“Leaving Amagansett,” a Memoir

By Wendy Turgeon

   I remember when we arrived.  It was April 1958 and our farmhouse on Miankoma Lane was already 59 years old.  I was six and my brother not quite four.  On our first day, a cold April one, we walked up to a penny candy store at the head of the street.  That did it for me; I loved the place.  We spent every summer and most weekends and holidays in our house. My mother did much of the restoration work herself, pulling up linoleum (who ever thought that was a good idea?), building closets, and painting walls.  Surrounded by potato fields, there were only a few houses beyond ours toward the ocean. Our neighbors were two towheaded boys who proved to be great fun in our early years.
    My parents, theater people, had an open door.  Our house was always full of actors, singers, dancers. Many of them were recognizable figures in the theater but to me they were my parents’ friends. I watched all the pageantry from a perch in a cherry tree next door. Our neighbor Tsuya Matsuki first looked on with horror as a family with two young children moved in next to her Miankoma Hall. But our mutual love for music won her over and for a number of years I took piano lessons from her. Our home was drafty but warm with the fireplace crackling in the winter and cool with the ocean breezes and fog in the summer.    In the early ’60s, my grandmother moved to Amagansett from Chicago to be near her only child, my father. I would walk by the little library (so many wonderful books to read!) and then over to Schellinger Lane, passing horses but not much else on my way. She and I would drink tea and play canasta.
     My brother and I were fascinated by her Boston bull terrier, which did not bark but rather snorted. Eventually I went away to college but would come to visit for all the usual holidays. My brother was a lifeguard at Indian Wells for years and made many friends he keeps to this day.
    We had a devastating fire in the house one summer in the early 1970s but my folks lovingly rebuilt the inside that had been ravaged by water damage. They had invited anyone they knew who had lived in the house prior to us. The Star ran an article about the “house warming,” (a phrase that, my father commented, was unfortunate.) I still have, somewhere, the Star picture of my father in one of his flannel shirts standing proudly in front of the restored home.
    One year they were left a beautiful house in East Hampton by a good friend of my father (he inspired that kind of deep love and devotion). Even so, they sold it and kept on with his “little old farmhouse.” Eventually my parents turned over their apartment to my brother and they lived out in Amagansett all the time. By then the quiet drive-through little town was growing.
    In the late ’70s my husband and I moved to Long Island, partly for a job but more important to be near my parents. When the grandchildren came, they were loving grandparents but tended to like the concept of little children better than a sustained real presence. “Don’t bang the back door!” was a common refrain. Still, we spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with them every year.
    When my mother died in 1993 my father was a lost soul. He rallied but never quite found his center after her death.  Still, a steady stream of friends came by, every day: Ann Marshall from the Springs, Lee Davis from nearby, David Doyle, who had ended up buying Matsuki’s house, Connie Corona (who cleaned his house but more important was his guardian angel), and Darwin Price from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  There were always friends coming and going.
    When my father died in 2000, the house was silent in a way it had never been for 42 years. Life went on and my brother and I treasured our house as an echo of our shared family past and a lovely place to bring our respective families. We successfully shared it for 12 years, renting it out in the summer (alas) to pay the bills. Even our tenants sensed the magic of the house and were exemplary in every way. We did have to battle to do the usual upkeep on an older house — a furnace puffback, constant plumbing issues, and squirrels in the attic. Those little devils cost us a fortune to get rid of just last winter.
    Today’s Amagansett is a far different place from the sleepy hamlet that one drove through between chic East Hampton and surfer Montauk. Now in the summer it seems to resemble an ongoing frat party, we were dismayed to discover firsthand this past summer. Beer cans all up and down Main Street. Really? What would Carleton Kelsey have had to say about that! But every weekend during the “off season,” how lovely it was to settle in, light a fire, walk the dog in the quiet autumn streets, or watch the snow hiss down upon the cedars in the backyard.
    Well, for economic reasons we had to put it on the market this past year. A builder made an offer and we took it. Everyone agreed that our house was a “teardown.” A teardown? How do you tear down a 113-year-old home? One that is still thriving with life? Apparently quite easy in the lanes of Amagansett. Buyers want big post-modern houses with state-of-the-art amenities, not simple kitchens and modest baths. I can understand to some extent: when you have the kind of money that buys a house in Amagansett these days, you don’t want the merely functional; you want the image of, well, what we all see on shows like “Royal Pains,” right?
     People congratulated us on the sale. Wow — great money, right? We nod vaguely and I can hear my father’s amazed voice, “You got how much for our little homestead?” But my throat is tight because the money is an entirely other category of value than the memories: the forsythia by the kitchen window, the sunlight dust in the barn, the laughter and tinkle of martini glasses in the cool summer evening, the smile on my mother’s face when I would come in the back door, and my father sitting in his chair, absorbed in working The New York Times crossword puzzle nonstop, until it was done. The house is not simply real estate but a state of being, a state of deep remembrances.
    Now, I realize that the building is but a structure and what I really miss is the people. This was always my father’s view: as much as he loved his house, it was his family and his friends that really mattered. So, as I leave Amagansett, I look back at my family home, forlorn and awaiting the wrecking ball. But perhaps that is so that something new and fresh will sprout up in its empty lot.
    And ultimately, it is the history and my dear family that I truly mourn: my parents and my grandmother (all over in Oak Grove Cemetery), and Ann Marshall (also gone — whose bright spirit is deeply missed), but also our very much alive friends: Fran Himmelfarb (who helped me take care of my father in the end with her advice and who remains a stalwart friend), Lee Davis (who had to continue Meals on Wheels without my father’s driving skills, surely missing him still), and my own new friends who became dear to me as I enjoyed living in our Amagansett home.
    I won’t miss the squirrels in the attic, although I would love to see their little rodent faces when the wrecking ball swings in. “Rats with a better outfit,” they call them. My father would enjoy that one too. As we turn out onto Montauk Highway, we try not to look back.

   Wendy Turgeon grew up in Amagansett and New York City. She teaches philosophy at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue and publishes in the area of philosophy for children. She is looking forward to her new home on Shelter Island but will always miss Amagansett.