The tree has been stripped and dragged into the yard and the only trace of Christmas is the dusting of fine gold glitter — between the floorboards in the kitchen, somehow clinging to the part in my hair — shed by a roll of tinselly wrapping paper that Santa used to wrap the books that the children will take to their bedroom bookcases but never read. The old glass ornaments, polar bears and pinecones swaddled in tissue, are back in their box waiting to be carried upstairs to the storeroom, and the Swedish tomte dolls (white wool beards and red wool jackets) are lying in slumber once again (silent night, holy night) inside the old green sea chest before the cold fireplace. The living room looks bare and the light outside the windows is watery as we begin the new year with our slate wiped clean.
We find ourselves in the perverse position of wishing for raw, freezing weather. A light snow begins to fall at midday, the winter’s first snow. The birds in the yard are thrown into a panic, rushing the seed feeders in a flap, although the snow doesn’t amount to anything. It melts on the unseasonably green grass.
It is Jan. 3. Procrastinating my way into 2022, I spend the morning reading from cover to cover the New Year’s edition of The East Hampton Star from exactly 100 years ago — Jan. 6, 1922 — imagining that life was better here back then, when we all knew one another’s names (and members of the Grand Old Party weren’t storming the Capitol driven by a twisted mass delusion that political opponents kept dungeons of children as sex slaves). Taking the top-right headline position on page one 100 years ago, above the fold, we find a report on the crimes of a pair of juvenile delinquents: Two boys, ages 12 and 13, are arrested for arson, having set fire to a garage in Georgica and a “road house” called the Oaks near Bridgehampton. The front-page news is agricultural: “Baker Brothers lost a valuable heifer during the past week, its leg getting caught on the track at the railroad crossing.” And industrial: The torpedo factory in Sag Harbor has been shut down with no indication it will ever reopen, a casualty of peace, three years and two months after the Armistice. “The firing of torpedoes, under inspection of officers from the U.S. Navy,” The Star reports, “had continued until ice closed the bay.” Gardiner’s Bay is covered “as far as the eye can see” in thick ice.
How thick is the ice, the modern reader wonders? The answer is found in the next text column: “Several of the fishing companies at Montauk have been filling their ice houses during the past week. The ice varied from five to six inches in thickness.” The frozen bay, the six inches of ice are mentioned in passing, nothing remarkable.
In my armchair, my mood grows colder, and colder again, as I eat a lunch of reheated chicken Marbella off a tray and think of the ice of 100 years ago and of how the woods of Northwest Woods have disappeared and no one seems to want to admit it. No one seems able to admit it: The ice is gone, the woods are gone.
Only four years ago, I commissioned an article for EAST magazine, asking the reporter to investigate the thinning of undergrowth and the felling of trees in Northwest Woods — neighbors looking out the windows above their kitchen sinks as they washed the dishes and seeing other houses for the first time ever, a revelation of suburbia as the woods failed. The experts consulted four years ago by the reporter shrugged and said the thinning of the trees and the voraciousness of the pine beetles was a cyclical situation and nothing much to worry about; the woods hadn’t fundamentally changed. But this was wrong. It was wrong, wrong, wrong. It wasn’t cyclical. The woods are gone. There is no more ice.
I can remember thick crusts of ice on the shoreline of Gardiner’s Bay in the winters of my 1970s childhood.
In the afternoon, an unseen hand shakes the snow globe and the world tumbles, topsy-turvy. It starts with an urgent text from my daughter, sitting in her geometry class at the high school: “Mom.” Mom, mom, mom. “I have bad news.” She texts the word “mom” so many times that my iPhone does an animation trick I’ve never seen before, tossing mom mom mom mom moms all over the screen like a handful of rice at a wedding. A close friend has tested positive. Then another friend, a few minutes later. Then another. As we are texting about her four sick friends, my phone vibrates with an email from East Hampton High School: Forty positive Covid-19 tests have been reported today. My phone buzzes, jumps, and vibrates for the next two hours, as moms send updates about their own kids’ schools in Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, Southampton, Eastport, and the Upper West Side.
A hard chill descends, but not the meteorological sort we’d been wishing for.
Nettie arrives home from school, throwing the front door open, slamming it again, and rushing to her bedroom wearing her black puffer coat and black, three-ply face mask, calling out, “I’m sorry, mom! I don’t want you to catch Covid and die!” as she takes the stairs two at a time. “We’re going to be fine,” I call up the stairs after her. “We’re all vaxxed and I’m boosted, and we’ll be fine. We’re all going to be fine.”
It is dark at 5 o’clock and an ill wind blows through the Twitter news feed. Will violent nationalists try to kill people again on Jan. 6? Democracy is failing, Twitter says. No, it’s not, Facebook replies: We’re all going to be fine, we’re all going to be fine, we’re all going to be fine.