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The Learning Curve: A Childhood by the Sea, by Skip Blaeser

My husband Bart and I have lived in the Boston area for the past nine years. As he is now entering the final year of his medical residency, we will be able to conceivably move anywhere in the United States next spring, where he can set up a practice. This presents somewhat of a dilemma for us. Exactly where would we go? Texas? Florida? California? Iowa? Las Vegas?

It is revealing how preferences arise when the subject finally comes up. "So, what about Nevada?" my husband blurted out one day in reference to an offer he's had from that state.

"No," I said, rather automatically. "I don't want to live in the desert."

"What about the Midwest?" he asked.

"Too far inland," I responded. It became quickly evident to both of us that I wasn't very keen on any location that would take me too far away from the East Coast and the Atlantic.

Not having recognized these seaward inclinations in myself before, I suddenly wondered why this was so. While I have never lived more than a few hours from the Atlantic since I was six years old, it is not as if I sprang from a long line of longshoremen or as if I have been water skiing since kindergarten. In fact, the truth is that to this day, I still can't go underwater without holding my nose. Yet, there is something subconsciously alluring about the Atlantic to me.

I feel its pull every time I see a nest of quahogs on ice at the supermarket, or drive by the Dorchester Yacht Club marina on the way into Boston, particularly at low tide, when the pungent aroma of the mud occasionally drifts up to the highway. The Atlantic is, I realized to my surprise, deep inside me. It is an undeniable part of my childhood, and will always remain so.

Where did I grow up? It is a question I have usually answered dismissively by saying, "Long Island," and then hastily moved onto another subject.

In fact, for many years I never gave the topic of my childhood home much thought. After all, much of my time was spent looking forward, not backward. Where would I go to college? Where would I go to graduate school? Where would I work? Where would my husband and I get our first apartment after marriage? There was little time to look back, and though I visited relatives in New York City often, I only rarely returned to my island home.

I spent most of my twenties dismissing the subject of having had a "hometown" of the Rockwellian variety. Mine had been a town like any other, with a gas company and a movie theater and the proverbial gas station at the corner. Mine had been a childhood of skinned knees, dull school days and hazy, monotonous summers like anyone else's. I'd never thought much about going back once I had left, and the close circle of friends I had in those days had long since dispersed into their own worlds.

Having moved myself into an entirely new existence by my twenties, I had come to smugly believe that I was a product of my own making. Only as I've matured from the constantly busy years of looking forward, have I begun to have time to reflect and revisit my childhood by the sea.

My hometown was East Setauket, New York. By the map, it is smack in the middle of the north shore of Long Island Sound, in the white space between the dots that are the larger towns of Port Jefferson, the Connecticut ferryport, and Stony Brook, the university town.

Our first house in East Setauket is the one I remember best. It was on lovely Shore Road, a winding seaside path that frames the interior of Setauket Harbor. Today I realize how fortunate I was to live there when I did. Our house was one of the oldest around, the Brewster Hawkin's place, built in the 1720's. It was a great gray-shingled cape colonial structure that sat directly across from the water. It literally fronted Shore Road and across from us bobbed a great yellow houseboat in the marsh.

Hurricanes were a reality in our area of the world. I remember one that sent water over our entire yard, flooding our basement and making the road impassable. We had to park our car in the backyard, and the water came up six porch steps to crest at our front door.

Beyond that houseboat was the Harbor Marsh, within which lived - for my entire childhood - a family of trumpeter swans. Each year, we watched their young hatch, and we knew not to get too close. To this day, I have a healthier respect for a territorial swan than for a growling dog. Not to mention the occasional water rat that made its way onto our property (think small snarling dog); the ugly giant brown horseshoe crabs (some up to two feet across) that crawled up on the beach and scared the daylights out of everyone; the seagulls that would swoop down and pilfer your food if you left it even for a moment on the grass or on one of the backyard tables.

Down the road a stretch, nestled in the marsh cattails, was the bench stop where we waited for the school bus every day. Slightly further - out of sight - were the East Setauket Marina beach, docks and boatyard. I literally grew up with the smells of the salt air, of fish flesh, seaweed and the mud of low tide. As a child, I trapped what we called "killiefish" for bait in the reeds that marked the beginnings of the marsh area. Horseshoe crabs abounded, as did mussels at low tide. If we didn't use our own bait, we could buy it inside the bait shop in the boatyard, steps from the beach. The boatyard itself is a place that has never quite left my consciousness.

We children often played great games of hide and seek among the boats upon their cement blocks, with literally dozens of hiding places to choose from. Many local stray cats knew even better; in largely pre- ASPCA days, they not only often found places in that boatyard to hide their litters, but I now see that the nearly endless supply of cast-off fish parts was almost certainly part of the equation. In fact, my very first cat, Essie ( S.C. for Stray Cat) was a kitten who emerged from that same boatyard one day to steal my heart.

