The Cottage

Written By: James  Brennan

A salty crisp breeze and the sounds of rocking buoys and boats are some of the first things I think of when I think of happiness.  Not a frenetic or silly happy, but the content, warm glow of home, safety and memories. Sag Harbor has been my home for as long as I can remember. It is a place where love and family is a matter of fact and as easy as breathing the summer air.

My grandfather was a quiet and strong man. I never truly knew him as he died before I could make more than scattered memories of him. From all I’ve heard, I wish I could have known him better. Grandpa bought the cottage in the late 1950’s as an escape for himself and his family. The house was originally a two room cabin built around the turn of the century as a residence for a summer camp. So when Grandpa bought it, it needed an update or two. Over the years it was added to but never lost its simple character or warmth.

My dad described summers in Noyac running around with his brother, John, and their friends until their feet were calloused like shoe leather. They claimed a local sandbar across from the docks as their home base, holding mock wars, fishing and playing stickball. It was a simple time of endless summer. To this day you can find my dad out on the cottage porch smoking a cigar and laughing about the antics his brother and he got up to. The friends and memories he made out there became a part of the fabric of the family narrative.

When I was one, my dad and uncle bought the cottage from my Grandpa. My aunt and mom joke about how it cleaned out their bank accounts, leaving just enough for breakfast sandwiches the morning after the closing. The beach house was so important to my family that they had to have it for their children – even if caused financial hardship.  We would go out there as kids and do the same things our parents did at their age and more. We visited the Montauk Lighthouse, saw fireworks over the bay, devoured Big Olaf’s, and snacked on candy from the Fudge Company.  When we heard that the Hamptons were considered trendy, elite, or an escape for celebrities, we laughed. All I ever knew was that the Hamptons meant family and summertime adventures.

At twelve years old my endless summers suddenly ended. Uncle John had pancreatic cancer. The feeling of boundless hope seemed to dim and I began to grow up. Sag Harbor became a sad place filled with happy memories that only seemed to make the pain worse. My dad’s nightly cigars on the porch that were always so calm and comforting now echoed with the impending loss of his best friend and brother.

Uncle John held on as long as he could but eventually succumbed to the cancer. He was buried with a bottle of the sand he played on as child. The only time I’ve ever seen my father cry was when he spoke at the funeral. Stories of beating each other up as kids, playing with horseshoe crabs and planning their future on the cottage porch over beers. People laughed, people cried, but it made us stronger knowing that Uncle John could never leave us as long as we had a place that whispered of his memory. The following May the house opened, as constant as it ever was, and the family returned. I remember that being one of the happiest and most painful summers of my life.

The family makes it out there every chance we get now. It’s not about vacation or status, it’s about being together. The house became a sanctuary where only the closest friends or family could come. For myself letting someone into our cottage became the ultimate sign of trust, an exposing of my heart and soul that few qualified for. I have extended that trust once and that’s who I intend to marry. The cottage is my family’s beating heart.

The old cottage is gone. After standing for over a century in one form or another the house became irreparable. We bandaged it and fixed it as much as we could but in the end we had to rebuild. It was not a decision reached lightly. It physically hurt to see it demolished, to see a place filled with three generations of memories become a mound of debris.

When the new house went up in its place I was terrified it would lose its character, become a modernized shadow of itself. I should have known better. The new house is simple, utilitarian and built with room for the next generation. I realized that though the old cottage was gone, it didn’t get rid of the memories I had there. Those memories were part of the mystique of the Hamptons and would forever be a part of me. One day when I have my own family I will bring them to our cottage, my summer home away from home. They will love it as I did because that kind of love is infectious. We will pass Stargazer on the highway and my kids will know in that moment their endless summer is about to begin.