I do not know if you can ever understand loss, no matter how many times you experience it. In most things in life, repeated experience is a teacher, but each time you experience true loss, the circumstances are always unique, so the lessons are limited in use.
The second time in my life I experienced loss was in 1963 when I was 7 years old.
There was a little patch of dirt on the side of our house on Lexington Avenue in West Hempstead. Every day that summer, I took my dump truck and my cement mixer and my bulldozer and I built a road in that patch of dirt. My roads may have led to nowhere, but they took me on a daily journey.
I would speak for the imaginary men involved, who always seemed to be named Joe or Mack.
“Hey Joe, better dig that hole right there,” Mack would shout.
“All right, Mack.” And the hole would be dug, only to be filled in and redughe next day.
And every day our neighbor, Mr. Laurel, would stop by and lean over the white picket fence that separated my construction site from his driveway and ask me what I was doing. I would explain to him the various ongoing projects, and he would smile and nod his head as if what I was saying to him was real and meaningful. I enjoyed talking to him because he actually listened to me.
Mr. and Mrs. Laurel had moved in that spring. They were an older couple. Mr. Laurel was the first adult I had met whom I considered a friend.
One day I was digging, with Mack barking orders to the ever-compliant Joe, when an ambulance pulled up in front of the Laurels’ house. Two men got out of the vehicle with a stretcher and went inside.
A few minutes later they came out, carrying Mr. Laurel. They put him in the back of the ambulance and drove away.
I never saw him again.
My parents tried to explain death to me, but it was a concept strange, foreign. I remember that Mrs. Laurel came over one afternoon to sit with me.
I had experienced loss the first time more than a year earlier. It was not a person or a thing I lost, it was a place.
My father was, and still is, a writer, a newspaperman who also wrote short stories and, recently, a book. Before him, his father was a newspaperman and a writer, a very successful short story writer, selling over 100 stories to The Saturday Evening Post. His name was regularly featured on the Post cover with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Booth Tarkington, Agatha Christie, and Ring Lardner. His success gave him something most writers don’t have: money. The McMorrows weren’t rich, but they certainly were affluent.
He took some of that money in the early 1920s and bought the family a beach house in the newly formed village of Ocean Beach on Fire Island. The house sat on a dune at the end of Bungalow Walk, facing the ocean.
My earliest memories are like glittering grains of sand, splashed across the floor. The ride to Bay Shore. Daddy parks the car. We get on a ferry, cross the bay, get off on the dock. We have a wagon, our wagon. If there wasn’t too much on the wagon I’d pull it, or even ride in it. Ice cream cone at John and Anne’s, head down Bungalow Walk, cross Midway. Midway was magic. We were almost there, the ocean, the house. Sleep at night, the sound of the waves, sometimes crashing, sometimes gentle, the lullaby of the waves.
Breakfast in the morning, out onto the beach. All day on the beach. Me and my two sisters and mom and Tante Frieda and Mum-Mum, Dad there on the weekend, all women during the week unless my cousins were there, in which case there were three other boys to play and race and wrestle and fight with. Splash in the ocean, dig holes in the sand, run along the beach. Before dinner, we’d go back up to the house. Play around the house, but stay off the dune, never play on the dune. The dune was sacred.
If it was just me and my sisters, maybe we’d take turns riding the wagon downhill on the Bungalow path from the beach across Ocean View. Or else they would do girl things and I’d get out my trucks and dig away.
If our cousins were there, I’d play with Bunky. His name was Tommy but to me he was Bunky. We weren’t supposed to go under the house but one time we did, opening up the storage area, pulling out old toys our own fathers had played with.
Dinner was fish, almost always fish. One time a bone got stuck in my throat. It hurt. The adults were concerned. There was a doctor nearby. We went there and he reached in and pulled the bone out. To this day I love fish but am phobic about the bones.
At night, the adults smoking, laughing, drinking. Mum-Mum always had a little whiskey and ice in her glass, the sound the ice cubes made in her glass, a light clinking-clink.
Then to bed, to sleep, to rejoin the ocean’s serenade.
In my memory, those were the summers of my early childhood. In reality, they were the May and June and September, even October. The house was always rented during the season to pay the bills.
March 9, 1962. The house in West Hempstead. Somber. Dark outside and dark in. My father, distraught.
He was holding pictures of the beach house, where he’d grown up and then started to raise his own family, large photographs that a newsman had taken of the wreckage. Piles of wood were all that was left. Smashed by the ocean. Holding the photos in his hands, slowly tearing them up, one by one.
A storm had hit, a powerful northeaster. It began on March 6, the same day as the new moon, the highest tide of the month. It battered the East Coast for three days, for five high tides.
The Army Corps of Engineers had built a huge revetment to protect the houses on the dune on Ocean Beach. Over the course of five high tides, the ocean had breached the dune behind the revetment, forming a powerful pulsing wave of water running behind the dune, a stream that sucked in the homes that sat there, one by one.
In the end, only three houses remained on the dune after the storm. Ours was not one of them. The land that the destroyed houses had stood on was condemned by the state, never to be built on again.
We went to Ocean Beach once that summer. It was strange, sitting on the beach in front of where our house had been — that beautiful two-storied shingled beach house, now just an empty dune, glistening sand — returning that night to West Hempstead.
T.E. McMorrow is a reporter at The Star.