Guest Column: The North Fork will always be home

I arrived in Southold by bus in the summer of 1984, having agreed to a house share, sight unseen, with some friends from Rolling Stone magazine. I was 32, and happy to escape the fetid streets of New York City in the summertime. I knew that the rental, a waterfront cottage, was down a private road — and that was all I knew. Arrangements had been made for one of my housemates to pick me up from the bus stop. As I alighted from the bus, I felt I had lucked out, completely charmed by the town’s tree-shaded Main Street lined with historic homes and small shops. 

I sat on a bench and watched as the crowd slowly dispersed. After 10 minutes, I was the only one left waiting. I tried to stay calm, knowing that someone had to be on her way. Thirty minutes later, I started to panic. I had no idea where the house was, its phone number, or a way to reach my housemates. I did not want to go back to the city for the long Memorial Day weekend so I set out, determined to somehow find the house. The first building I came to was a tiny structure in a parking lot, home of Dickinson Realty. I felt myself gulping back tears as I explained my situation to kindly Ms. Dickinson. 

She peppered me with questions but sadly, I had no answers. Then I remembered that my friends had mentioned a couple who had rented the house at Paradise Point — thank God for that unforgettable name. A phone call was made and voilà, arrangements for my pickup solidified. When I finally arrived at the cottage I was told that because I was wearing all white, my housemate mistook me for a nurse and drove on! 

The shabby-chic house was part of a summer colony with the strange name of Bexeidon, which was down the road from the even more strangely named Port of Egypt. Its rocking chair porch fronted a tree-shaded lawn that stretched down to a sandy bay beach. That first summer in Southold was a blur of sailing and cookouts, sunny days and breezy nights. As poorly as the summer had started, it ended extremely well. On Labor Day weekend, I met David, the man I would eventually marry.

David’s family summered in Southampton but he quickly grew enamored of the quiet pace and beauty of the North Fork in fall. The next summer, we decided to rent our own place, having discovered a grand old house on the East Marion causeway with views of the bay and Sound. It was like grandma’s place, sans grandma, with lumpy mattresses, old brown furniture and a kitchen untouched since the 1940s. We planted a garden, borrowed a boat and filled the house with family and friends. It was the first time I felt a sense of ownership, taking care to keep the sheets clean and the plants watered. 

By 1991, we had married and had a 1-year-old daughter. We were still summer renters but now in the market to buy a house to use year-round. We wanted our daughter to be able to play outside and we needed space for the ever-increasing overflow of stuff from our city apartment. That fall, we purchased a ramshackle farmhouse with a barn whose hayloft doors opened to a sunset view of fallow fields that stretched back to Oregon Road. A few years later, with another daughter in tow, we watched as the beautiful field slowly filled up with houses — a log cabin here, a turreted Barbie Dream House there, even a car collector’s multiple garages. We accepted the loss of the rural look and feel of our neighborhood as the price of progress. All that changed, however, when the lot closest to the barn sold and the new homeowner, a hardworking fellow who kept to himself, developed the habit of working outside — starting early Saturday morning and continuing throughout the weekend — accompanied by his radio at full blast. There was no escaping it. I started looking at real estate ads, reasoning that if we could find some waterfront wreck within our budget, peace and quiet would once again be ours.

Our next house was sited high on a bluff, a ’70s ranch that had been on the market for several years. The lovely Greek family that had owned it kept the dated bathrooms and Harvest Gold kitchen spotlessly clean, but its mousey brown exterior and cookie-cutter interior made it a hard sell. Their kids had grown and they were happy to see the house sold to a family with young children. We began a renovation that lasted three seasons, ultimately transforming the house into an unpretentious shingled Cape with a wide porch overlooking Long Island Sound. I gardened, David fished, the girls learned to swim. Then, after this seven-year idyll, it all came crashing down. We sold the house, divorced and I swore off the North Fork.

Eight years later, much in my life had changed. The girls were now in college and I was working for a brilliant editor and friend who had recently told me that he had terminal cancer. Besides the pain and heartache of witnessing his vitality slowly ebb, I realized that this would be the end of my professional life. I was in my 60s, and job prospects were nonexistent. I could not afford to stay in the city without full-time employment so I began the search for a place to retire. Vermont, upstate New York, the Delaware Valley — I researched them all. Then, one weekend, my daughters and I visited a friend on the North Fork which, blessedly, had not changed. The girls enthused over our rediscovery of the area. It suddenly became obvious that Southold Town was the perfect place to retire, the clincher being my daughters’ pledges to visit often.

I bought another wreck of a house and spent too much on the renovation but have no regrets. I can walk to town and a sandy bay beach that happens to have a view of that first house in Bexeidon. Place names like Orient, Paradise and Egypt are second nature to me now. My garden abounds, my neighbors are quiet and friendly and my daughters visit often. It feels like home.

Photo caption: The Soundfront ranch house prior to renovation.

The author, of Southold, retired from a career in magazine publishing. She was creative director at Women’s Wear Daily and a longtime art director for the New York Observer.