The Unexpected Gift
As the bustling crowds grew larger in the small East Hampton town shops and the pavement covered in powdery snow, one could feel the diminishing Thanksgiving fall harvest and rise of the holiday season. Cars were filled with snow and cheerful families holding onto their deep green Christmas pine trees with “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole pouring out of the shops radios. It was the picture perfect holiday painting of eastern Long Island in December. It was the main reason people loved these cozy little towns, waiting all year in expectation for the holiday season. As I drove east on Dune Road in my Jeep, I could feel the cold breeze blowing through my car windows as I drove past one of my favorite landmarks, “The Lobster Roll.” As Christmas music was blasting through my radio, I passed some of my favorite childhood sites; Hither Hills and Camp Hero. I continued to make my journey up the dark hilly and enigmatic road toward the Montauk Lighthouse for the annual holiday lighting. During the holidays, the lighthouse glistened with lights, reflecting its power; illustrating that it was a beacon of hope. It brightened up the whole town and illuminated the hearts of everyone.
As I pulled up to the front of the old historic Montauk Lighthouse, I was greeted by a violinist playing a sonorous arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Part of my trip was to search for my holiday spirit again. As I stepped out of my car, I placed my foot down onto the snowy pavement, but it almost slipped and gave way. I managed to balance myself out and stood there for a second. There was a deep empty stillness in the cold bitter winter air as it passed you by. I carefully walked around the car, grabbed my jacket, and made my way up the hill toward the beautifully decorated and illuminated holiday lighthouse. As I looked around, I saw all of the smiles of happy children and all of the families gathering. I walked over toward one of the railings that ran along the lighthouse and I placed my hands on the frozen metal. I looked out at the ocean and heard the sonorous sounds of the waves in the distance. It had been several long years with many mixed emotions. I did not know how to react, cry, smile, or keep it all bottled up inside. I knew it was going to be a different kind of Christmas than ever before, and that now, everything had changed.
Blaring through a microphone, I heard a member of the Montauk Historical Society shout, “We are honored to be here today on this joyous day. Now, please countdown with us for the annual Montauk Lighthouse Holiday Lighting.” As he counted down and reached one, the lighthouse illuminated and the crowds lit up with smiles of joy as the entire ocean glistened from the glowing reflection of white lights in all of its beauty. All of a sudden out of nowhere, beyond all of the joyous holiday cheers, I heard a familiar horn sound. One could faintly hear a horn sound with thumping train tracks in the distant horizon. “Can you believe that?” an old man said to his grandson standing next to me. “It must be Santa’s holiday train from the North Pole,” he said. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Wow, that’s strange, you don’t hear trains coming out this way in the bleak Montauk winter. Merry Christmas!” I looked at him in disbelief as he walked away and said, “Happy Holiday!” I started to feel a chill throughout my entire body. This is the place I used to visit with my dad every summer and holiday season. Being a train conductor, my dad always had pride working for the Long Island Rail Road. My family spent many wonderful times camping at Hither Hills, taking photos of the lighthouse, touring the shops in East Hampton, fishing in the Shinnecock Inlet, discussing the history of the military base at Camp Hero, beaching at Kirk Beach, eating at Claudio’s Restaurant in Greenport, getting ice cream from John’s Ice Cream Factory, walking along the docks and walking a lobster with my dad down Gosman’s Dock, buying souvenirs from White’s Drug and Department Store, and hearing startling stories about the haunted Montauk Manor on our way home. He always taught me that eastern Long Island had so many traditions, values, and historical cherished beauty. He had been all over in the Navy, but there was still something about Long Island that he loved. He was always honored to have been able to stay here on Long Island throughout his life. He thought that the Montauk and Long Island beaches were unmatched.
As I made my way back home, I pulled into where the old Port Royal Hotel used to be in Montauk, near the train tracks. I sat there for a minute and stared out into the dark and starry night skies. I waited to see if a train would pass by or if I could hear anything, but nothing was there, just quiet and dark eerie stillness; I felt goose bumps all over my body. I continued to reflect and think about my dad and how he loved being a train conductor. I remember him telling me that his favorite route was traveling east from Shinnecock out to Montauk. Whenever he had a train break, he would take a walk and find different rocks. He used to landscape our backyard home with all of these beautiful beach rocks. I chuckled to myself as I started to remember my dad saying, “Son, one day you are going to be the conductor of a magnificent orchestra.” I used to shout right back at him with joy and say, “Just like you are a conductor on the train!” He used to smile and always enjoyed feeling good about himself. He enjoyed being appreciated for what he did for his family.
I reached under my seat and grabbed my leather bound book that I kept to jot down my thoughts. It was a gift that my dad had given to me on my last birthday with him. I opened the front cover that said, “To My Beloved Son, always express your most personal thoughts and follow your dreams, Love, Dad.” I did not open up that book often because it reminded me of the day that I had to give the eulogy for my dad’s funeral, which was written in the book. As I flipped through the pages, my heart sunk. I started to have flashbacks of the last moments with him. I remember holding his hand as he looked into my eyes, fading in distress. After his long battle with lung cancer and heart disease, I never thought our time together would have had such a tragic ending, both of us being such a young age.
As I looked out into the dark and sonorous ocean waves, I remembered all of the beautiful memories that we had shared together. I realized how much growing up on Long Island had influenced his life, and my own. It played a huge role in creating the human being that I was today; influencing my career as a teacher and musician. Through our trips, my dad rooted values into me, the importance of family, history, and tradition. He instilled the inner beauty of Long Island into my heart and so that I would continue to pass it on to my family, children, and future generations through my music, art, and writing. I was now a music conductor, just as he was a conductor, proudly leading the way of his passengers on the train toward Montauk.
I rolled up my windows and turned on my radio. The first song to play was one of my dad’s favorite holiday songs, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” A smile lightened up my face. I thought to myself, “I drove out east that night as a random instinct of spontaneity. I guess I was looking for memories, faith, and strength. Maybe that train horn was a hello, a final goodbye, a fluke of timing, or maybe a sign that he is always with me, deep within my heart.” As I turned back onto Dune Road, I pondered, “Maybe my dad just wanted to let me know that he was home and that he wanted to share one more wonderful memory together at the Montauk lighthouse, one last time.”
That night restored my faith and inner strength. My dad would want me to pass on the history and joy of eastern Long Island through my children, family, friends, music, writing, and art.
The holiday season was fast approaching, but after that experience, I knew it was going to be a different kind of Christmas going forward from now on. Whenever I travel out east, I roll down my windows, just waiting and listening for that train horn.