You’re not the only one with a summer rental, reads the sign in the window of the J. Crew on Main Street in East Hampton. The store is currently undergoing renovation and the sign is merely meant to direct customers to J. Crew’s “rental,” a pop-up shop just across the way, but when I came upon it the other night all brightly lit, it nearly stopped me dead in my flip-flops.
We have been renting houses on the East End of Long Island for years now, more than a decade at least, and there is something at once both dispiriting and enlivening about coming here on a temporary basis. As renters we are interlopers, transients. If the pecking order begins with those whose families have been here for generations, think the Halseys, the Toppings, and all those who have ever had a street named after them, and then descends to locals and then summer people, well, we are right after them, which is to say just one notch above day-trippers.
But our status — if you could call being a summer renter a status — also has its benefits. If to be an insider is to lose all perspective, and to be an outsider is to have no access in order to gain perspective, then we as outsiders temporarily granted a degree of insider access are well positioned to observe, and keenly.
Every house that we’ve rented here has had its great points and, as if by dint of some kind of Newtonian penance, its equal and opposite not so great points. There was the house on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton that had a swanky address and was, true to its name, walking distance to the beach. But that house also had a garage door permanently lodged in its dining room ceiling, the house having been cobbled together out of the garage of an erstwhile estate plus its various outbuildings. I loved that funky house even though I understood that it most certainly didn’t want to be loved for its funkiness. The house was like the personification of a failed bid at social climbing: It so badly wanted to move up in the world and yet, for all its desire to succeed, it nonetheless couldn’t help but keep exposing its awkward pedestrian roots.
Once, in the Village of East Hampton, we had a lawyer for a landlord who asked if he could commingle our security deposit, which was legally mandated to be in an escrow account, with his own personal checking account. Trying to be accommodating we said yes, and though it all worked out well for us in the end (we got back the correct amount), we did later learn that our landlord had been disbarred from the practice of law for those very sorts of infractions.
Another year, in Wainscott, we moved into our rental only to find that the next-door neighbor’s house was suddenly, irrevocably gone. This didn’t strike fear in my heart but it sure did strike fear in my husband’s. “It’s the Hamptons,” he said. “Someone will be building a house there in no time.” Perhaps truer words have never been spoken, for the very next morning the incredibly noisy job of laying the foundation and framing the house began and continued right on through till the end of our lease. When I called up our broker to complain he not only yelled at me, but hung up on me midsentence, and then for years afterward, no matter how many times I tried to unsubscribe from his emails, he wouldn’t stop sending me listings.
Much as I remember, and even in some ways hold dear, the ups and downs of each particular house, each particular renting experience, what after all makes up a decent chunk of my life experience, the simple fact is that it’s the memories of the people with whom I shared these houses that matter to me most.
Thanks to both an albeit shakily shot home video and the home video (perhaps also shakily shot) that is my now middle-aging mind, I remember my mother coming to visit me, my husband, and our then-toddler son 11 years ago on Job’s Lane in Bridgehampton. Things were already rather Jobian for my mother by that point as she had Stage 4 ovarian cancer, and yet what I most remember from her visit was not how stressed or depressed she was, but rather how carefree and grateful and happy she was to be there, with us, at that particular home, and how lovingly she trailed my son around everywhere he went.
The home wasn’t large but it had a huge and beautiful breezy backyard that stretched to the shores of Sam’s Creek, and I remember my mother sitting on a wooden swing on our back porch and saying to my father, “Let’s do it. Let’s go for it, Charlie. Let’s offer the owner a million bucks in cash.” She was joking, of course — my father never would have gone for it and neither would have the owner, who well knew just how valuable his land was — but in a way my mother was also very much not joking. Even though the house, which had been built by Leonard Lauder in the 1970s and not really been updated since, was a teardown, my mother loved the house just as it was. It was as if the experience of being there with us freed her chemo-addled mind to be itself again, to play, imagine, and even, for the first time in a long time, to dream about the future. So what if it would never come true?
The next summer we were back at that very same rental, all of us except my mother, who by then had her own piece of Long Island real estate, a burial plot in one of those gigantic godawful mid-Island cemeteries that are so big they practically have their own ZIP code. She was buried on July Fourth and I remember thinking, after a long hard six months of feeling devastated as I watched her essentially disintegrate, is her death going to ruin my summer? But the truth, in fact, was otherwise. Not only did her death not ruin my summer, it made it that much more poignant. Maybe we were all just renters. Maybe we were all just passing through.
This year we are once again in Wainscott, re-renting the house we rented eight years ago, and the experience is a bit odd, like going both backward and forward at once. Last time we were here we had just two children; now we have three. The first time we rented was from someone named Rob, whose nickname, for some reason I’ll never know, was Rebel. Sometime not long after our departure Rebel sold the house to an actress who happens to be a Buddhist, and though I myself am not a believer and the house is substantially the same as it was before, its aura is nonetheless completely different, more expansive, all-embracing, peaceful.
The other day my youngest child, whose very existence we hadn’t even yet wished for or imagined the last time we were here, turned 5, and so my father, now 87 years old, came by with his girlfriend for a family party. My father looked and seemed great, on point as ever, and yet in my mind I couldn’t help but compare him to the him of eight years ago. Last time he was here he walked the 1.2 miles to the beach, swam, and walked right back. This time he barely wanted to get out of his chair on the back porch. “I could just sit here forever,” he said, as the children played around him.
“You know we really should rent out here next summer,” said his girlfriend, who is one year younger than my mother would now be had she lived. But my father said nothing, just smiled, nodded. Later, when the sun went down, my father would admire the sky but then become eager to leave. He was getting cold, and like all good things, summers, rentals, and life itself, this too would have to end.
Johanna Berkman has been published in The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, National Geographic Traveler, The Harvard Review, The Observer, and Glamour. She is working on a novel called “(M)Other Life” and writes about family life on her eponymous blog.