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Heading east in search of a house from my youth

On a brilliant summer morning in July 2015, I went driving down Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton, searching for an illusion from 1970.

"Is that it?" I asked, glancing down a dead-end street choked with foliage. I answered my own question. "That's not it," I grumbled.

"Well, let's just keep going then," my wife, Donna, said patiently, as she turned the pages of a Hagstrom's Suffolk County map book in her lap.

The street I remembered was longer and wider, with views as expansive and full of promise as my life back then. I was 15 years old, living in Malverne. That summer, I was invited by the family of my friend Willy to spend the weekend at their new vacation home in the Springs section of East Hampton. That weekend, and on subsequent visits, I experienced idyllic summer moments that, even 45 years later, are still as soothing as the turquoise swirl of Gardiners Bay.

On this weekend, Donna and I were at the tail end of a getaway to Montauk, and my wife agreed to assist me on a 60th-birthday year quest to find the house one more time. I have made several attempts in the past while out on the East End for work or vacation, navigating with a vague sense that the home I was searching for was off Three Mile Harbor Road. I know it looked out over Gardiners Bay, but I can't recall exactly where.

Part of this, of course, is the passage of time. But part of it is what psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons call "the illusion of memory." In their 2010 book, "The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us," they write about the false impression most of us have about how our memories are stored. "Although we believe that our memories contain precise accounts of what we see and hear," they write, in reality these are "based on gist, inference and other influences."

In other words, my memories of the house in Springs and the time I spent there have been modified and embellished over the years. I could, for example, be confusing a memory of 1970 in East Hampton with one from 1976 in Montauk or 1986 in Greenport or (and yes, the psychologists write, this is not uncommon) someone else's account of a summer on the shore that I read or heard!

This much I do remember: The house looked much like the split levels of my family's Nassau County neighborhood, except, at the vacation home in Springs, there was a wooden staircase on the outside wall, a second-story deck, and wooden floors and rugs that always seemed to have sand on them.

But the location . . . so exotic! Living where my family did in Nassau County, anything east of Jones Beach felt like Terra Incognita. The East End of Long Island? Was there an East End? I'd never really stopped to consider that before my visits with Willy's family.

I can still smell the clean, salt-tanged scent of ocean-scoured wood; I can still hear the foghorn in the harbor that mournfully bellowed its deep bass notes through the night. During the day, Willy and I played baseball in the flats, hitting line drives that skipped over clumps of salt grass. We sat on the bluffs of Three Mile Harbor, watching boats chug into the nearby marina, leaving a wake of water that rippled onto the shore.

I also remember Willy's wizened and sweet Italian grandmother making us spaghetti and meatballs. I remember meeting a long-haired friend of Willy's older sister who claimed to have been at Woodstock the previous summer. Nearby was the marina where we ate fried clams at a restaurant close by.

The restaurant! Suddenly, this bubbled up in my mind. It was up the street from the house in Springs, on the corner of the main road, Three Mile Harbor Road, where I was now driving.

"Look for a restaurant!" I said excitedly.

"It's the Hamptons," Donna replied dryly. "There are a lot of them."

But then we saw it: a seafood place on the corner of a street leading toward the water. I stomped on the brakes and veered off, down a tree-lined street. "Yes," I said, the adrenaline pumping. "I think I remember this."

My wife was silent. I don't think she wanted to get my hopes up.

We came to the end of the road, the bay glimmering in the distance. In front of us was a stucco McMansion with an ostentatious stone gate. If it had been an igloo it couldn't have been less consistent with the mental picture I had.

"This isn't it," I said dejectedly.

"Unless they sold it, and the new owner tore it down and rebuilt it," my wife offered.

Donna's probably right. At this point, the easiest thing would be to track down Willy -- who went on to become a professional musician -- and get the facts. But perhaps it would be best to allow the house in Springs to remain where it is, and what it is: an illusion of memory; a symbol of the idyllic summer youth I managed to savor, so fleetingly.

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