"Tenant called," was the message scrawled on the telephone pad. In my 30 years as a landlady, I've learned that a call from a tenant seldom means good news. Rather, it conjures up visions of broken pipes, malfunctioning appliances or tight finances.
My husband and I purchased a second home in Sound Beach when our five children were still young. We were delighted that they would spend their summers in the same place where we both had grown up and met each other. We had no plans to use the house in the winter, and a neighbor suggested that we rent it off-season, as many residents of that summer community did. The house, a nondescript ranch, was far from spacious or luxurious, but it was worlds away from my grandmother's unheated bungalow, which she lovingly referred to as a "shack in the woods," or my mother-in-law's house, which had the modern updates my grandmother's place lacked but was still small and cramped.
It was my youngest son, David, who dubbed the place "the beach house." In actuality, the house is set down behind a huge bluff, and access to the beach requires navigating 125 rickety steps -- something my son, who has cerebral palsy, is unable to do. But love the beach he does, even though it requires a half-mile ride to another spot in the community where, years ago, there was much easier access.
In the division of labor in our household, the job of landlady fell to me. Not that I minded. Stony Brook University was seven miles away, and at the time was experiencing a shortage of housing. There was no shortage of prospective tenants and a steady parade of them -- the majority on staff there -- entered our home right after Labor Day and vacated the premises before July 4.
However, in recent years the university has expanded its housing, the price of gas has soared and the tenant pool has dwindled. One year, we left the house empty. Last year, in desperation, we rented to four undergraduates. The rent arrived on time, and they never called about problems. However, the neighbors did, informing us of loud parties and overturned garbage pails.
A lot can change in 30 years. Little by little, the original residents have gone. Many have passed away and their houses snapped up by young people who have renovated the bungalows into year-round residences.
The years and tenants have taken their toll on our house. The roofer, after doing some patchwork, tells me I will be needing a new roof. Last year, we replaced the cesspool. Then, there are the ever-escalating taxes found in areas like this one that lack commercial real estate.
When my grandchildren join us at the beach, I get out the photos of what the beach looked like 30 years ago. They don't recognize it. We now have to navigate 12 steps to get David onto the part of the beach that once had easy, no-stairs access; and at high tide, the water laps the bottom one. The wide expanse of coarse sand, where volleyball games were played, is less than half the size it once was, and we sit much closer to our neighbors than we used to. It's no longer just a summer community. The majority of residents live here all year. Many have installed pools. In general, they are not the beach lovers the original owners were.
Many of the newcomers are drawn more by the rustic charm of the area, the narrow winding roads and large plots. Although our home is in a private and recently gated community, there are no cookie-cutter homes. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find any two alike.
For the small group of us who are die-hard beach lovers, things have changed dramatically. Runoff from storms leaves dark, unattractive etching on the sand. Seaweed and dried leaves pile up, too. But most disheartening are the occasional beach closings due to elevated bacterial levels in our once-pristine Sound.
I draw up the balance sheet. Any reasonable person would consider that it may be time to pack it in. However my younger grandchildren love it here and can't wait to visit. One little one, on overhearing that we were contemplating selling, burst into tears. "You can't sell our beach," she cried. However, I notice that, by adolescence, their enthusiasm wanes.
Their parents wouldn't mind. The house lacks the comforts they are used to. There's much discussion over who has to sleep on the pullout bed, and they still find it hard to believe that we have no intention of installing air-conditioning. Rainy weather quickly cancels any planned visits. Even my husband, who once shared my enthusiasm for the place, now finds it wanting.
David has cataloged our history here with hundreds of pictures. He doesn't keep them in any particular order and, looking at them, it's difficult to distinguish one summer from another except by the approximate age of the children.
In this place, every summer was much like the one before as we, mindful of the short season, grabbed as many days at the beach as we could. David loves the beach house and looks forward all year to spending the summer there. If I were to do the practical thing, it would be him who would miss it the most. Although it is beyond his comprehension, he would be missing a place that no longer exists. I know of what I speak, but still . . . .
Among his collection of pictures is one of a little girl at the water's edge. holding her father's hand and squinting into the sun. The picture is black and white, and the year is 1940. The girl is me, and it's difficult to imagine not spending what remains of my summers walking along that same shoreline.