When I moved to the East End 30 years ago, I never intended to stay. In my post-high school hippie days, I had left Long Island’s suburbs behind, eventually headed west, and embraced a life different from the one my parents lived. Access to wilderness, an alternative culture, and a rural setting were key. But after two years in Washington State, following one in Maine, I got sick and somehow it made sense to return.
I bypassed New York City and the heart of its ’burbs and came straight out here, where the well-documented wiles of this area — the beaches, the light, the subtle turn of nature all around us through the seasons — worked their charms.
For a long time, I was a tenacious malcontent. And then I realized this place had what I needed. Quiet, with whales and birds. Proximity to the city. And now, three decades on, I realize that what holds me here most strongly is the web of our community.
For me, that includes the families of dozens of children I once taught, as well as the kids themselves, now grown up — a few are teachers themselves. It’s my colleagues at numerous jobs, and my family of friends from the Talkhouse, where once it was my generation that held court. It’s my neighbors in Springs, and the other close friends with whom I’ve shared decades of birthdays and a trail of everyday and annual occasions.
It’s the people I don’t really know, too — familiar faces that I’ve shared geography and routine with all these years, unknown to me only, perhaps, by chance or one degree of separation. Sometimes it’s the continuity, not closeness, that matters.
As someone who writes obituaries and covers events in our town as news, I sometimes have to protect myself against emotional involvement in losses or dramas in which I’m not personally involved. But on some level, everyone’s losses are my own — when a neighbor loses her mother, when the friendly woman you talked to at the bank is suddenly gone. The sudden absence of that person you always saw walking through town.
A community’s heart expands and contracts according to the people within it, and the loss of one member ripples throughout the whole community.
Clearly Katherine Myers Penati, whose funeral Mass was on Monday, was a hub. I knew Katherine only slightly; I was not part of her large circle of close friends. But we were connected through her son Marcus, a young man who was a second-grade student in my class, through her sister, Marti, and through her parents, whom I got to know more than 20 years ago in Amagansett. And every time I ran into Katherine somewhere over the years, we had a warm exchange. After her death, so many people I know were bereft.
I hate to say it, but some of the times over the past years when I have most strongly felt a sense of our community have been in a room at Yardley and Pino, when we have gathered for the funerals of lost members of the tribe. Along with sadness, we — and I know I don’t speak only for myself here — also felt a renewed sense of love for one another, and at those times lost any hesitancy about expressing it.
After one too many wakes, two friends and I resolved that we should systematically hold “anti-wakes” — a sort of extra-special un-birthday-type celebration for the living friends we love, because it was such a shame that it was too late for those who had died to hear how special they were to all of us.
As Joan Armatrading sings, “Obituary columns / are filled with love.” What a difference it would make, we thought, if we all knew, from day to day, how others held us in their hearts.
Those celebrations never happened, but, especially as we get older and our years together build, my friends and I are less reluctant about showing our sentiments for each other. Nonetheless, it is often just too much, without an extreme reason, to wear our hearts constantly on our sleeves.
But when someone is in need, the people of East Hampton mobilize to help and show their love. Katherine, when diagnosed several years ago with a seriously threatening cancer, inspired such action. If something should happen to me, I pray that I too might be held tight in our community’s hands.
I am a single woman, no children, on my own. Morbid as it may seem, I sometimes imagine what would happen after my demise. I can only hope that my lifetime, a whole adult life here, might have made a mark and that a roomful of people might gather at the funeral home, at least. For me, that would be evidence of a life well lived — one that touched others, a wide circle of others, in a variety of ways, however peripherally.
In recent years, economic pressures and the job market here have got me thinking that I must consider moving elsewhere. Besides my love of so much about East Hampton, the thing I’m most reluctant to forfeit is our community.
As a new resident somewhere else, I would never have the standing, or the love, that I hope I might have earned after 30 years here. And this community knows how to pour it on.
Joanne Pilgrim is a deputy editor at The Star.