The boy raised the present over his head and brought it down hard against the stone counter, breaking it in half. Then he grinned in surprise. He had gotten lucky.
It was the spring of last year and my family and I were out in Westhampton, New York, where we own an oceanfront home on Dune Road. Even though it was late May, there was still a definite chill in the air. The night before, my four children, husband, and his parents and I had been across the street at the bay. We wore heavy jackets and carried large flashlights as we searched with scores of other beach dwellers for female horseshoe crabs. They would soon come ashore to lay their tiny, turquoise eggs in the wet sand, as they did every year. The full moon shone a spotlight on the Moriches inlet, and we found many of the prehistoric crabs, clumped together in groups of five or six as they buried their treasure. Our children, Julia, Michelle, Owen, and Brooke were thrilled with their success. The nighttime venture was made only more exciting because they were sharing it with their grandparents, who owned the house two doors down from us.
Both homes are actually located in West Hampton Dunes, the westernmost part of Westhampton Beach, which is now its own separate village, having been rebuilt after the hurricane in 1992 that washed away much of the area. We have a photograph of our simple, cedar-shingled house perched precariously over the water, where the ocean escaped to meet the bay. Doc O’Malley, my father-in-law and an orthopedic surgeon, had shrewdly insisted on cross supports for the pilings that upheld the house he and my mother-in-law had built in 1978. He had also sunk the pilings down double deep, at twenty feet. It paid off. For years while the beach and road were being restored, ours was the only intact structure around for miles. There were mountains of sand rising up to dominate the deserted outpost. It felt like we were pioneers on Mars.
Months before in October of 2012, Super Storm Sandy had leveled my childhood home in Sea Bright NJ, making my elderly mother homeless, and launching me into a painful but necessary appraisal of my family’s past. I was relieved to see that the storm surge had spared the communities stretching from “the Beginning”, West Hampton Dunes, to “the End”, Montauk. The alpha and omega of the Hamptons, and just about every town in between, had survived the storm of the century.
I had been coming out East ever since I was a junior at a private girls’ high school in Manhattan, where a close friend’s parents had a weekend home in Southampton. Though I had lived in the shore area of Monmouth County, New Jersey for my entire life before moving to New York City, I knew the first time I visited this distinct part of Long Island that it was a unique place. It had a simple, natural beauty and a complex, geographical diversity that was unrivalled by any beach community on the East coast. ( I realize this is a challenging statement, but am ready to defend my position should I get any offers to debate the point.) At seventeen and newly free because of my friend’s driver’s license, I explored the storied destination that I mistakenly thought was only the provenance of millionaires and movie stars.
To be sure, there were plenty of both. I was star struck when Samantha’s older brother took us to Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett and I spied Billy Joel drinking a beer in the corner. (We were tall and could pass for college students.) He soon left, but two hours later Paul Simon stood up at the microphone and sang about going to Graceland. He had just completed a new album and was enjoying a revival of popularity among my fellow teenagers in the 80s. It felt magical for me to be in what seemed like the local bar of famous musicians. I had already prepared my incredible story for English class on Monday morning at the Convent of the Sacred Heart on East 91st Street. The school was run by Jesuit nuns who counted Caroline Kennedy and Lady Gaga as some of their more noted alumni.
As far as non-famous millionaires go, I eventually saw my share of those too. But the first was not a typical inhabitant of a traditional East Hampton-style mansion on the sea. Instead, it was a young commercial real estate mogul who owned an unobtrusive but elegant modern home located on the Sound in Orient. The house, wrapped in floor to ceiling windows, was cut into a cliff on the water, and completely unseen from the dirt road that led up to it. Again it was a close friend who had invited me to spend a week’s vacation at her real estate baron boss’s home on the North Fork. I had just graduated from Hamilton College as a poor, albeit employed, English major. I was working in book publishing in the city, but she knew I had no money for any sort of retreat, and certainly not one like this. The other publicists and editorial assistants at Viking Penguin were impressed with my good fortune.
We spent the week riding our bikes into Greenport, taking the ferry to Shelter Island, visiting wineries for tours (which made for interesting rides home) and stopping at farm stands to get corn and tomatoes to eat with the swordfish we had bought in the harbor at Orient Point. We went out a couple of nights, to Marrakesh in Westhampton, the once-hot nightclub, now closed (due in large part to the Lizzy Grubman debacle that took place there years ago) and to Southampton, where we danced at Conscience Point. But mostly we stretched out reading by the glassy pool, enveloped in silence but for the early morning sounds of the birds . Being used to the crashing ocean waves near my own family’s home, I was intrigued by the calmer waters off Long Island Sound and charmed by the myriad of polished stones that made up the shore. It reminded me of Nice, whose rocky beaches I had visited while backpacking through Europe on a semester break from studying British writers and honing my basic French.
I am always glad that I got to experience that often overlooked part of the East End, because it has such a different feel from the other part of the island that you might as well be in another area of the country. To be able to enjoy both landscapes in half an hour’s time is unusual, to say the least. It is just one of the things that make it special to me. These days, we bring our children to a farm on the North Fork every October, to go pumpkin picking before we close up the beach house for the winter.