We didn't fish all year round, but when snapper season came upon us, we would line the docks with our bamboo poles and pull in a fish every few minutes. My younger brothers and I would walk home with buckets of flipping fish that we would cook ourselves, after fileting them, in a frying pan on the kitchen range or outdoor grill.

Lacking modern-day distractions like video games, Walkmen and a host of TV channels to keep us occupied in the afternoons, there were other natural diversions like mulberry trees to climb. During the summer months, we children would eat the berries - sometimes whitish-green and sometimes purple - right off the branches. We licked honeysuckle flowers and picked blackberries from wild patches. We tossed fallen horseshoe chestnuts at each other - that sometimes smartly hit their targets. At low tide on the beach we hunted for horseshoe crabs to flip over and watch them try to right themselves (the local version of cow-tipping). Bike paths abounded in the local woods, and it was not uncommon for us to take our bikes clear across the cove if we so chose.

Hmmm. Not really as boring as I had painted the situation, after all.

On a more sinister note, now that I am adult I also often recall a very, very old man that everyone in the neighborhood merely knew as "Captain Bob." He had no teeth left, which made it hard to understand him when he talked - which wasn't often - and with his cane walked more slowly than a toddler drives a tricycle, but he nevertheless seemed to like to spend his days wandering the Marina area. I never knew exactly where he lived; perhaps it was in one of the dingy rooms over the bait shop.

It was something of a joke among the young girls in the neighborhood that if you got too close to Captain Bob he would try to "touch you." When I was about eight years old I have a very vivid memory of Captain Bob somehow sidling up to me near the beach. He had his old, wrinkly hand down my bathing suit before I quite knew what was happening. He was not, however, a hard person to escape, and at the time, I merely remember laughing nervously and walking away. I wasn't afraid at the time; I am more frightened by that memory now that I am an adult and a mother.

In fact our entire town - not merely our neighborhood - had a colorful history, and my very best friend, Jenny Roe, lived about two miles away in a small house near the shore on the lip of the Harbor. Jenny was a direct descendant of tavern keeper and Revolutionary war hero, Captain Austin Roe.

From Jenny's beach, on a clear day, we could look north and see the outline of the Connecticut shore across the open sound. It was across this very sound that her ancestor Captain Roe would send secret messages while he was active in George Washington's famous Culper Spy Ring. Secret information for General Washington would originate in New York City. From there it would travel to Setauket, where members of the spy ring, would send the messages across the water to Connecticut. It is said that some of these messages were written in a disappearing ink called "sympathetic stain," and that some of them were even left on clothes-lines.

We had a great, expansive backyard with a huge sandbox, two magnificent climbing trees - one maple, one crab apple - and one great old Black Walnut tree that stood right outside my bedroom window where I saw it each morning when I woke up and every night before I went to sleep. My Dad claimed the tree had been there as long as the house had been. It was as tall as a four-story building and as wide around as a kitchen table. One day, during a fierce thunderstorm, lightning went straight through the tree into the ground. On one side the bark quickly burnt off, and the grass at the base of the tree went dead within a day. It was a great story to tell anyone who ventured into our backyard.

I am slightly wistful now as I recount the last time I revisited the Setaukets. It was several years ago, with my husband. "This is where I grew up," I recall saying, as we drove by several old landmarks Only slowly did it dawn on me, however, that what I was showing my husband wasn't where I remember growing up at all. A gas station gone here, a new development arising there. Even my old house, still standing, seemed so small and remote. The great old yard I had once played in with my brothers was completely demolished. About ten years after we moved out, new owners of the house sold the easement rights to the property that used to be our side yard. Developers paved a road right through where our sandbox used to be, and built half a dozen new houses on the overgrown land where we used to ride our bikes.

Alas, the great old Black Walnut tree that used to stand vigil outside my bedroom window had long since been completely taken down. I am sure that the owners justifiably believed that another storm might bring that ancient half-dead tree down on the house someday. Another inevitable reminder that nothing, however grand, is impervious to time or fate.

Saddest of all, my father retired to Florida last year, the last of my family to leave the Setaukets. Now even should I choose to go back, I would have to take a hotel room like any other tourist - and there are many who now visit that area of Long Island, lured in by the fabulous Marina Development in the neighboring town of Port Jefferson, an attraction which did not exist when I was a child. The Setaukets of today are no more the environs of my childhood than I am any more the little girl who used to pedal her bike down the street for a twenty-cent ice cream.

Where did I grow up? It is a question I am no longer able to dismiss nonchalantly. I now understand and accept that those developmental years I spent on Long Island in the '70s, despite all my subconscious attempts to minimize them to the contrary, were by constellation of specific time, place and events, the penumbra of my childhood. Where I grew up is not merely a geographical location on a map, but a unique point in history that will not come again, my memorable childhood by the sea.

Skip Blaeser is a former attorney who, in addition to being a wife and mother of two small boys, is currently pursuing her longtime passion for writing historical fiction. She received her A.B. from Princeton University, and her J.D. from the Boston University School of Law. Skip and her family live in New England.

E-mail Skip at:

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