Finding God in Southampton

We got an email submission for our Corona Journals project that was a bit longer than the normal submission. Kenneth Gatten III has very close ties to Southampton. His family has owned land here since it was founded. Kenneth is a undergrad student at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and for one of his classes this past spring he wrote the following short non-fiction story musing on his family's connection to Southampton both historically, and today. It was a bit too long for the Corona Journals and bit too good to not include, so I decided it needed its own post. Enjoy!

Finding God In Southampton


Class warfare is raging in the Hamptons: hospitals are overrun, grocery stores are barren, and locals are furious as wealthy elites abscond to their vacation homes to wait out the quarantine. At least, that is how the situation is described by The New York Post.


According to the Post, one vacation homeowner called a Southampton hospital to arrange for medical treatment after being diagnosed with the coronavirus. When she was told to stay home, she took public transportation to receive treatment there anyway. Another person took a private jet to Southampton and then admitted to having the virus after they landed. These elites, as they are styled by locals in the Hamptons, have begun to overrun hospitals so that “we should blow up the bridges—don’t let them in,” says one resident. Another resident observes one conspicuously wealthy person leave a grocery store with a cart full of “just carrots.” He adds that another person’s “cart was full of bottles of water and orange anti-microbial dish soap.” He says that “these brazen acts of selfishness” have left grocery store aisles cleared of paper products, meat, eggs, bread, and cheese.


As someone whose family owns a $2 million beach house in Southampton, I can say that this is not surprising.


The Hamptons have witnessed some of the most dramatic effects of gentrification in the world. In many places, $20 million vacation homes are situated mere blocks or even houses away from the residence of the town florist or pharmacist. The cost of living has risen so quickly that longtime residents are being driven out, selling the small homes they purchased for modest sums for millions of dollars. It is a bittersweet way to leave the place where your family has lived for generations. And my family might be in that very position.


We own our Southampton home not because we purchased it, but because it has been passed down through generations—380 years, in fact.


It all began in 1640 with a scene that could have inspired a sketch in the British comedy series Monty Python. According to Dutch accounts, on May 10, a group of British settlers of Lynn, MA took a small sloop to Long Island, NY. When they landed, the Sachem of the local Native American tribe informed the Dutch governor that some “foreign strollers” had arrived and cut down trees to build houses. They “had even hewn down the arms of their High Mightinesses,” said the Sachem. The Governor sent a Dutch commissary, and he not only found the account to be true, but noticed that where the Dutch arms of State had been nailed to a tree, a scowling caricature had been drawn over the spot, presumably with a rock or stick. The Dutch deemed this “a criminal offense against his Majesty.” On May 15th, my ancestors were arrested as “vagabonds.”


On the same day, Dutch judges questioned the intruders: “by what power or by whose authority have you presumed to settle on our purchased soil?” They answered that they were authorized by a Scotsman, who was no longer among them. The Dutch demanded that this Scotsman be identified. When the intruders answered that his name was James Farrett, the judges were flabbergasted. None of them had heard of this elusive Scotsman.


Never mind that, the Dutch said, “for what reason did you throw down our Mightinesses’ Arms and set up a fool’s face in his stead?” One intruder said he had no idea. Another suggested vaguely that the Scotsman might have done it. The upshot of the case was that my ancestors and their fellow settlers were discharged. Immediately, they boarded their sloop, sailed a mere three miles Eastward through Long Island Sound, and created a new settlement which is in present-day Southampton. They lived freely, governing themselves under their own laws as the first English settlement in New York.

Conscience Point, the supposed landing spot of Southampton's Founders - Photo by Jeff Heatley

It is a quintessentially American story of mischievous defiance and ingenuity.


After a few years, my ancestors had built many notable landmarks. The Old Sayre House, for example, was erected in 1648 and survived as the oldest frame house in the United States until it was demolished in 1912. A main artery of Southampton, Job’s Lane, is named after Job Sayre. The famous Sayre Barn, built in 1825, became a popular trading post on a busy intersection in the area, and the Southampton History Museum restored the structure in 2014.

