If life can be compared to being on a teeter-totter, the longer you live, the more unbalanced it becomes, with the memories you have accumulated, the experiences, good, bad, and indifferent, outweighing your present, causing you to rise, metaphorically, higher in the air . . . and off the ground. With feet dangling, your viewpoint of the world is more expansive: You see more, and you see farther.
It is the vista that produces nostalgia — the melding of a foreseeable future, where you might go, and your realized past, where you have been. And your ability to stay in that moment — to balance the mix of emotions that sweep in like opposing currents — eventually determines the ultimate angle of the teeter-totter; that is, how you will feel about, and thus lead, your life.
Right now, I am rising — in age, that is. And with it the gap to the past is getting larger. Sometimes the memories are hard to pull up, sometimes they are not. But mostly they are fluid, bouncing through the “thought stream,” a term often used by mindful meditation practitioners to cite one’s continually running engine of a mind.
I’ll share one such memory, or flurry of thoughts, I experienced last summer when I stopped at the Sagaponack General Store, the once post office of my youth that over the years had turned into a place for coffee, bagels, the newspaper, and more. What I always liked about the store was its whimsical, beach-swept look, and the way, no matter its evolution toward a trendy nosh spot, it retained much of the old feel, including rows of old postage slots visible in the large front-right window. To me it bridged the old Hamptons and the new, and it was a comfort to know that the part I remembered from my childhood remained.
But more than anything, the store sold my favorite drink — Hampton Dairy Lemon Flavored Iced Tea, originally made by Schwenk’s Dairy in East Hampton, a brew colloquially known in the area as Bonac Tonic.
On that day, I realized, with a start, that sometime over the winter the store had vanished — not physically, of course, but it had been taken over by Pierre’s restaurant in Bridgehampton. I had strode in with my head down, but once I looked up I thought I was lost: The inside had been reconfigured, brightly painted, spiffed up, looking like a swank New York City bistro. I was shocked and more than a bit dismayed, but still I trudged on to the back refrigerator, looking for the item I came for: Bonac Tonic.
In one word, I can tell you why I liked this tea so much: sugar. I had the pleasure of touring North Carolina extensively at one time in my life, and during my visit I drank so much sweet tea my molars hurt for weeks after. But I loved the flavor, the artificial pick-me-up, and even the eventual crash after, because I knew, right around the corner, at any barbecue joint that was open, I could get my fix.
The Sagg Store, purveyor of Bonac Tonic, was my outlet for that same high, and I savored it during the summer months when I was out in the Hamptons, after playing basketball or taking a long bike ride, or after a nice day at the beach — a refreshing, saccharine treat before dinner.
But Pierre’s, to my horror, did not carry Bonac Tonic. What they had instead was an assortment of fine-looking iced tea varieties housed in pretty, ornamental bottles. This was in great contrast to my beloved brand, which came in a plump green paper container, somehow constructed so that whenever I opened the spout a good portion of the sweet stuff spilled out on my hands.
Tempering my dejection, I selected a bottle that looked the most decadent and went to the counter. There, a pretty young woman with an angelic face and looking prim and proper in her Pierre’s uniform frowned when I set the bottle in front of her. She then added a quick headshake to the grimace.
“Don’t drink that,” she said, in what I interpreted as an Eastern European accent.
I blinked back at her. “Why?”
“It’s not good. I tried it and didn’t like it.”
“Better to try something else.”
It seemed like a reasonable suggestion, so I went back to the refrigerator and chose another brand, this one in a less shapely bottle. I set it in front of the woman and she smiled.
“That’s very good. I’ve drank that. That you should get.”
I paid, thanked her, and left. It was only outside, right before I opened the bottle, that I had an epiphany — while many things have changed in the Hamptons, and in my life since my youth, including the passing of the old Sagg Store and its bounty of Bonac Tonic, what remained was human camaraderie, a looking out for one another, and, on a personal level, new beginnings.
Let me explain. In the early 1920s my grandmother and grandfather, separately, left Ireland and came to America, finding themselves, after a few years, working on the East End, in Wainscott specifically, on a wealthy estate in Georgica. They set roots, had two boys who grew up and set roots in the area, as did their children. Walking from the store, I had the feeling that this young woman might be starting a similar journey, perhaps forging her own future in Sagaponack and, on the way, in the present, helping someone who was looking back enjoy a new brand of tea.
Which, just as she promised, was very good.
John McCaffrey is the author of “Two Syllable Men,” from Vine Leaves Press, and “The Book of Ash,” a science fiction novel.