Relay: Once a Paradise

Shoeboxes filled with old photographs, mostly 31/2-by-31/2-inch Kodacolor prints

   The tenant in Brooklyn returned to Japan, so I took the opportunity to paint the living room and remove a bunch more belongings, not that I have space for them here.
    In the odd spare minute, I’ll go through shoeboxes filled with old photographs, mostly 31/2-by-31/2-inch Kodacolor prints, a blurred or fading date stamp on the back. Those that catch my eye get scanned and placed on a little stack on the desk, where they lay bare the magnitude of change.
    Forty years ago, two families piloted a late-’60s Nissan Patrol far down Gin Beach toward Shagwong Point. Swimming, running, laughing, the four boys were never happier, and may never be. Four grown-ups prepared a lavish seafood feast — lobster, clams, corn on the cob. The boys drained glass bottles of Coke and Yoo-hoo, the grown-ups gallons of wine.
    The whole time that rugged Nissan motored through the sand, the beach was entirely their own. A sighting of another human, another jeep, of any sign of civilization was so exceedingly rare as to draw long stares from the boys in the back.
    I haven’t seen it recently, but for decades that stretch of beach has resembled a miles-long and extremely narrow trailer park, a Jones Beach of recreational vehicles. From the westerly jetty, or from the boat steaming toward Block Island, the sight makes me wistful. I haven’t seen it recently because I don’t want to.
    More Kodacolor prints depict the scene in and around the house I grew up in. My father, Kenneth Walsh, was an artist. He’s been gone a long time now, and I had forgotten, or had never known, just how creative he was. His watercolor and acrylic paintings filled the walls, and the expanse of land on which our house sat, in Hither Hills, was similarly decorated with his creations. A wildly multicolored bird, at least six feet from beak to tail and wingspan just as large, flew a few feet off the ground, pole-mounted and turning with the winds. Great and small pieces of driftwood had been collected and fashioned into an abstract George and Martha Washington, or, perhaps, a seaside “American Gothic.” Another installation, a collage of New York City street signs and blown-up pictures of my impossibly young parents, brother, and me, the sand, sea, and sunshine a brilliant backdrop, illustrated the disparate worlds we inhabited.
    The dirt road I grew up on was paved decades ago, and the vast emptiness as far as young eyes could see has been divided and plowed and cleared and paved and built upon, and you can barely see the ocean anymore. The house has grown higher, a detached garage sits a comically inconvenient distance across the lawn, and a long fence, bisecting the land, obscures a swimming pool and all else behind it. Those bold, playful art installations are, of course, long gone. And if they weren’t, one or all of the multiplying summertime neighbors would have demanded their removal back in the go-go ’90s.
    Montauk was a paradise. I wonder if the hordes that clamor to be seen at the Surf Lodge, that crowd the share houses along the Old Highway, that brawl in spasms of drunken stupidity in the late hours outside the bars in town, can know that, like we did 40 years ago.
    I wonder if I don’t know a damn thing, if my 40-years-ago Montauk wasn’t already wrecked relative to 10 or 40 years before that.
    I retreat into Kodacolor and cliché, and Wordsworth, who died 163 years ago Tuesday:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.


   Christopher Walsh is a reporter for The Star.