Last summer, while I was bicycling along the bumpy brick path that parallels Ocean Road, a car drove by, and someone called out, “Hey, Christina!”
I didn’t see who it was. I’d just arrived in town and hadn’t biked for a while and I had to concentrate on staying upright. But the sound of those words had an unexpected impact on me. I was a New Yorker who had lived in London for a quarter century, and, even though I wasn’t aware of it, I guess I was hitting that time in life where belonging starts to matter. Hearing my name called out like that made me feel like a cast member from “Cheers.” For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to accept that maybe this overhyped, overrun, magically beautiful part of Eastern Long Island might actually be my home.
I guess in some ways I’ve earned it. I’ve been coming here long enough to remember going up Middle Lane in East Hampton in late August to pick potatoes for supper. (If I wanted to find a potato on Middle Lane today I would have to steal into someone’s kitchen.) I also remember “Old Lady Beale” and her daughter, Edie, over on West End Road; they were my generation’s Boo Radley. We used to dare each other to call them on the phone or go knock on their door. Of course, they turned out to be perfectly friendly. One year we even baked Edie a birthday cake, which she graciously accepted on her doorstep, wearing her now infamous headscarf. That was the 1970s and back then the village of East Hampton was more reminiscent of the 1950s. The woman who worked at the Five and Ten “Upstreet” (where the Bonne Nuit lingerie store is now) wore cateye glasses and set her hair in tight, dark brown curls. Her red lipstick covered a pea shape growth on her upper lip. She wasn’t particularly friendly, but I remember being captivated by her style and enigmatic manner. Going into town was a much more utilitarian affair then than now. The village was where we got calamine lotion at White’s Pharmacy and a butterfly net at Marley’s. I remember the summer I discovered you could buy plaster of Paris at East End Hardware. My friends and I got a kick out of pretending to our parents that we had broken various limbs. Packaged food was really hitting its stride around that time. I loved going to the A&P for frozen Sara Lee brownies and popsicles in psychedelic striped combinations.
For the first time in my life,
I allowed myself to accept
that maybe this overhyped,
overrun, magically beautiful
part of Eastern Long Island
might actually be my home.
I don’t know why my memories from those summers outweigh those of the rest of my childhood, but they do. But it’s not just memories of old East Hampton that make me feel at home here. Much of what anchors me to this place are things that haven’t changed: the beach, the light, the smell of sea grass, the alchemical effect of getting into that ocean. Iacono’s still has the best chicken in the known world. Round Swamp’s yellow peaches and white corn are forever the gold standard. And I love a lot of the new things that are happening around food out here too, like the growing culture of local, organic produce and dock-to-kitchen seafood. A visit to Quail Hill Farm is my idea of heaven.
I am not alone. My friends who spent summers here can’t seem to shake this place either. When my children were little, I noticed that us returners were disproportionately female. We would come back from all over: Chicago, Milan, Vermont, Philadelphia, the United Kingdom. We would pile into our parents’ houses, three generations under one roof. It was the most glorious treat to be able to re-connect with a sense of self that was formed before we had to negotiate married life, do night feeding, and decipher what it meant to “have it all.” Now, everyone who can seems to come back.
I want to point out that I have friends and family in England too. And London is a city I find singularly beautiful — why don’t I call it home? I think it’s because home isn’t just a place you go to see people you love; it is also an experience that shapes you. I’m fundamentally an East Coast American, and nothing is going to change that — not my French father or my English husband and children. I like my ocean cold and my marshmallows toasted over an open fire. I believe in family and preserving the natural world, and both beliefs were born amid the beauty of East Hampton.
I became an environmental journalist and campaigner. My introduction to fragile habitats and the efficacy of conservation came from here, first with the ospreys, then the plovers, then the striped bass. East Hampton let me see the power of a hurricane close up. It also allowed me to bear witness to the decline of shark and tuna populations, and the importance of protecting our water table. When I try to document humanity’s impact on the planet — making films to shed light on the ills of coal — or help support the Chinese government in its new efforts to curb pollution, I think of my mother and the East Hampton Garden Club, and of the Ladies Village Improvement Society and their loving care of the elms.
So thank you, East Hampton. Thank you for having me. And thank you to my parents for planting me here all those years ago. I can’t think of a more nourishing place to have taken root.
I guess this means my “madeleine” is a slice of Astro’s Pizza.