August 16, 2006

Low Tidings

Low Tidings

Grandpa probably rolled over in his grave when he saw the old house in Sag Harbor on the cover of The Independent, valued at $2.2 million.

I know my 84-year-old mom, who was born there, nearly had a stroke.

Grandpa probably paid somewhere around $100 for it nearly a century ago, a 1770 house probably built for a deckhand on one of the whaling boats. Enrico made use of every inch of the property, growing pears and apples, figs, and, of course, grapes. His garden was rich with tomatoes, zucchini, cukes and pole beans, spices and some years, even corn, and always gourds, which as far as I can tell had no useful purpose then or now.

We had a chicken coop, and he kept a goat. Once a year he'd slaughter a pig and use every inch of it — my mom remembers how she hated coming home to find proscuitto curing around the house, and marvels how anyone would pay $20 a pound for the stuff.

The house was drafty and full of bugs of every variety. It never bothered me much during the summer but it got awfully cold in the winter.

The biggest room of the house and its epicenter was the kitchen, where the huge cast iron stove put out heat for the entire house. At night, Grandpa would heat bricks in it, and with a pair of tongs carry them upstairs and place them under the bed of his girls, my mom and her two sisters. That was the heat for the night.

There was an outhouse in the backyard behind the garden. The girls were young ladies before Enrico finally agreed to make a bathroom out of one of the closets. My mom tells the tale of two teenaged boys visiting one evening. One had to go to the bathroom. My mom and her sister kept telling him their mother was using the bathroom. This went on for two-and-a-half hours, until the boy, bladder bursting, finally left.

They were embarrassed to admit they didn't have a toilet inside the house.

Years later, there were holiday weekends when the entire family and many friends shared that one tiny bathroom. No one felt having just one was inadequate — the idea of "en suite" bathrooms didn't exist yet.

We lived just down the road from the water, which was a treasure trove of goodies until one of the Barry boys (if memory serves) decided to dredge the cove, dump the sand on top of the weeds and build a nightclub. Barron's was a popular spot for years — Frank Sinatra visited at least once — but building it killed off the crabs, spit clams, mussels and eels Enrico would harvest every morning shortly after dawn. There was no end to the treats he would create with them.

You could catch fish right off the dock, even stripers and always blowfish and snappers. Grandpa would turn each meal into a feast, with freshly picked veggies, tomatoes and local corn, homemade wine that aged in three oak kegs down our murky, web-filled basement. Every dinner was a full fledged party, and I try to keep that tradition going even today, to the point that I buy wine that reminds me of his when I make one of his Italian recipes.

Incidentally, a barrel of wine would last him one year, so he was always drinking wine aged at least two years. It took the whole family and friends about 10 years to drain the two he left behind.

I found out only recently the basement didn't come with the house. Over the course of a couple weekends Enrico put out four or five half-gallons of his Chianti and the local guys helped dig out under the house and place the stones in one by one. Even afterwards, being we were so close to the water, the damn thing would fill up with every decent-sized storm.

(Years later, when I was trying to sell the lot next door, I found out the county had classified it as a "wetland." I went by the house and saw a hose running from the basement, hooked up to a pump and emptying 300 feet away into my lot. The neighbor told me it had been there for years.)

All the people and kids and animals seemed to get along just fine. Every once in awhile a possum would get into the chicken coop and rip the heads off a few chickens. Old Boots would then be dispatched to rip the head off the possum. Lots of times I'd go out the back door to find a big cow standing there grazing. Neither of us gave much heed to the other, and the dogs didn't mind the big guy at all. He had ambled over from nearby Cilli's Farm, and eventually he'd find his way back.

Papa died in 1963. On his deathbed, he motioned for his three daughters to come close to him. They thought he was going to impart some words of wisdom, or maybe even tell them where the treasure was hidden. Instead, he whispered "I owe Christy five dollars. Make sure he gets it."

The next day, my aunt Lucy went down to Christy's Liquor Store and told Mr. Proferes what she was there for. Christy, a strapping, handsome young man who lost both his legs in World War II, started to cry.

That's the way Sag Harbor was back then. Papa would always tell the grandkids how, when he needed a loan in the spring during planting season, he'd borrow it at the Sag Harbor Savings bank. Mr. Bisgood (I think his name was) would bring him over to the teller and say Nancy, give Henry $100. When my grandfather would ask for the papers to sign, Mr. Bisgood would instead offer a handshake.

I read my friend Vinnie Early passed recently. I remember when he came back from the war, somewhere around 1970 or so, and my parents had entrusted me with the house. We had ourselves one hell of a high time that summer!

It wasn't long before my mother and aunts decided to sell the old place. After all, the roof was sagging, the plaster crumbling, the basement moldy, and hell, it was 200 years old. It still looks the same 30 years later — the same old saggy roof we were afraid would collapse with the very next heavy snowstorm.

No, it's not worth two million bucks, not even close. But I'd pay that and more to go back to the days when I lived there.

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