The House of Memory

Written By: John Hanc

I was driving down Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton on a brilliant summer day in 2015, in search of an illusion from 1970.
“Is that it?” I said, glancing down a dead-end street choked with foliage. I answered my own question.
“That’s not it,” I grumbled.
“Well, let’s just keep going then,” said my wife Donna patiently, as she turned the pages of a Hagstrom in her lap. The street I remembered was longer and wider; with views as expansive and full of promise as my life, at that point.
I was then 15 years old, living in Malverne, in western Nassau. That summer, I was invited by my friend Willy’s family to spend the weekend at their new vacation home in the Springs section of East Hampton. There, and in subsequent visits, I experienced idyllic summer moments that, 45 years later, are still as soothing as the turquoise swirl of Gardiners Bay.
At the tail end of a weekend getaway to Montauk, my wife has agreed to assist me on a 60th birthday year quest to find the house one more time. I have tried several times in the past, while out on the East End for work or on vacation, and although I have a vague sense—I think it was off of Three Mile Harbor Road; I know it looked out over Gardiners Bay—I can’t seem to recall exactly where.
Part of this, of course, is the passage of time. But part of it is what psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons call “the illusion of memory.” In their 2010 book, Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, they write about the false impression most of us have about how our memories are stored. “Although we believe that our memories contain precise accounts of what we see and hear,” they write, in reality these are “based on gist, inference and other influences.”
In other words my memories of the House in Springs and the time I spent there have been modified and embellished over the years. I could, for example, be confusing a memory of May, 1970 in the Hamptons with one from August, 1976 in Montauk—or (and yes, the psychologists say, this is not uncommon) someone else’s account of a summer on the shore that I read or heard!
This much I do remember: The house looked much like the split levels of our Nassau County neighborhood, except that there was a wooden staircase running up the side, a second story deck, and wooden floors and rugs that always seemed to have sand on them.
But the location…so exotic! Living where we did, anything east of Jones Beach felt like Terra Incognita. The East End of Long Island? Was there an East End? I’d never really stopped to consider that.
There was, and I saw it for the first time 47 years ago. I can still smell the clean, salt-tanged scent of ocean-scoured wood; I can still hear the foghorn in the harbor that mournfully bellowed its deep bass notes through the night. During the day, Willy and I played baseball in the flats, hitting line drives that skipped over clumps of salt grass. We sat on the bluffs of Three Mile Harbor, watching boats chug into the nearby marina, leaving a wake of water that rippled onto the shore.
I also remember Willy’s wizened and sweet Italian grandmother making us spaghetti and meatballs. I remember meeting a long-haired friend of Willy’s older sister who claimed to have been at Woodstock the previous summer. I remember visiting the marina and eating fried clams at a nearby restaurant…The restaurant! Suddenly, this bubbled up in my mind. Yes, it was up the street from the House on Springs, on the corner of the main road, Three Mile Harbor Road, where I was now driving.
“Look for a restaurant!” I practically shouted to my wife.
“It’s the Hamptons,” Donna replied dryly. “There are a lot of them.”
But soon, we saw it: a seafood place on the corner of a street leading towards the water. I screeched on the breaks and turned off. Down a tree lined street we drove. “Yes,” I said excitedly. “I think I remember this.”
My wife said nothing. I don’t think she wanted to get my hopes up.
We came to the end, the bay glimmering in the distance. In front of us was a stucco McMansion with an ostentatious stone gate. If it had been an igloo it couldn’t have been less consistent with the mental picture I had.
“This isn’t it,” I said dejectedly.
“Unless they sold it, and the new owner tore it down and rebuilt it,” my wife offered.
Donna’s probably right. At this point, the easiest thing would be to track down Willy—who went on to become a professional musician—and get the facts. But perhaps it would be best to allow the House in Springs to remain where it is, and what it is: An illusion of memory; a symbol of the idyllic summer youth I managed to taste, so fleetingly.