by Joanie Butman
We just enjoyed one of our extended family weekends during which my parents and siblings shared memories of our childhood family vacations at our grandparents’ home on Long Island. This was not the Hamptons-area of Long Island. In fact, the only thing Mastic and the Hamptons have in common is that they both exist on the same planet. It may not have been fancy, but I thought we were rich because my grandparents had a ‘country house.’ It was where we learned to swim, make fires in a 50-gallon drum in the backyard, play bingo, cards, eat pistachio ice cream and listen wide-eyed to my grandmother’s hair-raising ghost stories. It was also where we picked up a touch of arachnophobia by camping out in the backyard with a large community of Daddy Longlegs. Sleeping in the tent was billed as an adventure, but my guess is they just ran out of space and needed the beds.
Built by my grandfather, their 1100 sq. ft house was an oddity. There was one bathroom, but no hot water or even a shower until he and my uncle decided to erect one in a shed in the backyard that began life as a bomb shelter, which wouldn’t have saved anyone from a firecracker. We only had a certain number of flushes per day because the homemade septic system that my brother and cousin dug had a limited capacity. The second floor was entirely constructed of old doors rescued from the dump. Everywhere you looked were doors at every conceivable angle. No wonder we never knew whether we were coming or going. I don’t remember the musty odors others describe, just the mouth-watering aroma of my grandmother’s cooking – especially her pies after we went berry picking.
The most extraordinary feature about the house is how many people it could accommodate. ‘The more, the merrier’ is a mindset we never outgrew. To this day at our family gatherings, no matter how much space is available, we all cram into the same small room. The ability to fit large numbers of people into close quarters also held true for the car. By today’s standards we violated every safety precaution known to man. My uncle use to let my cousin sit on his lap and steer while he was doing 90 down the highway! Once, I remember pulling up to the movie theater for the opening of Sound of Music in my dad’s two-door Cadillac and people staring in amazement at the seemingly endless stream of people coming out of our small car! I think the maximum occupancy signs you see so often today were designed specifically for people like us.
We were all laughing out loud as dormant memories sprung back to life. The consensus was that these were the best of times – at leastfor the kids. My mom had a glazed look on her face by this time and when we asked what her favorite memory was, she replied without a moment’s hesitation, “Leaving.” As an adult and host to many of our family gatherings, I can now empathize with how exhausting it must have been, and I applaud her endurance in choosing to do it repeatedly despite the inconveniences, discomfort, and hard work along with my grandmother who housed and fed us all with untiring diligence, creativity and love.
My father, on the other hand, has the gift of selective memory and, at that time, the ability to return to the office come Monday – as handy a survival tool in our family as his singing and clowning. I think his main purpose in Mastic was to keep my mom from having a nervous breakdown. He accomplished this by frequently piling us in the car and taking us to the local playhouse, for long rides to mysterious destinations or day trips to Montauk. I remember him taking us with him to buy lobsters once, which seemed harmless enough until the live lobsters got loose in the car. What a scene!
He created a bus song that we still sing and have passed on to our children. I even taught it to the 90+ Ghanaian children I brought to the beach on a trip to Africa. They are the only ones I ever met who far surpass our family in how many people you can fit in a vehicle. Regarding my father’s antics my cousin commented, “Maybe your dad’s bus routine wasn’t trying to entertain us so much as fighting his impulse to drive us all into a ditch, thereby averting a greater disaster.”
As I listened to the stories and reviewed recent emails from my cousins, visions of The Beverly Hillbillies, Swamp People and Honey Boo Boo came to mind. My mother’s parents were immigrants from Newfoundland and aptly referred to our motley crew as Goofie Newfies so I suppose that would be the name of our reality show. And what a show we could make. As an introduction, perhaps the opening episode could be about our ‘trips’ to the lake. Prior to the installation of the bomb-shelter shower, the adults would take us to a nearby lake to bathe. I can’t imagine what people must have thought as the swarm of us unloaded and were each handed a scrap of soap (homemade of course) and a towel. In order to protect the innocent (and the not-so-innocent), I can't share many of the memories as you might conclude we were white trash, which couldn't be farther from the truth. A little outrageous perhaps; but for the most part just your average crazy family.
Continuing the tradition of family vacations is the way I choose to honor my parents’ decision to return again and again to that tiny, steamy, overcrowded house to provide us with wonderful childhood memories and more than a few nightmares thanks to my grandmother. We may enjoy more room and modern conveniences, but we still have plumbing issues when everyone is in residence. We’ve had our mishaps and adventures, but it is my hope (or maybe delusion) that perhaps my own children will remember our family weekends with the same fondness. The location and conditions may have changed, but the loving atmosphere when we are all together remains the same. It’s not where you are but who you’re with that counts. We all have our quirks as did the original cast of Goofy Newfies, but our willingness to choose to embrace each other, warts and all, is what makes our gatherings not only possible but enjoyable.
Even though my mother didn’t necessarily share our fondness for those days, she made an important observation: “I think if nothing else we learned it doesn’t take much to make good memories – just lots of love.” So you see, my original belief that we were rich was true – maybe not in Hamptons-style, but certainly in all the ways that matter most. My grandparents didn't have more than five years of formal education combined, but our time with them taught us something you can't learn in a classroom - the value of family. For that I will be eternally grateful.
Despite the fact that our most vivid memories varied widely whether it was the smells, the spiders, the zany antics, or just the general state of chaos, we all remembered being surrounded by people who loved us unconditionally which is my parents' and grandparents' legacy to us. In her novel What Happened to Goodbye, Sarah Dessen gives the best description of home I’ve ever heard and a reality that the Goofie Newfies (as well as the Italian side of our family) chose to embrace a long time ago:
“Home wasn't a set house, or a single town on a map.
It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together.
Not a place, but a moment, and then another,
building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter
that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”
And so it is with faith. It gets built slowly, one brick at a time with Christ being the mortar that binds us together. However, the choice is alway ours as to whether we want to join His family or not.