The Love of Your Life
One sun-lit October morning several years ago, as my husband, two young grandchildren and I strolled along the shores of Ditch Plains – not far from our Montauk home – we encountered an old woman walking with her dog. We said hello in passing. Not to be outdone, the dog, a brown-haired terrier, wagged his tail and immediately trotted closer wanting to be petted. Two sets of pleading eyes looked up at me for permission. I nodded and the children leapt forward, falling on their knees, to stroke the animal’s back. They were rewarded with a furry head nuzzling under their chins.
An hour later we met the same woman in the parking lot. This time the dog and children ran toward each other like old friends.
“Why don’t you come and visit me?” she said. “I live just a few houses away.”
Alarmed, I glanced at my husband. Was the woman a bit too friendly for her own good? Though we’d never harm her, someone else might. I offered to walk her home.
“That’s not necessary,” she said. “I’ve got my car.”
I looked around and noticed an old blue station wagon, the kind we owned back in the 1970’s, parked not far from our white Toyota, the only two cars in the lot.
“You drove here?” I blurted.
“My son and daughter don’t like me driving, either. They say the car’s old and not reliable, but it gets me out around. They don’t visit much anymore. One lives in New Jersey, the other, upstate. They’re constantly asking me to move in with them. I always say no. They’ve got their lives to tend to, much less that of their old mother. And I love Montauk. Been here for years. The ocean’s in my blood.” Then, leaning closer, almost in my ear, she whispered, “They’re not from the same husband, you know.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“My son and daughter have different fathers,” she explained, as though revealing a long-held secret.
Now I was intrigued. Luckily, she stood mesmerized by the children’s smiling faces as they played with her dog.
“May I ask your name?” I said.
“Margaret, but everyone calls me Margie. And my dog’s name is Angel.”
“Angel, Angel, come find us,” the children squealed, hiding behind us.
“Are you two married?” Margie suddenly asked.
“Yes,” I nodded, my eyes automatically darting to our grandchildren running circles with Angel.
Then, looking directly at me, she pointed a finger at my husband. “Is he the love of your life, the first one you fell in love with?”
“Why, yes,” I stammered. I’d never been asked that question before.
“You’re lucky. My first husband was the love of my life. We were childhood sweethearts, married shortly after graduation. Then he enlisted in World War II, in the Army Air Force to be exact. Six months later his plane was shot down and he was killed. He never saw his son. Within a year I met another wonderful man who loved me and my baby. We got married and had a daughter. He died ten years ago…from cancer.”
“I’m so sorry,” my husband and I said in unison. Imagine losing two good men!
“But it wasn’t the same,” she maintained, shaking her head from side to side, apparently lost in her past.
I waited silently for more. When I couldn’t wait any longer, I asked, “What do you mean?”
“He wasn’t the love of my life. Oh, he was a good person, all right. I loved him. But he wasn’t the love of my life. That opportunity comes around only once, and it’s always the first love.”
I smiled. I was falling in love myself – with Margie. With her white hair tied neatly in a bun, her face wrinkled and brown-spotted with age, the fine line of her nose and with the romantic streak still burning inside her.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come over for coffee or tea?” she repeated as we walked to her car. “I have milk and cookies for the children. They could play with Angel a bit longer. I see how he loves it.”
I was tempted, but declined. “We’ll follow you in our car to make sure you’re home. It’s not safe inviting strangers.”
“Now you sound like my daughter.” She opened the car door and Angel jumped in. Then she slid into the driver’s seat and straightened her slight frame behind the wheel. “I’ll go slowly so you can follow,” she said, just like a mother.
Margie’s house was a modest ranch with spectacular views of the ocean. Parking in the street, we watched her pull up her steep driveway and get out, Angel right behind her. She turned and waved. The dog wagged his tail and barked. We waved back, the children half out the window shouting “Goodbye, Angel, goodbye.”
A month later we returned to Montauk to check on our house and close it for winter, but all I could think about was Margie. We drove to Ditch Plains to walk along the beach and, I must admit, to see our new friend and her dog again. We found a few stragglers ambling with dogs but none were Margie.
“Let’s drive by her house,” I said. “Maybe we’ll spot her car and know she’s safe inside.”
“We won’t go in,” my husband said. “We might scare her. There’s a good chance she won’t remember us.”
Not remember us? How could that be? I hoped to find her peeping through a window and, noticing us, wave in recognition. We drove past her house. No car or Margie in sight. I had to be satisfied that the car rested in the garage and she was nestled comfortably inside.
One warm day next April, we longed for the ocean and to check on our house. When we arrived at Ditch Plains, we found the beach quite crowded. Apparently others shared similar thoughts. We took two long walks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, my eyes constantly on the alert for signs of Margie.
She was nowhere to be found.
“Let’s pass by the house,” I beckoned. I didn’t have to say whose. My husband knew. When we drew near, we were shocked to find a large realtor sign planted firmly on the lawn. Half a dozen cars were parked in front and we could see people going out the door carrying various objects in their hands. “We’ve got to go in to find out what happened,” I said.
Once our eyes adjusted from the sun’s brightness we had left outside, we noticed different items tagged for sale: lamps, tables, chairs, beds, rugs, dishes. A man and woman sat on a sofa, marked $50, collecting money. I went straight to them.
“Where is Margie?” I asked.
“You knew our mother?” The woman seemed surprised. I wanted to tell her I knew her mother’s secret: that she was the child of the second husband and her brother that of the first, but I restrained myself.
“We met at the beach. Where is she now? Is she alright?” I wanted to hear Margie had finally agreed to live with one of them or was in the hospital recovering.
“Mom suffered a heart attack. She died last month.”
“Oh, no,” I gasped, my hand over my mouth, tears welling my eyes.
“We sold the house,” she continued. “A businessman from Manhattan bought it within a week of its listing. He plans to tear it down and build a two-story home with a pool overlooking the ocean. You were good friends?”
“We cared about her. She told us all about you and your brother, how much she loved you both and your dad.” I left out that the son’s father was the love of her life and that the opportunity comes only once.
“Thank you. That means a lot to us.” She looked at her brother who nodded.
Feeling bereft, I wanted something of Margie’s to keep her memory alive. I spotted an old-fashioned trestle table with a lamp attached. I remembered finding a similar one in an antique store along Main Street in Bridgehampton and loving it. Margie’s was chipped and the shade was missing, but the top of the table, which opened, was intact. I lifted the lid. Inside, a video of an old movie titled “Rose Marie” – my name – stared at me. Definitely a sign, meant for me.
When I offered money, the daughter pushed my hand away. “You were her friend,” she said. “She’d want you to have it.”
The table sits next to the couch, in our TV room in Montauk, facing the ocean Margie loved. Every time I see it, I think of her and how the love of your life comes around only once.