Skip to main content

The Shipwreck Rose: Egypt Close

Wed, 03/27/2024 - 18:08

Whenever someone talks about “a more innocent time” and the faraway days of childhood happiness, bathed in the goldenrod warmth of 1970s sunshine, my mind drifts to the house on Egypt Close where my friends Katy and Jenny Paxton lived. Unlike most of the houses I knew most intimately, this one was recently constructed, custom-built in the 1960s, and it had every comfort a kid could blow on a dandelion and wish for — all the modern designs for living that were lacking at my own family’s houses, elegant in their own penny-saving Yankee way, but austere. The Paxton house on Egypt Close had sliding glass doors off the dining room that led to an Olympic-size swimming pool in which we Marco-Polo-ed and water-balleted until our hands puckered. Days at the Paxton house painted entire seasons of my youth in chlorine blue and daisy yellow.

The Paxtons had a hot-air popcorn machine with a cup on top that automatically melted the butter. The Paxtons had a big, soft-brown-leather easy chair — “Dad’s chair” inevitably — and matching couch into which we sank to watch Burt Reynolds movies on a VCR-tape player in the living room. It had a patio, and a kitchen island with a cooking surface called a Jenn Air Grill that, we believed, was the height of culinary sophistication. The “Jenn Air” came up surprisingly often in our conversation. It had a suction ventilator built in, for indoor grilling of steaks without smoke.

(The other day my own teenage daughter asked me what a “patio” was. I was confounded: Is the word “patio” now becoming a relic of the past? I guess it’s true that her friends, in their Modernist houses and McMansions, don’t have patios. I guess they have decks?)

The Paxton sisters’ mom, the very glamorous Midge — the prettiest of the moms, rather like Diane Lane, with brown eyes, slightly bouffant hair, and an easy, generous laugh that I can still hear as I type this — kept an eyelash curler in the drawer of her vanity table. She warned us not to try to use it, lest we accidentally rip out our lashes. (I’m still afraid of eyelash curlers.) The sisters also were the first girls I knew to own a curling iron, another slightly dangerous implement of feminine mastery/mystery. I remember standing in front of the wide mirror in their bathroom, using the curling iron to try to form my floppy hair into the tubular side curls worn by Charlie’s Angels. Tube socks and tube tops. It’s funny, in retrospect, that everything in the 1970s was totally tubular. If you say the word “tube” — or “boob” or “lube” — your lips naturally form a sort of front-of-mouth muscular configuration that mirrors the teenage cadences of the San Fernando Valley. California was the new way of talking in the 1970s, and the Paxton house, on trend for the late 1960s, had a few Southern California, Spanish Colonial design accents, too, at least in my memory. Curlicues of black wrought iron and, I think, tiles.

Another notable feature of the Paxton house, alongside the Jenn Air and the enviable movie-watching accouterments, were a set of Pablo Picasso lithographs or limited-edition prints that hung in the hall and the living room. One of them, I believe, was a harlequin or Pierrot. Sometimes we would go into the living room just to look at these Picassos and be impressed. The only other reason we ever went into the living room was for the ceremony of opening presents when Katy or Jenny had a birthday party. Their dad, the folk singer Tom Paxton, would sing for us at these birthday parties, and each of the sisters had her very own song: “Katy, Little Lady” and “Jennifer’s Rabbit” — this last one a famous number among our cohort of privileged East Hampton children of artists and writers, a lullaby and dream song, our own “Cat’s Cradle”:


Jennifer’s rabbit, brown and white,

Left the house and ran away one night,

Along with a turtle and a kangaroo,

And seventeen monkeys from the city zoo,

And Jennifer, too.


I’m not sure if the living room was actually painted or upholstered with the bright grass-green my memory attaches to it, or if grass-green is a synesthetic mood memory. Green grosgrain ribbon. Grass-green stains on the knees of our jeans.

After watching one of the sisters unwrap her presents, and listening to their dad on the guitar, we the children would go into the dining room, be seated around the heavy, dark, glossy dining table, and eat sheet cake with thick frosting, Midge moving around the table with a scooper to offer ice cream. The Paxton house promised all sorts of dishes I didn’t get at home: Creamsicles and spaghetti Bolognese.

The sisters shared a large bedroom upstairs. I can remember the white, louvered closet and the daybed I slept on during many sleepovers. For some reason, I persistently remember a particular, prolonged sleepover discussion late one night — it was probably all of 10 p.m. — with Jennifer, the elder sister, the bookish one, the A+ student, about the nature of space-time. We three were each tucked up under the blankets of our three beds in different corners of the bedroom. Were distances in space relative, depending on the size and scale of the observer? If I were five million feet tall, and could walk from here to Mars in two swift steps, wouldn’t time itself be something different? I said yes. Jennifer argued no. This conversation went on for a long time, while Katy complained that we were boring and should talk about something else.

Downstairs in the big, bright basement, Katy and I took turns singing all the showstoppers from “That’s Entertainment,” a mid-’70s film documentary series about the golden age of Hollywood musicals. I guess we must have watched it on VCR tape, but for sure Katy had the soundtrack album. Katy was going to be an actress, and became middle-school legendary when she was asked at the 11th hour to step in to replace a classmate in the role of  Emily in the Young People’s Theater Company production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” at Guild Hall. (I can still hear Katy onstage, delivering her lines about the moon and love. “Oh, mama! Oh, mama! Just for a moment we’re happy. . . . “) I was never going to be an actress, but was a dancer enrolled in the studio of Mr. Gordon Peevey at the Odd Fellows Hall on Newtown Lane. We sang our lungs out on “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” while attempting to improvise full, musical-theater dance numbers, making up the steps on the spot and competing to see whose scene was more professional. I believe we scored one another’s performances on a scale of one to five stars. These long afternoons of song and dance explain why I know the lyrics to “Make ‘Em Laugh,” even though I never was a Gene Kelly girl. Fred Astaire for me.

The Paxton girls live in the Washington, D.C., area now, and their parents sold the house eons ago, in the 1990s, I believe. I think that may have happened while I was living in Budapest after college. I don’t remember saying goodbye. My last memories of Egypt Close are from the late 1980s, when Katy and I were in our early 20s and would meet for a bowl of spaghetti and meat sauce before going out to the bars. The last time I was on Egypt Close and checked, it was hard to get a good look at the house because it had disappeared behind a very tall privet hedge. I could see only just enough to determine that it had been expanded and made over “tastefully,” to look more like a traditional summer-colony cottage, less like a 1960s suburban family house. More’s the pity.

Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.