It all began with my brother Jean’s crazy idea to get on his old Peugeot bike and pedal away from New York City to Eastern Long Island. Decision in Riverhead: North Fork? South Fork? It would be North. Arrived in Orient Village — it was love at first sight. Jean called the family, mother, grandmother, sister, brother. “A beautiful village. I’m taking the train back to get you. You must come to Orient.”
And so we rode in my brother’s 1960 Plymouth gray sedan, all of us, after reserving rooms at The Bay House and Cottages. Fifty years later, my brother, sister and I are part of the Orient community.
In 1968, we bought the first house we ever owned. It was and still is on King Street, Orient village. Yes, some houses do move in this land. But this one will not unless the sea takes it away. Could have happened in the 1938 hurricane.
In summer 1968 the family was traveling in Europe but I was here spending time at the Bay House or perhaps with Mrs. Tuthill, who rented rooms and offered a simple breakfast in her immaculate home on Village Lane with floors painted beige. Mrs. Tuthill made you feel like a friend on a visit. She could be your aunt, warm and even-tempered. She was elegant the way people are at church on Sunday. So many years have passed but I still remember her with affection. She personified the best in American hospitality.
These were the good old days. The happiest days in my life.
While the family was in Europe that summer, Marilyn Norkelun, a broker at Floyd King Jr. Realty, was showing me available property. Owning a house was still a dream. There was the historic house of Henry Dyer, a mariner, from 1850. It was now the Cooper House and had been in the same family for 93 years.
(Houses changed hands so rarely, then, that the owner’s name was attached to them like a brand. The first house I bought without family was the Bay House. We expected that it would never be on the market. We had been guests there for several seasons. The owner, Betty King, a wonderful hostess, had become a friend. My sister and I were lying in the sand on the Bay House beach one day when we heard the unthinkable: Betty King was selling and moving to Florida. The Bay House and its cottages, Sunset, Edgewater, Revolutionary, Bayside, the whole bundle, for not even 130,000 dollars. We read it in The New York Times. In the ’60s, it was far more money than we had. A German couple, Eric Schmidt and his wife, took over. We were stunned by Betty King leaving Orient. Along with her brother, Floyd, she was such an important and endearing presence in the community. We felt nothing would ever change in Orient and Betty and Floyd and everyone here would live forever and never leave town.
Years later, the Schmidts decided to sell. Here was my chance to get hold of The Bay House and to devote myself to its restoration. It was never a matter of profit but of rescue. To give new life to an old house. To bring back its beauty.)
Back to the 1850 Cooper house. When the family returned from Europe I had them look at it in a hurry. Although a house could sit for months, sometimes years, at the time, with a fading For Sale sign, I was worried. You never knew. I didn’t want to lose the Cooper house. My brother liked it but the idea of a mortgage troubled him. Either you had the money and you bought or you didn’t have it and abstained. He convinced himself to go ahead by calling it “an investment in health.” A house by the sea was a promise of good living. Never mind the mortgage. It was a very small mortgage, actually.
The house was sold to us with beds, tables, chairs included and a bright pink upright piano. Everything is still here just the way it was when we moved in. Some of the beds have open box springs. They do rattle and grind. Country charm to compete with the song of crickets.
My brother never looked at another house. This was it for good, like a happy marriage. I had looked. There was a brick house in Southold, quite imposing, not expensive (this was 1968), a white elephant, with silver sterling door knobs. My mother, brother and sister would have nothing of it. The old 1850 Henry Dyer’s house in Orient would become home. Forever. Ah, forever.
My mother spent many hours playing the pink piano. Oh, it was never well-tuned. Years near the sea gave it permanent odd sounds. But we loved it. My good friend Patty Latham, a gifted music student at the Juilliard School, made music out of the pink piano. It’s still in the house, pink and out of tune, the heart of the old Cooper house. It’s my sister’s and brother’s house now but for us will remain the Cooper House, the first house we ever owned.
On the day we moved in, Betty King came with a crystal bowl that had belonged to her family to wish us good luck in our new house. That same day, Eleanor Harris, our neighbor from across the street, came to greet us and became a close friend. A few doors away my mother met Mrs. Muriel Brown as she was raising the American flag in front of her house. She and her husband, Dr. Kenneth Brown, opened their home to us. This was the beginning of our love story with the village of Orient, first discovered at the end of a long bicycle trip by my brother, Jean.
In a future column I’ll write about the many other friends we’ve had in Orient.
Pierre Gazarian is a poet and a writer of one-act plays. Email: [email protected]