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The Shipwreck Rose: Temps Perdu

Wed, 06/29/2022 - 11:58

It’s Tuesday morning at 6:45 and I’m at Main Beach in a folding chair, drinking iced espresso, having just watched my son, age 12, escape the capering clutches of two friendly dogs — a large yellow Lab and a bounding blond retriever — as he pilots his surfboard into the rollers. He’s all alone out there, scaring the hell out of me, bobbing and disappearing behind the curve of the breakers on his hand-me-down shortboard. What if a shark bites his leg? What if he misjudges a wave and gets rumbled, snapping his neck on the sandy bottom, and I cannot throw down my laptop, rush out, dive in, and rescue him in time?

This column debuted exactly two years ago this week. I’m trying to think of what has changed in those two years. Not a lot has happened, except the march of time. Instead of a featherweight 10-year-old with a Pokemon collection and a 12-year-old ballerina with a peppery personality, I have an adolescent son on a surfboard and a nearly-15-year-old who wears Brazilian thong bikinis and disappears with friends into the warren of the trailer park at Ditch Plain for entire weekends at a time, shouting the lyrics to “Stars in the Sky” by Kid Cudi.

Another blond dog has joined the goofball early-morning dog pack and here comes Teddy back to me, now, out of the surf, silhouetted by the glare of the early sun, heading up the sand with his Boysen board under his arm. A tractor is noisily churning up and down the strand behind us, raking the sand to a neat comb before the crowd comes.

The subject of my debut column, the first week of July 2020, was how we might endure the trial of Covid-19, a pandemic that already felt endless, only four months in. I compared the state of the union to the state of the enduring rosebush in my backyard garden that supposedly was one of the old rose varieties that came — along with various tree specimens and shrubs — off the Louis-Philippe, a French packet shipwrecked at Mecox in 1824. “We’ve all been hacked back severely by 2020,” I wrote. “Something will grow out of it, I guess.”

Oh, ha, ha, ha! How little we knew. Four months!

For much of 2020 and 2021, I was occupied as a supervisor and “school specialist” for the New York State Contact Tracing Initiative, working at a frantic, life-or-death pace — giving it my all, performing as if in wartime, never shirking, midnights and weekends — for what I now judge to be naught. It was all for nothing. It was the worst job I’ve ever had, and an ugly experiment in corporate culture conducted virtually, on Zoom, and gone awry. One day, someday, I will be able to look back and laugh — and laugh and laugh — at the dogpile of ambition we created as we built the contact-tracing initiative from scratch, laugh at the hair-raising meetings during which we were forced to watch via remote video as the boss performed a chair dance to a Motown tune in the name of morale boosting. (My eyeballs! as my son would say. My eyeballs were scorched!) But that day has not yet come.

We never were able to hold back the floodtide of Covid-19 cases, and it was extremely unpleasant to slowly realize that certain quarters of our public-private contact-tracing machine were only too happy not to even try, but to let half of the Covid cases slide by us, unregistered. Some of us were diligently battling as if we were on the home front during World War II, and some of us were iPhoning into the Zoom meetings, cameras off, while power walking around Smith Haven Mall sipping a Starbucks Pink Drink.

Things that have happened in the last 24 months: I’ve become a farmer — or, anyway, a farmhand — and reversed to some degree the bodily decline in agility brought about by a desk job as a highly stressed contact-tracing supervisor. I’ve written 100 “Shipwreck Rose” columns totaling about 100,000 words. My kids have moved through four different schools, and my daughter is about to move onward to a fifth, having been accepted at a boarding school in New Hampshire for September. Mint has taken over the rose bed in the back garden. A mother wren has twice built a nest inside our tabletop patio barbecue grill, and twice the eggs have died in the heat under the metal lid sitting out in the sun. I’ve gone on about 150 calls as a member of the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association. (And if you think that is an impressive figure, be assured it is not. Some of my fellow E.M.T.s do twice that number in a single year.) I’ve stopped baking bread.

I founded the Anchor Society of East Hampton to bring a general store to the village. I participated in a ruckus at the Ladies Village Improvement Society, when a man was hired as that worthy women’s organization’s first-ever executive director. I wrote a history of the John Drew Theater for Guild Hall’s anniversary, and participated in the ruckus over the replacement of that theater with a newer, more high-tech one. I edited a half-dozen issues of East magazine. My daughter got her braces off, and my son got his braces on. My daughter took up soccer and lacrosse. I stood by the chain-link fence by the side of the pitch for each home game, telling anyone who would listen that this, watching the children at play in the fields of the Lord, was “the parents’ reward.” My son took up tennis, then gave up tennis and took up surfing. We spent a strange weekend in an empty Midtown Manhattan hotel, passing no one in the halls, parking easily in the empty street. We marched for George Floyd. Someone in a Trump truck parade called my daughter a slut.

My son got drunk accidentally on Passover wine and vaulted over the living room couch, hitting his head. My daughter went to her first bonfire party at Big Albert’s. My daughter got an Uber account. My daughter gave away her “emo” black platform shoes and plaid-kilt miniskirts. She begged for Lululemon leggings. She switched her style to the Y2K look (baggy cargoes or hip-hugging “bumster” jeans with embellishment on the back pockets). We listened to 1990s vintage hip-hop as I drove her in our Honda up and down the highways of New England, visiting boarding schools. Teddy went to teen night at the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RecCenter and saw a girl he knew vaping in the bathroom. My daughter entered the high school and got called the N-word.

We had two happy Halloweens and two good Christmases, better than they’d been before Covid. I decorated two cherry-packed Christmas cakes with fondant, royal icing, and figurines of tiny manger animals. Teddy started jogging to Main Beach and back. Teddy ran a 5K. I had my parathyroid removed. I went to a wake for an old friend, with a rocking garage band. The kids circled the rink at Buckskill on ice skates, over and over and over, eyeing the other girls and boys. The kids ate macaroni and cheese.

Teddy learned to play “Für Elise” on the piano by watching other people on Youtube playing “Für Elise” on the piano. He played “Für Elise” 6,000 times. I got an email saying an ex-boyfriend in Budapest had died of Covid. We wore masks at the LongHouse benefit, in the garden, in our summer dresses. We honked our horns as we drove a circuit around Stony Brook Southampton Hospital in a thank-you parade for the doctors, nurses, and orderlies. Someone broke my favorite green-ceramic rose vase, but I don’t know who it was. No one confessed.


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