What’s Kept

Written By: Sam  Schindler

It was the middle of my tenth grade year. My first time attending high school, and not just any high school, Ward Melville High School. Call it the infamous pharmacy, a country club for kids, a prime example of cushy Three Village. That’s probably what it is to everyone else on the outside, and hell, maybe some on the inside thought of it that way too. But to me it was following in the footsteps of so many before me, including my parents who walked the halls of that school in the late eighties reeking of hairspray and cigarettes. I remember talking with a friend from around the block when I was maybe eight years old, fantasizing about what it would be like for the second generation to go to that school. Surely it would be magical. It wasn’t just a school. It would be the place that contained the best years of our lives. Everyone seems to have had at least one inspirational teacher in their school years. One whose words really strike a chord with you, unlock a certain passion. I thought I had some of those in junior high, but now that I think of it, they were nothing compared to the teachers I met in tenth grade. He was my English teacher, an older guy looking like he walked straight out of the seventies. He even said ‘groovy’ on the daily. Bell bottom jeans and everything. He was amusing, but he was also smart, and I respected what he had to say. Though most of the time I’d disagree with his view, I liked to hear it anyway. Sometimes he had a view on life that was too pessimistic for my tastes. I’m not a naïve person, I know life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But I do believe in hope, and some kind of meaning. We were reading Our Town by Thornton Wilder, apparently a classic play that he seemed really jazzed up about. But as I read it, although there were a few lines I had underlined in order to retain them, I just wasn’t feeling it. It seemed sort of dull. He attempted to teach us the meaning of the story we all thought was useless. During most of these one sided conversations I looked out the window, staring at a tree that sometimes had blossoms and calmed me. But he said something that made me turn around. “Nothing is permanent, that’s what Wilder is trying to say. The things we own will someday belong to someone else, and your memories will become irrelevant. Your house isn’t your house—someday, someone else will move in and it won’t be your house anymore. What happened there won’t matter. We’re just ants traveling along on a big picnic blanket , looking for things we can somehow call our own, just to make us feel better, give a sense of belonging, even if only for a little while.” Like I said, a bit pessimistic. I knew what he was trying to get at, but I didn’t agree. I couldn’t agree, maybe because the thought of not mattering was too terrifying. Maybe I was scared of nothing being truly mine. But it wasn’t just me, he had to be wrong. There were too many instances I’d seen to give me reason not to think it. A house, for example. I actually think about this a lot. How much happens in four walls. A house, and on an even grander scale, a town. I have two great-grandmothers still alive, bless their souls. I refer to one of them as Granny, and she bought a house in a little town out east called Springs in at least as far back as the fifties. The term ‘house’ even makes the place sound a little too extravagant – it’s more of a beach shack on stilts. It’s one room, the only other one being a small bathroom. The shower is even outside. Whenever we go to that house, my family refers to it as ‘upscale camping,’ because that’s really the best way to describe it. But let me tell you, this small and dingy house means more to my Granny than probably most things in this world. Even though she has a little trouble getting around these days, we still shove her in the car and drive out to the beach house to visit it. She stands, hands holding herself steady on the rail of the stairs, and looks out at Gardiner’s Bay. In those moments I swear I can see a thousand stories in her eyes, of her carrying her little sons and daughter into the water, running on the beach with them, her and her husband drying the little ones off when they get inside, making them dinner in the ancient kitchen and then tucking them into the bunk beds, kissing their sandy, salty foreheads. People have offered Granny millions of dollars to film movies on the waterfront property of the house simply because it’s just so beautiful, but she always said no. She said no because she wanted the house to be private and theirs. It was, and still is, a little sanctuary. You couldn’t put a price on the feeling of belonging she gets when she’s in that house. It’s undeniable when I step foot in the beach house today. Yes, it’s old. And yes, sometimes it’s so sandy in there that it gets irritating. There’s no air conditioning, no Wi-Fi, and bugs often sneak their way in from the little cracks in the wood. But through all that, I see the place for what it truly is: family. If the place was a person it’d be an old man with wind swept gray hair, each wrinkle on his face representing a childhood giggle or smile or hug, eyes misty with nostalgia knowing the place won’t last forever, and maybe the memories will fade one day, but for now he can keep them in the worn out box in his chest and savor the warmth while he has them. Places like these in our lives are rare. One where we can feel utterly at home and ourselves and warm and safe. But just as a location can hold good memories, they can contain any one on the range of human emotion. When I went upstate to Fredonia to visit family, I met one of my aunt’s friends up there. He asked me where I was from, and when I said Long Island his eyes lit up. “Oh, I used to go there a lot! Me and my friends would drive past the Amityville Horror house, and get disappointed when it looked just like a normal house.” He chuckled. “And I dated someone from Mastic Beach.” When he said that his face changed, and suddenly I wondered about a love that was none of my business. Did it end badly? His face surely said that. I pictured him driving across the island, trying to pull up great nights with friends but only seeing the love of his life walk out the door and never come back. That place would never be the same to him. Mastic Beach would be a reminder of what could’ve been. Or it could’ve just been a totally no-strings-attached one night stand. But what can I say, I’m a writer. I like to imagine. I’ve done it myself, though. Sitting in the passenger seat of my family’s old Jeep and letting my head hang out the window looking at everything whirling by. That sidewalk was where I told my crush I liked him in eighth grade. That nail salon is where the employees give me hugs when I walk in, and teach me Korean words that they expect me to repeat next time I see them. That street is where I marched in my first parade. Some places I look at with a warm heart, and other places I wish would get destroyed in the next hurricane because of what happened there. Long Island is me. It’s where I grew up, where I always come back to. Long Island is me, it’s you, it’s the woman at the grocery store and the kid your daughter met at school. Where we first laid our roots shapes us as the people we know today. Some leave and never come back; others stay and raise their own families only twenty minutes away from where they were born. But no matter where you end up you never forget these places. For these reasons I don’t think I’ll ever agree with my tenth grade English teacher. All of this matters, and it will matter until our sun explodes ready to destroy the galaxy and we take our last breaths.