On a stifling June afternoon in 1976, bicentennial red, white and blue buntings decorated the streets of Sag Harbor. Pansies drooped in the curbside flowerpots and the streets were empty. It seemed that all had taken refuge in air conditioned buildings.
My husband and I, too early for our appointment with the bank, found shelter in a quiet restaurant. In his wallet was a check for $5,000—more money than we ever, ever imagined having, squirreled away from a small inheritance and savings from our school teacher salaries. He seemed a bit distracted as we ate; a combination of boldness and nerves set his usually animated features in a serious cast. In his eyes was just a speck of doubt.
“Are we utterly insane?” I asked, a giddiness rising in my voice “This afternoon we are going to own a house in East Hampton!”
“We are insane, but we’re doing it. We’ve been outrageous before. What’s the worst that could happen?” He smiled. This was a man who had lived in apartments his whole life, a Mr. Fix-it who fixed problems by calling the building superintendent, an athletic city boy who couldn’t even ride a bike. Owning a house was really beyond imagining for him. He was a wreck, but he was steeling himself for stepping out on a huge limb. And, he had placed his trust in me, like I knew all the things he didn’t. That’s the way we were together, each looking to the other to fill in our own blank spots. Most of the time, it worked. I, the more reckless one, loved the lunacy of what we were about to do, so I reached for his hand making him look me in the eye. “It must be a good thing; your mother thinks we’ve lost our minds.”
He laughed and nodded. “We can always rent it, right? If we can’t make the payments, we’ll just rent it for a month, or the whole summer. We could do the Jones Beach deal again for a month, couldn’t we?”
“Absolutely we could. And we can stay in the apartment forever too.” I said reassuring the both of us. “Doing this, buying this house is really a good idea, I promise.”
The bank experience would have shaken the souls of even the financially sound. We signed document after document, check after check, each trusting that the other believed we could do this.
The intent had been to save for a house, a real house in Westchester. The reality was: by 3:00 that afternoon we owned a cottage on a little dirt road, just down the road from a pig and a goat and a little red barn, and just up the road from a glistening harbor.
The broker finally slid the tarnished key across the table; we shook hands all around and headed back out into the heat. A stop at the hardware store down the block from the bank produced several copies of the key, a little iron hibachi, and a bag of charcoal. Stops at two more little shops yielded the makings of a steak dinner and a bottle of wine.
When the nervousness of the bank was behind us, when the deal was done, when there was no turning back, we drove south on Rte.114, past the just-sprouting fields, onto Rte.27, through Old East Hampton and up Three Mile Harbor Road. Our excitement bubbled out the car window and filled the air with dreams and laughter.
Our conversation jumped from yesterday to tomorrow; all the while our eyes were surveying the road, drinking in the new signposts of our lives. We noticed that the town marina was not yet filled with boats, but the weather and the sparkling water certainly shouted summer. We laughed about the day we first saw the house, when this kind of heat was unimaginable in the wind and cold that had swept off the harbor. Somehow we must have envisioned the brightness of this day in that steel gray sky.
Finally we reached our turn. We rumbled down the packed dirt road over all the boulders and potholes that declared our road a private one, free from town oversight and repair. Excitedly, we slipped the old key into the lock and entered our home. We heard our voices echo in the almost empty rooms and for the very first time breathed its abandoned after-winter smell that I would come to recognize over the years. We danced on the scuffed floors of the “everything” room: living, kitchen, dining–and I watched as Art’s eyes traveled up the high walls, knowing exactly what he was thinking. My dabbling artist of a husband, “Modern Art” to his buddies at work, saw not the pickled pine walls, but a gallery for his canvases. The light teemed in through the glass doors swathing the room in late afternoon sunshine. “On Saturday, I’m going to stretch a new canvas, then hang it right in here! I’ll paint it while it hangs on the wall.” His face was alight. The strain of the afternoon was gone. Never had he had a place where he could do those things, never had he owned such space. As he spoke, I was pulling open kitchen cabinets, mentally cataloging all I’d need to gather or buy to make our kitchen comfortable. “Look at how big this frig is! We can even buy ice by the bag…and food for more than one meal!” My set of excitements about the possibilities here were so different from his. But there was room, in these three little rooms, for all of it—for his dreams and mine.
We traipsed into the guest room and bounced on the lumpy beds that would offer many guests back aches over the next few years. “Let’s have Anne and Mark next weekend, christen this place in style.” These, our first guests, were a sure bet to encourage us, assure us in our insanity, and join us in the quiet pleasures of talk and music late into the night.
For us, our bedroom, empty but for a double bed and a shadeless little lamp, was a Plaza Suite to be transformed shortly by our own personal clutter: notebooks, sketch pads, books, binoculars, cameras… gear!
We savored the rusty taste of the water, brown tinged as it rushed through the pipes, and we gloried in the horrific banging sounds that followed the first flush of the toilet…and all subsequent flushes. It wouldn’t be long until we’d befriend a plumber.
When our curiosity over the innards of our palace was temporarily tamped, we headed out to explore the grounds. Our lawn, tufts of brown-green weed, sprouted in random patches throughout the yard, but a fuchsia rhododendron blossomed lushly at the corner of the house.
I let Art lead the way as we tromped through the shady copse, whacking through weeds and hopefully scaring away any live thing that lurked in the underbrush. We soon reached the staircase that led to the stony beach.
Like synchronized swimmers, we dove and swam to the channel buoy. Treading water in our very own sea, we turned toward the shore and surveyed the coastline, stricken by its beauty interrupted only here and there by a harbor-front home. The shine of this perfect moment was shattered when my mate placed a wad of stringy seaweed on my head triggering a maritime war! An endless supply of ammunition was within our grasp; red and green and yellow seaweed flew through the air; it clung to our faces and hung from our hair as we grew breathless trying to stay afloat, swallowing gulps of harbor. “Enough, enough!” I laughed, calling an end to our skirmish and heading toward shore.
Reaching the beach again, we hobbled across the stones and sat on the steps to dry. “To think,” Art said leaning back on his towel, “I own a house by the water and am right now possibly the happiest man alive.” I was stretched out with my head in his lap. “This is good,” I replied, “because you are here on our beach, with the happiest woman alive, and this is just the beginning!”
Pure romance will always define that evening for me: steak, wine, and our theme guy, Van Morrison crackling Tupelo Honey through the staticy radio. A rhododendron blossom floated in a Tupperware bowl on the glass table we still use today. A stumpy candle illuminated the screened porch setting our faces aglow, allowing us to drink in this electric moment and charging us with the understanding that this was a safe magical haven. We sat for hours there, so alive and alert to the quiet sounds of the country, the crickets and the saw-wheat owl, and soothed by the calm of our new and promise-filled space.