It was love at first sight. We recognized it because it had happened years before. After Dale and I met one evening at the University of Michigan where I was an undergrad and he was a medical student, we each told our respective roommates that we just found the person we were going to marry. We wed fifteen months later. Then in the spring of 1976, eleven years and three children later, we were sorely in need of some romantic couple time. Once Dale finished his psychiatry residency we moved to New Jersey and for three years had been working long hours to each build our practices as psychotherapists while juggling the demands of raising three children ages seven, six, and two. A friend who grew up in the Bronx suggested a Montauk getaway weekend.
As soon as we hit the rise on Route 27 where you catch the first glimpse of sunlight sparkling on the blue Atlantic, we were smitten. Exploring the small, low-key fishing village, eating a succulent lobster dinner at Gosman’s. walking the wide sandy beaches with the turf crashing in our ears, we made a commitment: we would return for a week in August with our children. The first family vacation was magical for all. The two older children loved the challenge of braving the waves. Sarah, the toddler was content to make endless artistic creations in the sand. Being able to walk the short two blocks into “town,” the freedom from traffic and congested beaches in New Jersey, the sheer expanse of water and azure sky, the unscheduled pace, nurtured our souls. We made another commitment, to return every summer and thus our Montauk family tradition began.
For thirteen summers we piled into our station wagon. We shared a room at one of the motels on the beach. Each year our love for Montauk deepened. We would look longingly at the real estate ads and daydream. It was always the same refrain. “Someday we will buy a house, in Surfside, walking distance to town with a view of the ocean. Then, unexpectedly, in 1989 while on a walk, we saw a sign, “For Sale By Owner.” We walked onto the deck of a small ranch, sitting on a hill away from the road with a 180 degree view of ocean! Without going inside, Dale and I fell in love at first sight and were ready to buy. Built in the 1950’s as a summer cottage, it had been expanded and winterized but it looked worn, horrendous wallpaper everywhere, the tile floors broken and lifting. We scrounged for a down payment and closed on our “dream house” in October.
The idea first came to me the following summer. It was a gorgeous July day, bright blue cloudless sky, delirious with joy in our cottage, I wanted to share our new-found bit of heaven with our friends. That fall would be my husband’s fiftieth birthday and our twenty-fifth anniversary. How perfect to celebrate and friends and family could enjoy a day in Montauk! They could walk to beach or town, play tennis or relax on the deck. I could feed them lunch and dinner, then send them back to New Jersey, But my husband Dale doesn’t like a fuss over him so it must be a surprise. The lies and secrets began.
I picked a date in September when it is warm and less crowded in town. I compiled a list and sent out invitations, stressing the surprise. I hired a party bus for the day and arranged a convenient pick-up point in New Jersey. I hired a pianist to play music from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Every detail was carefully planned, and then I worried. Would our friends and relatives be willing to spend seven hours on a bus to celebrate with us? Was I crazy to think I could make this work?
When I think back, even after all these years, I am amazed that I pulled off such a surprise. I can keep a secret but, like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. If someone called that I didn’t want to talk to, I was never able to tell our children, “Say I’m not home” when I was standing right there. But lie I did, several times, that summer of 1990.
A week before the party, I told Dale I was going to New York for the day with friends, not sure what time I would be back. As soon as he left for work I loaded up my car with the party supplies and headed for Montauk, a three hour drive. About twenty minutes from home I heard a loud bang, then the car bumped its way to the shoulder. When I saw the rear flat tire I started to cry. Only a few minutes later, a car pulled up. A nicely dressed driver assessed the scene, rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to change the tire. He refused any money. “Glad to help,” he said and drove away. If you are a believer, that was an angel, come to rescue me.
I made it to Montauk by noon. The owners had left an old refrigerator in the unfinished, spider-filled basement where no one ventured so I figured my secret stash would be safe. I put the sodas in the fridge, the hot dogs and chicken in the freezer, the party supplies in a corner and prayed I would make it back to New Jersey on the donut tire.
My widowed father came from Florida, ostensibly to be with us for the Jewish High Holidays and see our new beach house. We all piled into the station wagon for a weekend in Montauk, everyone in on the secret except, of course, the birthday boy. I was so nervous, my mind going over and over all the details, wondering if I really could orchestrate this feat.
I woke up early Saturday morning and listened to the weather forecast. Rain. All day! Heavy at times. The one thing I couldn’t plan. No lounging on the beach, no leisurely walk into town, no tennis …and forty guests arriving at lunchtime, the chartered bus not taking them home until seven pm. What will we do for seven hours cooped inside? A friend was picking up the fresh foods and bringing the platters on the bus. That morning, by pre-arrangement, the kids asked their dad to take them to East Hampton shopping. I feigned a headache and my father offered to stay with me.
As soon as they drove away, we went to work. We barely got everything set up before the bus was due to arrive. It didn’t come. I started pacing. This was pre-cell phone era so I couldn’t tell the kids to stall. Then I heard a knock and forty happy guests trooped in, making a mad dash for the bathrooms. They had snacks and drinks on the bus and reported feeling like young kids going to camp. Soon someone spotted Dale and the kids as they drove up the driveway. When he pushed the garage opener, a horde of familiar faces jumped out and yelled, “SURPRISE.”
Minutes before as he approached the house, Dale grumbled to the kids, “Why is that #*+# bus on my lawn? This isn’t a parking lot, what does he think he is doing? I’m going to tell him to move.” When he finally took in what was happening, he began to smile and didn’t stop for weeks after. People ate, mingled, told stories, stood under the overhang and watched the rain. Later some guests danced or just listened to the music. One friend grilled the meat in the rain, another acted as bartender while I served the rest of the dinner. When it came time for birthday cake and a toast, our friends serenaded us with a song they had composed on the bus, a ballad chronicling our courtship and marital life. Everyone chimed in on the chorus.
“Renee and Dale, we’re here for you.
You’re both so special,
We do love you!
A Happy Birthday, Anniversary too,
Dale and Renee, we love you!”
Our guests went home, not seeing much of Montauk but filled with the joy of adventure, having met new acquaintances, singing songs from the past all the way home. The party was a spectacular hit. Dale’s seventy-fifth birthday and our fiftieth anniversary are coming up. Most of our family and friends from the Montauk guest list are still around. It’s time to think up another outrageous surprise. Dale and guests should expect nothing less and I am prepared to tell a few more white lies, for a good cause. In twenty-five years, we have changed, now it is our grandchildren braving the waves, and the town has changed, but the biggest surprise – and this is no lie – we love Montauk, our dream house and each other more than ever.