Southampton, Majors Path, age 5: Sunday late afternoons Dad would lift me onto his bike and pedal through long green lanes to Sip ’N’ Soda, where we’d lick matching banana cones. Wet creamy fruit on our tongues, we watched the parade of people: long tanned legs, khaki shorts, blue Izod shirts. It was the ’70s: an ever-summer land. Pale pink light flickering between trees as he’d pedal me through town, plush green streets emptying out before supper. I was just 5, and didn’t yet know about bruises on the heart or doors slammed. I couldn’t recall the dead of winter; only this cold creaminess on my tongue, his hand in mine.
East Hampton, Halsey’s Marina, age 15: We got the news about Mark at 5 a.m. in June out at Three Mile Harbor. I was sleeping fitfully in my sleeping bag as the boat rocked and creaked. A knocking on the galley window, heavy footsteps. The weak sun’s cool fingertips layered over the water. Dawn. He’d been killed less than a mile away, his car wrapped around a tree, his body thrown instantly out the window: dead at 23. Over Japanese food the night before he’d told me about his new Wall Street job, his girlfriend. The only kind of brother I’d ever known. “Mark’s gone and killed himself,” I heard my stepfather say as he phoned his ex-wife. Time so slow, then fast.
“No!” my mother screeched, her plaid nightshirt sticking in all the wrong places. “He was killed! Can’t you get the story straight?” As I waited for the Jitney to the city, the one that goes past the endless rows of graves, we sat wordlessly on the bridge of the boat and watched the sun climb. It seemed impossible, heartless in its mission. As did my senseless worrying about my new purple dress still in its box that was in the car when he died. How could I wear it to the wedding next week? I held my stepfather’s hand, imagining its cold tremble was a lemon so I could keep holding, keep hoping I could squeeze out all the pain, all the sour, leaving just the empty shell.
Amagansett, Marine Boulevard, age 32: Alex and I take the train out after work, racing and sweaty through Penn Station. He holds my hand as we giggle our way past the Jamaica stop, the press of his arm against my side and anticipation as the roads clear to fields, the sun lowering over the miles of corn, light changing to hazy and summery, the city receding. At the house we strip our work clothes and race to the ocean before dinner, running along the sand. The surf breaking so perfectly on the shore as we toss a cracked white Frisbee. His mouth on mine tastes sugary, sand chilling our toes. At night I sleep in the bunkroom, crawling up to my safe place in the sandy red striped sheets, the ocean air so soft, his arm reaching out to touch across the beds. The salt air breezes across my face as I pretend to sleep longer, crashing waves in the distance.
Southampton: Scuttlehole Road, age 18: Just about to leave for college, I spent a week with Hugues in the cottage Dad rented. Just us and a bag of groceries, a white rental car and this great lake of feeling. In matching striped fisherman’s shirts we stood in the driveway of the Palm as the day ended, sandy from the beach, laughing endlessly in the parking lot at the couples in pearls and blazers walking to and fro. Each night we drove to the ocean, dancing under the stars on the cold sand, singing the Smiths and David Bowie. The pale hair on his arms soft as the silk on the corn we shucked each night, the wanting so delicious. I counted down days: seven, six, five. . . . We slept in the basement, talking in the dark until sleep, waking to the same song. We were so good there, driving to Montauk in the fog singing, but knowing that behind the music, there was an ending.
Southampton, Lake View Court, age 7: On Saturday nights my parents had parties, huge loud affairs where my dad would make banana daiquiris and skinny people in white pants would disco on the deck. I’d be put to bed in my musty room downstairs near the water; rainbow sherbet and a drive-in movie promised to cheer me from loneliness. I’d help pass the hors d’oeuvres around the living room. Olives I could wear on my fingers like black jewels, cheese slivered thin on crackers, small cherry tomatoes from North Sea Farm. The grown-ups eating crispy duck from the Mecox duck farm, sucking grease off their fingers, Kathleen’s cookies for dessert still warm and melting.
So much food and play in my childhood, which I sometimes forget. Sarah’s house on Butter Lane, the long fields we’d run through, acting out “Little House on the Prairie,” tripping over the faux calico dresses we’d make in her attic, picnics under the willow trees of the pond as we’d feed the ducks. My mom’s hand so firm in mine at the July 4th parade, balancing ice cream cones from Candy Kitchen. Saturday evening at Melon’s when they were still together, sharing burgers, my head on their laps. All one season in those days: safe, buttery; gold summery light and nothing split.
Halsey’s Marina, age 14: At dusk Richard and I would wash the salt off the boat’s clean lines and sleek body. He’d toss me a Coke and nurse his vodka tonic with lime as we’d watch the sun drop over the long cattails, guys with khaki shorts pulling the long lines in. For hours I’d practice knotting rope. Liz and I would bike to the store for supplies. Richard’s illness worse each week now: the shaking, the balance, the moods. I knew he would die, and I worried for her, for my mother, for this bubble we’d all built together. It was there to greet us each time, but this now beautiful too along these watery roads, chatting as we biked, goofing around in circles.
Amagansett, age 19: Greg drove too fast from his house toward Montauk where the skinny road melted into bay. He raced me to one of the giant dunes. His hands hot and too fast as we rolled in the sand and prayed aloud that no one would find us. We smoked crumbled green weed from his bag of tricks and picked ticks from each other’s necks. His mouth so wet and warm, the salt wind in my hair so lovely that I crossed to the other side, the grown-up side where I would have to make choices and declarations, his weight above me almost unbearable.
Wainscott, age 40: Mom and I walk to Georgica Pond and farther, past the rocks, just as we walked these beaches when I was a tiny child trailing her shadow on the sand. Times have changed: The house with the bunkroom is sold, and on Fridays when I visit we get pizza with her husband and go to the small synagogue in Sag Harbor. I’m newly married, contemplating pregnancy. We talk of doctors’ appointments and career paths; things feel serious, layered with years and their loss.
Children are crabbing in the shallow corners of the pond and kayakers meander. We ramble along the topics of family and love, memory and history. No banana ice cream cones these days; in fact, I haven’t even been back to my childhood home in the back roads of North Sea in years. As we walk the first touch of sunset stains the sky in cherry. Enormous houses framing the dunes stare at us aloof and cool, their shuttered eyes closed. They give no answers.
But later when we drive the lanes and pull over to buy flowers from the farm stand, the light is still perfect. The high dunes and rippling fields still manage to take my breath away each time, no matter how many people we’ve loved and lost. I smile each time at the piles of flip-flops by the beach parking lot, the mothers and daughters on bikes still riding up to take a late afternoon swim. The sea is still clean and gloriously cold and I want to drink it each time I dive under its surface, like some kind of salty ambrosia. Disease and divorce aren’t canceled out by beauty, but they do make a place real. It was these huge waves and long grasses, these shallow ponds and grassy dunes that truly taught me how to embrace our crazy, jumbled, messy, and breathtakingly beautiful world, in spite of the painful things, or maybe because of them – holding them all in my arms at once, like this huge bunch of sunflowers.
Eliot Sloan is an adjunct writing professor at a small college in Vermont, and an online editor. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and a master’s in English from Middlebury College.