Lest anyone think that these are just the anecdotal musings of one bookish, quiet and mostly sheltered girl, now woman, I offer up the example of my older brother as proof of the East End’s superiority in the beach realm. A boisterous man-about-town and world traveler, he owns his own beach property in Narragansett, Rhode Island, but admits he was instantly blown away by the sweeping ocean vista of our home the first time he saw it. The house is modest in every way, save its panoramic view of the thunderous Atlantic, which continues to be breathtaking to me even after twenty years of coming here.
My husband was never partial to strip clubs for bachelor parties, one of the many reasons I love him. For his own, he chose ten good friends, as well as his sixty-five-year-old father, and my older brother. They spent the weekend in July at the family beach house, rising early Saturday morning to drive to Montauk Harbor and charter a fishing boat for the day. After hooking dozens of striped bass, bluefish, and even a few sharks, the fishermen returned sweaty, sunburned, and salty. They grabbed beers from the refrigerator and headed out to the deck to grill burgers, while staring at the pounding ocean, smoking Cuban cigars and bragging about whose catch was the biggest. If they went out at night, it was to John Scott’s Surf Shack down the road in Westhampton Beach. One evening, the Coors Light promotional girls showed up at the bar, clad in bikinis, and all the guys posed with them for a few pictures. One of the shots, with my husband smiling like a Cheshire cat as the man of the hour, even made it into Dan’s Papers the following week.
That was it, I have been assured, by each and every man at the party, including my brother. They went home and slept outside on the deck on lounge chairs, since there was a scorching heat wave afflicting the whole Northeast that weekend before we were married. My husband’s friends all swear the midnight breeze from the ocean was so cold they had to wear their college sweatshirts. Breakfast was coffee, corned beef hash and eggs on the grill. The morning sunlight spilling liquid orange on the slow waves. My big brother, a Wall Street trader and veteran of testosterone-fueled parties held in Las Vegas and on posh private golf courses all over the country, still maintains it was the best bachelor party he has ever attended.
One warm early morning in August, Tom and I took our younger children to the Montauk Point Lighthouse, while our two teenage daughters went surfing at Lashley Beach. As is our routine, we stopped at the Beach Bakery in town and set off with our coffees. To commemorate our maiden trip to this national historic landmark, which was commissioned by President George Washington in 1796, I insisted we swim in the waters off the beach below the lighthouse. A baptism of sorts, I thought, eager for a cleansing fresh start in the fall. I later read in the lighthouse’s newspaper, The Beacon, that all who had done so before knew that that these rough, churning waves were “a spiritual vortex,” and those who braved them were most likely in for some turbulence ahead, good or bad.
In our case, this turned out to be true. My father-in-law died at the end of that summer, stunning my husband into a deep grief. I was also plunged into a whirling personal crisis, begun months before by losing my childhood home to Sandy, which had been the last tangible connection to the memories of my own dead father. I had lost him at the age of fourteen and still missed him fiercely some thirty years later. A father, if he does it right, is always his daughter’s first love. My father had done it right. Not all the time, but every once in awhile, I longed to be able to say to him, Aren’t they great Daddy, your grandchildren? Translation: Are you proud of us? His only grandson, our son Owen, was born in November of 2000, one hundred years after my own father in May of 1900. Older than my mother by more than many years, he was the ever-gentle Atticus Finch to my Scout, and had patiently taught me to read at the age of four, as I sat on his lap with The New York Times.
Eventually, my crisis passed. My family had waited for me just as patiently as my beloved father always had. And that boy who broke his present open on the counter? That was my son, of course. The morning after we had found all the horseshoe crabs in the bay, my brother-in-law Terry, an anesthesiologist, had gotten off the night shift at the hospital in West Islip. He drove out early and took his nephew over the Ponquogue Bridge to buy fish for our dinner that night. While they walked down aisles of ice-packed tuna and halibut, Terry bumped into an old friend from high school, Jack, who worked at the seafood store. Jack gave Owen the backstage tour and let him pick out his own oyster from the tanks and smash the shell on the counter. Incredibly, there was a perfect, pink pearl hidden in the Blue Point oyster Owen had selected himself.
He burst in the door yelling, “Mom, Mom, where’s Mom!” Owen, named after my mother’s father, who had emigrated to New York from Ireland as a young man, found me reading on the second floor sun deck. He straightened himself, and then slowly walked over to me. “This is for you,” he said quietly, as he held out the round, shining pearl. He then bolted outside and ran to the beach for a swim before lunch. I examine his serendipitous discovery and see that on the outside it is delicate and gives off a creamy, soft glow. But I know that inside it is as strong as a stone. Surrounded as he is by three emotional sisters, Owen can sense small ripples in our family pool before anyone else. Recently, I have felt his palpable relief at seeing his own mother’s strength return after a taxing winter. I am grateful to watch him dive headlong into the waves, fearless and free.
They say that when you die, the only question that will be asked of you, by whatever higher power you subscribe to, is this: How well did you love? After what I hope is the first half of my long life, I have experienced much more joy than pain. I have lost a lot of people that I loved, but I have also given birth to four babies, who have more than made up for those losses. I spent my youth well, searching for the people and the places that would bring out the best in me. I am lucky to have found them both. Why is the East End so special to me? Because when I am here, I love well. And isn’t that the whole point?