The Sayre Barn shortly after its reconstruction in 2014

I can even trace my direct lineage to the founders, which includes Thomas Sayre (1597-1670), Job Sayre (1612-1694), Benjamin Sayre (1674-unknown), Benjamin Sayre Jr (unknown-1790), David Sayre (1807-1860), Stephen Sayre (1832-1908), Frank Sayre (1871-1967), Leuellyn Sayre (1904-89), and Ann Curry (1946-). Curry is my grandmother, who inherited our house in Southampton from her mother, Leuellyn.


My ancestry and the landmarks by which it is represented make me feel a permanent, immutable connection to the land. During my childhood, I often escaped to Southampton to feel that uniquely permanent, stable, and irrefutable sense of purpose.


While my grandparents have lived a prosperous, upper middle-class life, I was raised until the age of 14 by my parents, who always seemed to live in poverty. At least, that was my perception: as I attended a private Christian academy with students who came from wealthy nuclear families, my grandparents not only paid my tuition but the mortgage, car payments, utilities, and more. Meanwhile, my home life was tumultuous and traumatic. My parents would fight viciously, my father would direct his ire toward my brother and me, and he would pack up and disappear from our lives for months at a time. In 7th grade, this caused me to act out so that I earned 43 demerits (conduct violations) in one year—the most in the school’s history. I was promptly expelled.


During the ensuing years, I would revisit memories of Southampton, a place I had visited countless times during my childhood. Southampton was for me what the Mississippi Delta is for Blues Singer Lucinda Williams: “a highly personal, emotional reference library, something that she keeps coming back to in her music, for images or metaphors,” as Bill Buford writes for The New Yorker. It was a space of creativity, something against which to contrast my home life.

When I was 18 years old, for example, I wrote this passage for an introductory class on creative writing to describe what it was like to be in my room during my childhood:

I felt on my fingertips parched, fine dust exposed by smoke-colored chunks of horsehair plaster that peeled off the walls. Footsteps echoed and could be felt in the floorboards from anywhere in the house. Often, I brooded in silence, listening for patterns in the steps that might suggest the beginning of a conflict, inevitably followed by roaring shouting that thickened the air and darkened the shadows.

A year later, I would contrast this experience with a fictional scenario about my real-life experiences in Southampton, where I am represented by a boy named Ellsworth who visits the fishing shack that is my family’s real-life house:

Nothing compared, Ellsworth felt, to the time he spent alone at the fishing shack. He would read his favorite books his tutor had given him and gaze at the bay, captured by its beauty and mystery. From his right, the bay opened narrowly from the ocean and widened against the fine shoreline, swinging in a wide arc past the fishing shack. Seaweed lined the water’s rim during low tide, and two wedded swans rested offshore, bobbing above the waves with sleepy eyes. Sea-salted air, borne by the hushed crashing of waves, rippled the pages of his story and teased his stray wisps of hair. One time, he found a beached baby shark down the shoreline and grabbed an oar from the fishing boat, which was covered by a tarpaulin under the deck. He nudged it back into the water and saved its life.

But my writing would not shake old tropes: in the story, Ellsworth ends up living in a household where he is terrorized by his father’s rage.


Many people realize at one point in our lives that they had tyrannical fathers growing up. But I did not respond to the experience like Franz Kafka, whose famous novel The Metamorphosis depicts a man transformed into an insect and waiting resignedly to become a casualty of his surroundings. Instead, I responded like a young Christopher Hitchens, the British author who grew tired of the bleak and impersonal 1970s London of his father—a reticent World War 2 veteran who was prone to fits of rage—and relocated to what he felt was a bright and charming United States. Hitchens physically escaped to the U.S. to channel his creative energy. I have always emotionally escaped to Southampton.


But my family might have to sell the Southampton house.


As my grandmother explains to me, the Sayres are farmers. They cultivate potatoes and grain for subsistence, and they get dirt under their fingernails. Sure—some of our ancestors were navy and merchant sea captains, respected members of the local government, founders of the Bridgehampton Bank, and owners of small businesses. But they have mostly been subsistence farmers.


(According to my grandmother, one time, her father walked into the house as if on clouds and with a beaming smile after purchasing a new, three-row plow. He was sure that his wife, Leuellyn Sayre, would be absolutely taken by the splendid new acquisition. But while he was relaying the news, Leuellyn tried her best not to reveal that she was not so impressed. Her father had a 16-row plow.)


