Exit the Light Keeper

By Marge Winski
Jane Bimson

We share a place of breathtaking natural beauty. Although not one of overwhelming grandeur, ours is subtle, almost mysterious, in its expressions of grace. The rewards are for all of us if we awaken our senses to its bounty and appreciate what surrounds us. The sublime rays of golden light slicing across the moors on a late fall afternoon, fog sliding in from the sea and settling in sheltered hollows, scoters whistling in the darkness as they ride the waves in the spring — all such treasures enrich my soul and forever bind me to this very special place.

As a child I felt blessed to spend time visiting Montauk. I was 12 when we moved there permanently, and I instinctively knew I had arrived in paradise. My parents encouraged me to explore, and explore I did, with a fair amount of benign trespassing thrown in. I hiked every beach, woodland trail, and marsh with the words of Henry David Thoreau, Henry Beston, and Aldo Leopold whispering in my thoughts.

Fifty years ago the East End was vastly different from what we find today. It was a time when we would follow dusty potato trucks lumbering along Bridgehampton lanes as we dodged errant spuds — potato “grenades,” we would call them. It was a time when haulseiners were a common Napeague sight: men driving rusty trucks, outfitted with huge winches in the beds, hauling net-laden dories to the beach. It was a time, too, when pickup trucks in the East Hampton High School lot had gun racks filled with shotguns displayed in the back windows; the owners were students who had gone duck hunting at dawn. 

It was a slower, more balanced way of life, very much in tune with the rhythm of the seasons. We were a community of year-round tradesmen, police officers, teachers, doctors, and fishermen, many of whom were volunteers with the fire department, all willing to drop everything to help someone in need.

My dad died unexpectedly soon after we arrived, leaving my mom and me adrift in a new town. The Montauk community rallied to our side and embraced us. The Ecker family welcomed us with open arms. My mom taught at the Montauk School and Fran Ecker was her classroom aide. I cannot begin to count the number of dinners we shared at their table, feeling the love and support of the Ecker and Riley families. I adored Ed Ecker Sr. and loved hearing his stores of growing up in Montauk, his antics in grade school, working with his mom and Aunt Ann Fallon at the Trail’s End restaurant, and tales of the disastrous 1938 Hurricane. Family was what I needed and craved during my teenage years.

After I graduated from the Montauk School, East Hampton High School, and Southampton College, I ventured into the world, living in other places but always longing to return to the East End, where my soul belonged.

In 1987 I became the keeper of the Montauk Light Station when the Coast Guard left. It had been my dream to live in a lighthouse, and I could barely contain my excitement. I will always be humbled by the trust and honor bestowed upon me by the Montauk Historical Society as I shouldered the responsibility. For 31 years I have spent every night at the light except for brief vacations in the spring and fall. 

It has been extraordinary in every way. I’ve been witness to the great pageant of nature, the movement of the sun, and I have met and befriended people from all over the world. I take tremendous pride in being the longest resident keeper in the history of the Montauk Lighthouse, the only sole occupant, and the only woman to have served in the position. I’ve ridden out every squall, hurricane, blizzard, and even Superstorm Sandy alone at the light. I hope to write a book about my sojourn, illustrated with images I have captured over the decades.

The late writer John Cole, who, coincidently, moved from East Hampton to Maine, wrote that he was heading north, where “change was further in the future.” I, too, will soon be leaving a place I love to seek new ground and new adventures. Sometimes it is best to look back from afar to see more clearly.

I’ve found that it is true that there is a profound shift in one’s thoughts when you turn 60. Suddenly you shockingly realize that there are more good years behind you than ahead. There is not a moment to waste. Last winter, I spent much time thinking about my life as I walked familiar trails with my Newfoundland, Kate, by my side. When an incredible house became available in a Maine town I adore, Tenants Harbor, where I have many friends, I did not hesitate to take a leap of faith. 

Very soon Kate and I will be living by the sea in Maine, where I hope to tend a garden, do some writing, expand my love of photography, and where we will have the freedom to explore.

I’ll be leaving a huge part of my heart in Montauk. I know I will miss its astounding natural beauty and the profound and enduring friendship of her kind and compassionate people, but new adventures await, and the future beckons.

Thank you, Montauk, you have graced me with boundless love and made my life extraordinary.

Marge Winski reports that she will be back in Montauk next week to finish cleaning out the lighthouse.