The House Built on Good Ground
Driving across the George Washington Bridge, on the upper level… to the Cross Bronx Expressway …to the Throgs Neck Bridge… brings out the Mario Andretti in me. I gaze across Long Island Sound to see the Triboro Bridge and the Manhattan skyline in the distance. I salute the victims and heroes of the Twin Towers and my father who helped construct this landmark in its day: his last contribution to this great city.
I make my way to Old Country Road and the old neighborhood and stop in front of the house where I grew up. When I think of “home”, I never think of this house first. Yet I am a sentimental old fool, as tears escape from the corners of my eyes, I pull away from the curb. My childhood home barely recognizable. The neighborhood transformed into two-story homes save but a few. I drive down the block, reciting the names of the families I grew up with as I pass each house… Zucker’s, Terry’s, Laylor’s, Belinger’s. I can hear Mrs. Hudson calling her daughter, “Anne Marie Elizabeth Louise Hudson, come home now!” But these memories only make me anxious to press on.
Back on the LIE, I drive on, exiting at #70 Manorville taking the Captain Daniel Roe Highway east. The Star Gazer, the landmark heralding my arrival, comes into view. When we were kids the LIE didn’t come out this far, so we came east via the back roads. When we rounded the bend on Flanders Road, the Big Duck heralded our arrival. I laugh aloud thinking of how I cried when I was little, because my mother went in to buy some eggs and took too long to come out. I thought the duck had eaten her! Now the Pine Barrens flank me on either side. Recovered from the fires that ravaged them in the 90’s, they continue to thrive despite an ongoing scourge of southern pine beetles.
I arrive at the house in Hampton Bays after my fifteen hour journey from the landlocked Midwest. I am the first to arrive. The last breath of winter escapes, greeting me, as I open the door; summer vacation has officially begun. Like a familiar perfume, the smells of musty mothballs mixed with sweet grass and salty air fill my nostrils. I have often wished I could bottle that aroma. I would sniff it like a junkie all through the cold and desolate Midwest winter.
After unpacking the car, I head up to town to get provisions for the week. It is a lovely and familiar sound, the errant grains of sand occasionally crunching beneath my sandals as I walk the aisles of King Kullen. My mind is like a videotape, as scenes from the past flash through my mind. Thompson’s mural of baymen and the sea on the outside wall, and the Pick Wick Stationary store where we used to go as kids, quarters clutched tightly in our fists. My sisters, cousins and I would sit on the floor in the back corner picking out Archie comic books, eager to find out what Betty and Veronica, Archie and Jug Head had been doing since last summer.
Making a quick run up the road to the farm stand, I get a dozen ears of local sweet corn, the best I have ever had even though I now live in Indiana, where the saying goes “There ain’t just corn in Indiana.” Melancholy washes over me as I pass The Fishnet restaurant now painted in the festive colors of a Mexican piñata. Heading back out of town, turning down Squiretown Road, I pass Donavan’s Rod and Reel, a treasured vestige of the past. I turn into the drive where cedar trees planted long ago stand as sentinels. This is the house that I call home.
I find a box turtle slowly making its way across the yard while I mow the grass in preparation for the arrival of my sisters and cousins the next day. The prickly pear cactus are showing off their yellow blooms. The milkweed and black-eyed Susan grow side by side. A monarch butterfly circles above the pines on the currents of the sea breeze. Deer with their spotted fawns blend into the shadows of the oaken woods, signs of summer in this magical place that the settlers in 1740 aptly named “Good Ground.”
As the sun is inching its way above the horizon the next day, I set out down Red Creek Road past Gathering Rocks Road and Squires Pond to the fishmonger near Flanders Bay. I bring home delicious delicacies for dinner. That evening, to celebrate our reunion we slurp out the clams, mussels and steamers from their shells, all buttery and tasting of the sea, and wash it all down with ice cold beer. The sweet corn does not disappoint, nor do the red snapper and flounder filets. A seafood feast devoured while the trees devour the setting sun.
After dinner we gather on the porch, in the star-studded darkness burning punks and sparklers as we sing verses of “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” with silly rhymes and Peter on guitar, the crickets chirping along like squeaky violins. We sing “Daisy Daisy” and “It’s a Grand Old Flag”, like we did with our parents around the camp fire and this brings out the freckle faced kid in me. We take turns sharing childhood memories. One of my favorite memories is the day when Uncle Henry went fishing with us and cast out his line with his new rod n’ reel that he was so proud of, and let go of the whole thing. He calmly put his hands in his pockets and whistled while he watched it sail through the air and sink to the bottom of the Shinnecock Canal. Childhood memories wash over me like a wave and I am carried out to sea, drowning in love.
Upholding the age old tradition, we head out to the beach at East Landing Road in the morning. We eat egg sandwiches on hard rolls from the Baymen’s Deli (although I will always call it Mary’s) and drink coffee while the morning fog burns off. A Northern Bobwhite calls out and I silently make a wish that the Eastern Whip-poor-will populations will increase too. Navigating the rocky beach on Peconic Bay, diving in for a swim, flying kites, and solving cross word puzzles, we lazily let the day slip away. Taking a walk down to the inlet, we look for beach glass and collect sea shells along the way, finding mermaid purses washed up along the shore and jingle shells galore, bringing out the beachcomber in me.
The next day we drive to the ocean. I look for the street signs that say Star Fish Lane and Periwinkle Lane. When I was little, I wished we lived on one of those streets. I used to daydream that the houses were all sandcastles and that sea fairies lived in them. I don’t drive down those lanes, as I do not want to shatter those images from my memories.
We pass the Episcopal Church that we went to when we were young, even though we were Lutheran. Passing the coastguard station and Tully’s Clam Bar, we get our first glimpse of the sun sparkling off the water. We count the seagulls perched at the top of the light posts, as we cross the bridge over Shinnecock Bay to Dune Road. I miss the old Ponquogue Bridge, watching the roadway lift high into the sky, as the boats passed below. After spending the day on the beach, feeling sundrenched and full of the ocean air, with coco-nutty salt crusted skin that feels taut and warm; we hang up our wet towels on the lopsided vintage Sunshine Clothes Dryer out back of the house, and someone calls out “First in the shower! And another responds : Second in the shower!” like we did when we were kids and it brings out the surf’s up, hang ten, beach bum in me. I stopped to pick up a copy of Dan’s Papers on the way home and now read it while lazily rocking in the hammock, just before dinner when the light is soft and pastel, and the East End in all its beauty, is bathed in a glow of reflective light.
Another morning arrives and I am the first one awake. I sip my coffee to wash down a bite of Entenmann’s coffee cake. Four generations have made memories here since my father and uncles built this house. I look out the kitchen window at the trees grown sixty-four years older. I am home. This is my sanctuary, my refuge. Like the waves I will wash ashore year after year. So grateful, that all roads east, lead me back to my beloved house in Hampton Bays.