The intersection of Route 27 and Main Street in East Hampton, New York, has enchanted me since I was a child. There is the postcard loveliness of it: the town pond reflecting reeds and sky, the swans, the worn cemetery stones set in lush grass. Every summer of my childhood I felt that catch-your-breath thrill at the unchanging sight of it as my father drove us through the town for our two-week vacation in what we always called “the country,” never “the Hamptons.” The sensation caught me again that day in late June when my husband and I returned to East Hampton after a ten-year hiatus.
As we made the left turn into the village, I felt myself delighted once again by the placid beauty of the scene, the deep colors and the watery light. Passing the Home Sweet Home museum, a preserved cedar cottage from the 1700s, I recalled summer “educational” visits there and a fascination I’d had as a child with an antique checker set that was always on display—the checkers brown or yellow corn kernels, the board set up to suggest that a game was already underway, that the children who played it had only briefly, recently, stepped away.
My obsession with this display involved my certainty that someday, from the corner of my eye, I might actually catch a glimpse of the two children who had played there centuries ago—an obsession spiced deliciously by my absolute terror that I might, someday, actually catch, from the corner of my eye, a glimpse of the children who had played there, children now two hundred years dead.
As we drove through the village again that June, I recalled, as well, church fairs on the green and a delightful “needle in the haystack” game—delightful to me, who had no chance at games of skill—that involved simply searching through a pile of hay until you found a prize.
I remembered, too, an anniversary dinner my husband and I had shared, our fourth wedding anniversary thirty years earlier, at The Hedges Inn, just beyond the pond, where the bartender plied us with free drinks and ghost stories that involved innocent objects—an umbrella stand, a lady’s shawl—moving eerily about the upstairs rooms.
That summer thirty years ago was also the summer of the year my father died, the first and last time my mother went out to the country alone.
Driving through the village once again, I was reminded that for me it had always been my father’s place, East Hampton. He’d come out here from Manhattan as a child, brought by an Irish aunt who had married a local. He’d bought his first house on Dayton Lane. His older sister lived on Georgica Road. When we were children, it seemed to us that he knew everyone in town, from the policeman at Newtown Lane to the clerks at the A&P to the volunteers in the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society shop—another, figurative, haystack for my brothers and me, where we were let loose every summer with a quarter or two to discover among the jumble all kinds of unexpected wonders, old picture books, ancient military medals, a cigar box filled with cat’s-eye marbles, a brown paper bag brimming with odd buttons. My husband and I were on our way to Amagansett, to a beach house we had rented years before. I was turning sixty and we were meeting old friends to celebrate, to commiserate. It struck me as we passed through the village that the years I’d had my father in my life—thirty—were now to be outnumbered by the years I was without him.
The single key was in its usual place at the Amagansett cottage, and once we let ourselves in, I found the two full sets of keys the owner had left for us. I placed one set on the mantel and was suddenly struck with the sixty-something premonition that we were going to lock ourselves out by week’s end.
I decided to put the other set in the car. I went out to the short driveway. The trunk was open. My husband was carrying our bags inside. I brushed aside a beach towel to place the keys in a secure corner of the trunk and suddenly saw my father’s signature, as familiar as a much-loved face.