While my parents and grandparents are not quite farmers, we are regular people. So, we have certainly been star-struck in the Hamptons. Walking through Sag Harbor Village, I have spotted the late world-renowned movie director and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld sipping on a martini, reclining in the alfresco seating of The American Hotel, for example. One of my finest childhood memories is of feeding the ducks at the quaint nature reserve in East Hampton, which is less than a block away from Jackie Kennedy’s famous summer home, Lasata. Other times, I’ve walked past the chef Ina Garten at the local Green Thumb farmer’s market, where she was presumably buying ingredients, and my family has spotted Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley reclining in the sun only a few hundred feet from our house’s stretch of the Noyack Bay beach.


During a summer away from college in 1988, my uncle Scott worked at a grocery store in Sag Harbor that was frequented by movie star Alan Alda, for whom he would occasionally carry groceries or help locate certain foods. Scott called him “Mr. Alda” and treated him like a normal person. In 1989, my grandmother inherited our beach house at the same time that Billy Joel released the song “Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” which expresses solidarity for the locals of Southampton: the normal people who could no longer make ends meet.


Well I'm on the Downeaster Alexa

And I'm cruising through Block Island Sound

...

I was a bay man like my father was before

Can't make a living as a bay man anymore

There ain't much future for a man who works the sea

But there ain't no island left for islanders like me


My great grandmother was one of the many Sayres who left Southampton during her generation. Leuellyn was bright, earning a B.A. at Columbia University at a time when few went to college, but felt that better opportunities would be found elsewhere. The economy of Southampton had simply changed over the 20th century. Its main industries had become tourism and real estate. Corporate farming had made subsistence farming obsolete. My grandmother explains that those who stayed were suffocated by the skyrocketing utilities, land-use regulations, property taxes, maintenance costs, and more. Some pioneer families, such as our neighbors the Toppings, entered the real estate business and adapted. But the Sayres sold most of their property at market-rate for extraordinary sums. Bittersweet.


Markets have been squeezed around the world during the coronavirus pandemic. My grandparents’ investments have been wiped out, and even as they retire, they continue to pay for my college education. The idea of selling our Southampton home and receiving a $2 million check in the mail seems more desirable every day.


But we are hoping for the best.


***


Recently, I spent some time in Israel as part of an educational collegiate program. We ate the Mediterranean cuisine, which is bursting with vigor and life: bright red tomatoes, vibrant greens, acidic olives, sweet dates, refreshing cucumbers, salty chickpeas and hummus, tangy tzatziki sauce, succulent lamb, feta cheese, spices, et cetera. We stayed in Tel Aviv and galivanted across the rocky, desiccated earth that paradoxically hosts tropical palm trees. We reached a hilltop where we were rushed by the powerful salt-water winds generated by the immense, crashing waves of the Mediterranean, which was suddenly before us.


Later, we drove to the desert and spent some time at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. There is no life. The air is thin. The desert is parched and scorching, and the mountains soar toward the sky and imprison you. The Sea is vast, and its salinity is such that it kills the life present in all other bodies of water on earth, and it burns to touch. The Dead Sea is hell.

The Dead Sea with surrounding mountains

A short drive not only delivered us from the desert, but into the city of Jerusalem, a green oasis that is the most beautiful and awe-inspiring city on earth. A place that is part of the cradle of humanity, where Jews and Muslims are closer to God. Where the Son of God was born and crucified, and where Christians can be closest to him. Jerusalem is heaven.

Hilltop in Jerusalem

Even if you do not believe in God, such an experience will reveal what God is. It will allow you to understand what it means to feel a spiritual connection to a land.


While I was in Israel, I was startled to realize that I had felt such a connection before, and that it was to Southampton.


I was reminded of the sandy soil, and the sea-salt air that seems to airbrush everything in the sunlight as though filtered through rosy glasses, but which also crystallizes on every surface (grainy to the touch), oxidizes metal, and erodes the elements; the heavy air that is but light in your lungs and cultivates brilliant xenia flowers. I was reminded of Southampton’s sea, which can bring forth violent storms and throws with the force of God, but which also brings forth so many varieties of passionate life. Like the cradle of humanity, Southampton is a place of sublime contradictions: of life and death.


But unlike Israel, I have a deep-rooted connection to the land of Southampton—a connection forged by my ancestors and the monuments they left behind. After 380 years of life and death in Southampton, my family, I hope, will not be forced to leave any time soon.

Kenneth's family beach house in Southampton

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