“There are places I remember.”
In 1954, the year I was born, in Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, my parents bought what had been a chicken farm in Water Mill on Long Island. The farm had been owned by the Balserus family; next door were the Yastrzemskis, relatives of Carl (a fact I started bragging about with greater regularity after moving to Maine and joining Red Sox Nation).
We called the place “Grugglybush,” but it was really Eden: a sizeable pond filled with bass, pickerel, catfish, and snapping turtles; vegetable and flower gardens; woods with wild grapes. Coming out from the city on weekends and for the summer, my four siblings and I were free to wander the 20-plus acres, tending to a handful of chickens and goats, or getting on our bikes and pedaling into town to buy shoestrings of sweet licorice at the Penny Candy Store.
At some point in the 1960s my mother, inspired by the Civil Rights movement and Head Start, opened a summer day camp. Disadvantaged children from nearby Southampton spent part of the day on our lawn and beneath our gnarly apple and pear trees playing, singing songs, doing arts and crafts. My mother recruited my sisters Lucy and Liza and myself to help. The camp lasted a couple of summers, but the feeling of having done something worthwhile stayed with my mother and her children for a long time. We had shared our sanctuary.
When I started writing poetry at Dartmouth in 1975, Grugglybush became a go-to source of images and ideas. I wrote about searching with my feet for bottles in the muddy edge of the pond; of the time during the Vietnam War when my father cut the word “LOVE” in the tall grass as a way to connect with his protesting children; and of the treehouse he built in the woods, its nails “festering the bark.”
I often wrote about the place in terms of sanctuary, because that was what it was. Take “The First Big Hit”: The poem offers a recollection of the living room of the summer house where we would listen to our parents’ records on the turntable and stay cool on hot days:
The First Big Hit
The boy clamored to have the record
played again, “It’s Istanbul,
Not Constantinople,” the two names
tied forever to an age
when he thought nothing
of hearing the same song
three or four times in succession.
Once, following the thumping bass,
his parents made the motions
of a wild dance; he laughed till
tears welled to witness such a marriage
of the familiar and foreign.
The syllables’ rolling rhythm
bore the family on through
August 1957, pulsing
from speakers set behind
the sofa where he would crawl
to feel the music with his hands.
Caught up in an Eastern beat,
stretched out on a living room floor:
that’s a leisure allowed
children who choose the heart
of a cool, dark house
as a place for travel.
Rereading this poem, which appeared in The Hudson Review sometime in the 1980s, I wonder about the privilege it highlights, especially the line about “a leisure allowed.” As the children of wealth, we didn’t really “choose” this place: We were given the rights to relax, to play, to interact with our parents. It was a luxury.
The home in Water Mill has continued to be a muse as I revisit my life there and something else comes rising up. A few years ago, memories were sparked by hearing Debussy’s “Reverie” on Maine Public Classical.
If van Cliburn Hadn’t Died Yesterday
The classical station might not have played
Debussy’s “Reverie” this morning and I
wouldn’t have been carried back to
my brother at the Yamaha in the living room
of the new house on Flax Pond where
my parents fought their final battles
and I wouldn’t have felt the joy his playing
added to that household, taking the edge
off yelling and stretches of coolness
that could not be attributed to the breezes
off the pond. I wouldn’t have recalled
piano lessons he took with Mrs. Rogers
in Bridgehampton or my teenage case
of whooping cough, or the trips to Carvel
or climbing the sacks of grain at the GLF,
or the beauty of potato fields before what
my mother called “design statements”
began appearing among the raised rows.
Because van Cliburn died I could return
to the last days by the pond that was the center
of a universe that featured five kids, their parents
and an assortment of pets, plus Geneva
and Freddy and a few others who stuck with us
through the wine and Scotch, which
is not to say I’m pleased with the death
of the great pianist who wowed the Russians
or that his dying somehow offered
an occasion for consolation and forgiving.
Only that because he happened to die
the other morning I was able to regain
some forgotten family history that I wished
to forget but also dearly wished to remember:
my brother at the piano, playing and playing.
Again, the feeling of sanctuary is there, even if it was torn asunder by the skirmishes my parents engaged in as they worked their way toward an acrimonious, but welcome, divorce. The two people I mention by name, Geneva Davis and Freddy Grimshaw, worked for us. Geneva, or GV as she was called, cleaned and cooked; her twin daughters Dot and Diana helped at my mother’s camp. Freddy lived down the road from us and was our do-anything-and-everything handyman: clip hedges, kill chickens, show us where to find a stash of railroad ties to “borrow” for outdoor steps.
They and others kept our sanctuary going while looking on, sometimes with amusement, I think, and sometimes with concern, I’m sure, at the Little family as it went through phases of dysfunction and celebration. We were spoiled, and sometimes brats, but there was a lot of love in that enclave.
In 1980 I was given another sanctuary, my Uncle Bill Kienbusch’s house and studio on Great Cranberry Island. He left it to my brother David and me because he felt that we should have a place to paint and write without distraction. The island soon became a muse, rivalling Grugglybush. I wrote about laundry hung out to dry in yards along the main road, about glimpsing love-making through a window, about how many islanders left their house lights off until well into the dusk.
And a small pine tree caught my eye.
The white pine that happened to grow
needles-to-clapboard at the back of the shed
looks like it is hiding
from the cops or a gang
or is simply playing hide-and-seek,
a nine-year-old girl, say,
with gentle boughs
hugging the corner of the outbuilding,
trembling in a breeze, hoping
no one notices her until
she can reach a size where the house owner
won’t consider her
spindly enough to be cut down.
Lithe, small, hidden,
the young pine is beautiful.
Someone should embrace her
as she grows toward the roofline,
save her from the saw.
These sanctuaries have been, and will continue to be, sources for my writing. They were/are away from the world but also a part of it, rich in memory and image. While I recognize them now as places provided to me by my privileged status, I do not wish to undo my past, only to share it.
Feature photo at top: