Memory 3: The Tomato Lady

Sailing in Northport every day of the summer meant driving to Northport too. My mom did this for my brother and me for six summers, God bless her. In the morning, the three of us piled into our Nova, me and Pete in topsiders, cut-offs and tee shirts. Pete wore his striped conductor’s hat that said Lee, and I wore a bandana pulled down to my eyebrows, tied with a square knot in back.

My mom carried our essentials in a canvas bag: bathing suits, towels, iced tea, zinc oxide. Strung around my wrist was my red ditty bag with my yellow comb and a chit book for lunch at the snack bar.

We took 25A east leaving Huntington, going through Centerport and then finally taking the left on Woodbine which turns into Bayview which brings you to the yacht club.

It’s a pretty pleasant drive along 25A, full of long curves because the road hugs the shoreline. I was the younger sister sitting in the back, a little slouched, head tipped back, daydreaming out the window.

My mom always had WABC on and our windows were rolled down as Harry Harrison spun out the tunes: Afternoon Delight, Kung Fu Fighting, Rhinestone Cowboy.

My mom always had WABC on and our windows were rolled down as Harry Harrison spun out the tunes: Afternoon Delight, Kung Fu Fighting, Rhinestone Cowboy.

After sailing lessons and spending hours in the pool, we’d head home. Traveling west in orange light, I’d sit in the back, salt streaked on my legs and Levis, chlorine in my hair, even tanner than yesterday. There was a place on 25A just before Centerport where traffic would always slow in a long line at a traffic light. And there she was. I’d spy her out the back window.

Traveling west in orange light, I’d sit in the back, salt streaked on my legs and Levis, chlorine in my hair, even tanner than yesterday.

She sat still as a gravestone, face wrinkled, red flowers on her big scarf tied below her chin. She was a big woman, and she sat on a beach chair at a wooden hut and sold tomatoes. But not just any tomatoes. Gorgeous, plump, August Long Island tomatoes that she grew out back and that now sat neatly stacked in little wooden baskets.

We’d stop and buy. Just her arm would move as she handed you change. At home, my mother would slice them and they were perfect and we’d put them on our hamburger buns with a little Russian dressing.

Sometimes we’d just say “There she is!” and keep driving because she wasn’t always out. Was she Polish? Probably. Always with the scarf, and she didn’t really communicate in English. She was an enigma because she wasn’t predictable, didn’t talk and was rooted to the ground due to her weight and the fact that she hardly moved. She just sat staring straight ahead as traffic rolled past her all afternoon long.

The light turned green. My mom’s foot switched from the brake to the gas. I turned my head and looked into her face. Who was she? Where did she come from? I was tired from a day in the sun. I kept my eyes on her until the little wooden shack rolled out of sight. What would I do that night? Meet up in Wincoma, drink beer and keep low on the sand when the cops came?

My Eyes Adored You played on the radio. My dad was already gone.

Advertisements

Memory 2: Natalie

Sailors don’t have many dry-land lessons, but one is learning the points of sail: beat, reach and run, that our instructor drew for us on a blackboard on a gray rainy day when we had no chance of going out.

We’d all squeeze on two wooden benches in our gear room. Tall white lockers lined the walls and were filled with sail bags, spinnaker sheets, anchors, Clorox bottle bailers and a mess of screws, blocks and shrouds. In the air you smelled dry salt, chlorine from our hair and the pool below and French fries from the snack bar next room over.

In the air you smelled dry salt, chlorine from our hair and the pool below and French fries from the snack bar next room over.

Chad would draw an arrow pointing down from the top of the blackboard. This was the wind. Then he’d draw the hull of a boat pointing at a 45-degree angle to the wind. This was a beat. 90 degrees was a reach. He’d then explain beam reaches and broad reaches, and how to trim our sails as our boat pointed to, or away from the wind. A run was also called going downwind.

Our other dry-land lesson was knot-tying. This we did on the lawn, on a day it was actually too breezy and we’d be flipping left and right. Our instructors had a book of knots they laid out on the picnic table, a rock holding the top pages down. We’d hunch over it, shoulders pressed. Bowline, square knot, half hitch, clove hitch, figure-eight, slipknot, sheepshank, fisherman’s bend.

My bowline was adequate. In my head, I’d recite, “The bunny goes up the hole, around the tree and back down the hole” while my eyes followed the line in my hands.

Not with Natalie. She tied knots in one fluid motion and you could tell by looking at her she wasn’t reciting anything about the bunny. A flow took over, an aloof intensity, as her long fingers just looped and swirled and thread, and then she’d look up, holding a carrick bend.

She tied knots in one fluid motion and you could tell by looking at her she wasn’t reciting anything about the bunny. A flow took over, an aloof intensity, as her long fingers just looped and swirled and thread, and then she’d look up, holding a carrick bend.

Our instructors timed us. Natalie could tie a bowline in less than two seconds. No one beat her. This was a win for us girls. Natalie beat all the boys in knot-tying.

Her aloofness was a quality she took out on the water. She’d sit on the windward rail, her wrist limp as she held the jib sheet, gazing out but not particularly caring if we were first or last around the mark. Her thing was swimming. She was a strong breaststroker on swim team. Results in the pool mattered so much more to her than on the racecourse.

She had a natural grace and her knot-tying was just an extension of it. She was tall and bony, with light brown hair that fell to her waist, big brown eyes and perfectly curled lashes. She had the habit of closing one eye in the sun so you’d talk to her and wonder if that left eye would ever open.

“Go!” Chad called, clicking his stopwatch. At three seconds, Natalie would look up holding the knot in her hands, and wait while the rest of us looped our sorry sheepshank or gave up entirely. There she stood, her head cocked, left eye shut in the sun, smelling of Herbal Essence and chlorine, smiling a victor’s smile.