The Shipwreck Rose: Georgica Road
The word “summer” is attached in my memory to a particular summer day when I was maybe 10 or 11 and my friend Daisy and I stood beside our bicycles in someone’s very lush, very green backyard surrounded by very lush, very green, very dense rhododendrons blooming in purple. That’s it; that’s the encapsulation of “summer.” The extreme plushness, safety, and stillness of a well-watered backyard with landscaping planted in the 1960s and a swimming pool. Just standing there in the heat.
The grass underfoot was thick and soft as wall-to-wall carpet. Tolstoy says we shouldn’t describe things in nature by comparing them to things made by man — the moon should not be likened to an electric lantern burning on a porch and the yellow of the daffodil shouldn’t be compared to the label on my diet Lipton Iced Tea mix — and I completely agree with Tolstoy on that one, but I am not Tolstoy and in addition to remembering the grass as being safe, plush, and silent as carpet, I would describe the rhododendron flower I’m talking about as being a medium purple of an almost artificial hue, the 1970s mid-purple of the stylized floral motif on the set of “The Dating Game.” Can you see it in your mind’s eye?
Daisy and I used to ride our bicycles all over town, and we did a fair amount of snooping. I don’t know whose backyard we were in — when the word “summer” was stamped with a full sensory evocation of a certain day, circa 1978 — but it was in the neighborhood of Georgica Road and it is likely that we were trespassing on a stranger’s property. These were the years when girls of middle school age emulated “Harriet the Spy.”
Sneaking, snooping, spying, pretending we were detectives, peering into the adult world from the security of a distance, holding the handlebars, ready for a quick escape. . . . We rode our bicycles all the way from Daisy’s driveway on Georgica Road to the Long Island Rail Road station in the village to play a mischievous game in which we chose some poor sucker debarking on foot from the train to follow home. (This was probably my idea. I was probably the wickeder of the two of us friends.) A train rider would be walking home with his duffel bag up Newtown and then Huntting Lanes and we’d follow at a not-very-discreet distance, just being spies, thrilled when he began to look over his shoulder at us and quicken his pace.
I cannot imagine we looked terribly threatening, a pair of fifth or sixth-graders with ponytails, Daisy in a Snoopy T-shirt and me in a T-shirt that said “If My Mom Says No I Ask My Dad.”
We roamed far on our bicycles. It is a cliché that middle-aged Americans like me should indulge in nostalgia for the lost years of banana-seat bicycles and 10 speeds, but they did carry us far and they did provide us with a bliss of freedom completely unknown to my children’s generation (who, if they wandered on two wheels as freely — on the hot asphalt — as we did, would obviously be mown down and left by the side of the road for dead).
The stations and stops along this memory lane are all happy. My father would take me in his big, green International truck — a Travelall, I think, in forest-green — to Bucket’s Deli, where I would order a ham and Swiss on rye with mustard and mayonnaise, and then we’d drive with our sandwiches to Georgica Road and park in the pull-off by the head of Georgica Cove to eat lunch and look at the water and the sky. I don’t remember what kind of sandwich my father favored, and he died in 1980 (in January, in fact, not outliving the 1970s), so I cannot ask him, but the interior of the truck smelled of coffee and pickles, and nothing in my life is cozier or safer than the mingled scent of coffee and pickles. The deli man behind the glass case at Bucket’s (I remember the deviled eggs, I remember the lobster salad) niftily folded a dill spear into each white-paper sandwich wrap.
Click! Another vivid snapshot of a very particular moment on Georgica Road. I remember looking out the windscreen of the International at water birds flying over the cove and wondering if it was possible to capture the imperfection of their flight pattern in a drawing. When I got home I tried to draw the ducks’ V formation with markers, to represent the asymmetry of nature, but found I could not; my drawing of birds in flight always created a pattern, and the pattern looked artificial, manufactured and false. The bird flock never looked as it did in the sky.
Another stop, another station. The blue swimming pool down a pebble driveway on Georgica Road belonging to Daisy and her sister, Nina, where we played Marco Polo for hours and hours and dived for weighted rings at the bottom of the water.
The landscape was much more open then. Your eye could travel farther. There were privet hedges on Further Lane, not as tall as today, but the sprawling shingled cottages of the old-time summer colony on Lily Pond Lane and Lee Avenue were totally open to public view from the street. A wide lawn and a row of hydrangeas by the porch was it. Split-rails, wound ‘round with red or pink roses, were quite common, but high fences were unheard of and no one went in for evergreen “screening.”
(Even the Ladies Village Improvement Society, vociferous on the preservation front back then, was active in admonishing the public not to block the view, but to maintain the open vista. The open vista was the East Hampton Way. The first driveway gate did not appear until 1980 or so, on Cross Highway, my eldest brother tells me, and it seemed so bizarre to local kids — spies on patrol — that he and his friends honestly suspected the property owner must be a member of the Cosa Nostra and called the house “the Mafia house.” What normal reason could there be for a barred gate?)
No screening, no high fence, and no driveway gate was how Daisy and I came to creep and crawl all over the Beales’ Grey Gardens. We rode our bicycles down Georgica to Jericho Road, and then turned onto Apaquogue until we came to the corner where the ramshackle ghost house stood. We believed it to be uninhabited.
I’m going to have to telephone Daisy to ask her if she remembers this as I do, but I remember daringly circling the house, exploring what once was a flower garden in the backyard, and crawling under tunnels of entangled rose canes. I remember boldly coming around to the front of the house again and peering in the sidelights by the front door, standing on the porch. We were in the front yard again, just standing there, when one of the Edies — I don’t know if it was Big or Little Edie — appeared suddenly out the front door bearing a plate of cookies!
Our shock was genuine. We jumped on our bikes and peddled away as quickly as our thin legs would carry us, in fear and embarrassment. I’ve regretted that ever since. If we were older or had more sense, we’d have accepted the cookie and the kindness.