamptons during my formative years. My grandfather, R. Dana Chase, developed his love of the East End as a child when he summered in Shinnecock Hills with his father, the American Impressionist, William Merritt Chase. This love led him to purchase a summer home in the 1950s in the North Sea development called Southampton Shores. Each summer, my mother and father would pack up the car as soon as the last school bell had rung to begin our yearly migration east. My sisters and I would cram into the backseat of our Ford Fairlane, windows cranked open to catch any whiff of a summer breeze, surrounded by a season’s worth of clothes. Soon we were making our way on the Long Island Expressway, to the sounds of Dan Ingram’s show on WABC radio, toward the Riverhead traffic circle. Of course, there was always an impromptu stop as someone got car sick or needed to use a bathroom, but when we saw the Big Duck rising on the horizon, we knew we were almost there!
Soon we were pulling into our home away from home on Oak Place. It was a shingled ranch house with window boxes groaning with freshly planted geraniums nestled under a phalanx of majestic oaks trees on a quiet dead end street. It was as close to heaven as you can get on Earth for my sisters and me. My grandfather would invariably be weeding the front patio or fixing the screen door while waiting for our arrival. Soon we would be on our way into town, making our way down a winding Major’s Path, past the “big rock” and the garbage dump, to get our “necessities”…..groceries and books! The first stop was the Rogers Memorial Library. After parking in the municipal lot, we made our way through the honeysuckle scented garden of the Parrish Art Museum marveling at the glorious, moss covered sculptures that lined the space. Once on Job’s Lane, we made the short walk to the library. There was nothing more intoxicating to my 10 year old self than the aroma that greeted us when we opened the door to that beautiful Tudor building….a mix of salt, wood, and a hint of mold. We would scan the racks for books from our summer reading list and join the summer reading club.
Next we went to the King Kullen to get our provisions. While mom was trolling the aisles, my sisters and I would grab a box of chocolate chip cookies and head to the parking lot. We would climb the stile over the white picket fence and enter the old cemetery. For the next hour we would wander through the rows of weathered headstones taking in the history of the town of Southampton one tombstone at a time. It was like travelling through time as we learned of, not only when the earliest settlers passed, but how. Soon it was time to make the short trek back to “the Shores” with our goodies in tow.
It wasn’t long before we were caught up in the slow cadence of rural living. It took us a few nights to get used to the quiet sounds of life in the country…the hoot of an owl, the chirping of crickets. We were used falling to sleep to the sounds of the world outside our apartment window in the city…the dull lull of traffic, the screech of a siren. We were awakened each morning by the crow of Mr. Emerson’s rooster or the bombastic voice of Mrs. Kelly talking to a neighbor on the party line. Our days were spent skipping rocks and scouring the sands for seashells on the shores of Little Peconic Bay or riding the waves at Flying Point Beach. Nothing was better than stopping at the Penny Candy Store in Watermill for a treat on the way home. We would run up the steps and open the door to the familiar jingle of the welcome bells. It was like stepping into heaven. There were jars and jars of candies lining the shelves and cases. We would spend the next few minutes pointing out our favorites as the friendly shopkeeper would pile the wares into a brown paper bag, all while keeping a running tally of the damage for our parents to pay. Soon we were home, rinsing our sandy feet with the shocking cold water of the garden hose while brokering trades for our favorite candies.
Dinner was always a wonderful time. Mom would ring the dinner bell to call us in from our explorations in the woods at the end of the road where we would be picking wild berries while fighting off hungry mosquitoes…the kind that no “No Pest Strip” could trap. We would settle in on the large screened-in porch as the last glimmer of light would disappear through the oscillating leaves of the giant oak trees. Freshly showered and scrubbed, with a smattering of newly formed freckles dotting our noses, we would feast on local corn and London Broil expertly grilled by our dad on the massive brick barbecue in the yard. Soon we would hear the familiar jingle of the neighbor’s dog’s collar at our back screen door. “Buttons” was a regular visitor, drawn by the scent of the succulent meal and the jovial din of our dinner conversation. Occasionally, we would get together with neighbors for “Happy Hour”. The festivities would start at 5:45 when the sound of the North Sea fire alarm would pierce the calm of the Southampton twilight. Soon we would be slurping down freshly shucked Little Neck Clams with a healthy topping of spicy cocktail sauce while the adults sipped their martinis in the waning sunlight.
There was always something fun to do at night: catching fireflies in a jar, roasting marshmallows on a stick, or playing flashlight tag. One of our favorite things to do was to get together with other neighborhood kids and put on a show in the backyard. We would rehearse song and dance routines in the front of the house then, when ready, retreat to the back of the house to regale the adults with our “show”. The shuffleboard court would sub as the stage and my grandfather would adjust the spotlight to shine on the “performers”. If we were really good, our parents would take us to the North Sea carnival where we would stuff ourselves with popcorn and cotton candy as we rode the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Ferris Wheel while fireworks boomed in the moonlit sky above our heads. Then it was off to the ice cream shop across the road, the Fling, for the perfect ice cream cone before heading back to the house and to our beds to drift off to sleep under the watchful eyes of the knotty pine paneling that lined the bedroom walls. We would dream, to the drone of crickets, of the fun the next day would bring in our beloved corner of the world. It could be the passing of time that creates the illusion of viewing this part of my life as if through rose-colored glasses, but it was the closest thing to nirvana that I have ever experienced.