by Beth Young
Sometime after the day this newspaper is printed and perhaps before you read this, a little girl is expected to make her appearance into the world at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead. This happens every day but it’s not every day that this little girl will be my first grandchild.
Expectant mom and dad are bursting at the seams with the awe of this responsibility, and with odd requests. Can I make the doorknobs safer at their house? Of course. Mom wants hagelslag on her toast? I’m stumped… better call the in-laws in the Netherlands.
The radio this spring was filled with ads for someone who was running for some local office talking about how the birth of his first grandchild made him want to run for office to ‘protect our way of life.’ This really grated on my nerves. I’d have taken better notes on what that ad was all about but I was always stuck in traffic when I heard it.
When I was growing up here, I must have heard the phrase ‘protect our way of life’ far too many times, because it always makes my skin crawl. Who are we protecting our way of life on the East End from? Nazis? People from Nassau County or Manhattan or New Jersey? Hispanic fishermen? The Native people upon whose burial grounds we build swimming pools? People from Riverhead? (Now, y’all I’m from Riverhead. Don’t mess with me. Central Suffolk Hospital-born and carrying on the family tradition this summer).
The reason these problems are so intractable is because the people we need to protect our way of life from are ourselves.
But Baby Nicolien does have me brainstorming to try to qualify what our ‘way of life’ on the East End is.
These are the kinds of things that pop into my head:
1. Work three jobs a day and then you die.
2. Serve the rich or be the rich or be glad to be striving to be rich-proximal despite the commute. Also enjoying occasional jaunts to the ice cream parlor wearing seersucker or linen.
3. Enjoy the view of clammers plying the waters as you hurry from one job to the next. Finally dip your toe in the Peconic Bay sometime just before Labor Day. Realize on Labor Day that you never bought a season beach sticker and there’s no point to it now.
4. Stinky fish kills spoiling the Cardboard Boat Race.
5. Not depending on the scallop harvest. Following lobsters up the warming Gulf Stream to Maine.
6. Wanting to shop at farm stands but realizing the cash in your pocket will buy you a tomato, an ear of corn and a half a peach.
7. Grieving your taxes, and then feeling better after watching someone from Nassau County grieve their taxes.
8. Sitting in traffic listening to political ads on the radio.
Now to be fair, it wasn’t always this way. If I give credit to my memory I can conjure up some halcyon days of my childhood living all over the North Fork. The heat seemed hotter then, but that’s because there was less air conditioning. Nothing much was going on and everyone wanted to move somewhere else, even the cool kids who were kind of mechanical who had some big dreams involving poking around at the Mattituck airfield and joining the Air National Guard.
One day in sixth grade at Cutchogue East Elementary, we were supposed to bring in a dish to share with the class that reflected our heritage. I was excited because a girl I knew whose father was a farmer was going to bring in mashed potatoes, my favorite meal. But her family’s potatoes had frozen in the basement the night before and she came into school empty-handed. Oh, the shame of middle school awkwardness! I still feel so bad for her.
Back in those days, wine was something that came from California or France or Italy, and even if we had thought to drink wine, the idea of guzzling it all day surrounded by bachelorettes before taking a power nap and a vitamin B supplement and blasting off to do Greenport all night was just not a thing. Greenport was where we went to the laundromat, and to the Arcade to get a fresh pair of flip-flops and to Burton’s Books to pick up a new Nancy Drew mystery.
The South Fork was a faraway dream. We heard famous people spent time there, and we knew some people whose parents worked for famous people, but none of those parents thought famous people were much of a big deal. I thought maybe if I went there I could meet Bill Clinton and he would give me advice on running for office. But I wasn’t about to ride my bike to East Hampton to wait for Bill Clinton to show up on the street.
By the time I became a reporter at the Sag Harbor Express and actually got a chance to meet said Clintons, I’d already become too much of a cynic about our ‘way of life’ to care to ask them for advice. And I know I’m not alone.
Every fall at the entrance to the North Fork some joker tacks a big wooden sign to a telephone pole that reads “Traffic Festival Ahead.” I always want to take a photo of this sign, but I’m too busy being stuck in traffic.
The ship has long sailed on ‘preserving our way of life’. There’s nothing left for it but to build something new, something more equitable, something truer to our values that faces, head-on, the massive challenges our region is currently facing and is expected to face in the near future.
I’m hopeful that my granddaughter will inherit some of my in-laws’ Dutch ingenuity and be among those who puts herself to the task of engineering a new paradigm here. If things don’t change, we might just leave.
There’s a sign at the Kittery Bridge at the entrance to the State of Maine that says Maine is “The Way Life Should Be.”
My extended family, who decamped to Maine decades ago, saw the writing on the wall about the future of the East End way of life back in the early 1980s.
When I ask them now if I should move up to be near them, they demur.
“The black flies will get you,” they say. “And anyway, there’s not a house on the market that anyone will part with without a bidding war.”
If all of us East Enders decamped to the Downeast, Maine would cease to be the way life should be.
There’s a quote from The Eagles that has haunted me since I first heard it as a kid in the back seat of the station wagon, late on an early September school night with the ocean sand between my toes as we drove past the neon of the Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton: “There is no more new frontier. We have got to make it here.”
I love you Baby Nico. You’ve got this, and so do we. — Grams