Notes from Montauk

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There’s an old saying that there are people who behave as if they’re old when they’re young, and people who seem forever young when they’re old. Thanks to Nancy Leuters, who facilitated our meeting, we think we’ve recently met the poster woman for the latter classification.

Doris Constant is well named. Born February 3, 1914, she is a woman, at 94, who is constantly engaged in living life fully. Though she acknowledges that she’s become hard of hearing, her eyesight could be better and her memory as well, when doctors keep telling her she’s in such good shape, she asks, “If I’m in such good shape, what am I doing here?”

She attributes her basically healthy condition to being very active. “I don’t need help because I know how to do things,” she said with much pride.

Born in Amagansett of parents who were also born there, Doris relates that the family moved by means of a horse and wagon to a shack on Fort Pond Bay, site of the original Montauk hamlet. There was no electricity, a cook stove was the only source of heat, and an outhouse was an important accessory. Her father was a fisherman, her mother cleaned houses when she could. “I’ve been working since I was 11 years old,” she said, and often would stand on boxes to reach things.

She had three sisters and two brothers; all but one sister are deceased. Doris has a daughter, her son is deceased, and she has three step-children from her second marriage. She counts on her fingers seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “I like to tell stories to my grandchildren about how we lived then. They all say, ‘Grandma, no one could live like that.’”

One of her favorite stories has to do with President Theodore Roosevelt and the time she learned he was out on a yacht on Fort Pond Bay. “I said to my sister Mimi, ‘Let’s row out and see him,’ which we did.”

When a crewman appeared, she told him that they wanted to greet the president. “He came up, waved and said, ‘Good morning, girls.’” She later wrote a letter to the White House thanking the president for visiting Montauk. “Someone responded for him saying, ‘It was nice that you visited, Miss Sunshine.’” She doesn’t remember her age at the time. The letter, she added, was destroyed in the 1938 hurricane.

She also remembers when sympathetic trainmen used to throw coal from passing trains. She would pick it off the tracks because either that or driftwood picked off the beach was the source of fuel for the kitchen stove. “Our first school was a one-room schoolhouse over on a road to Duryea’s. I’ll never forget our teacher. He was a big guy who wore a big hat and smoked a cigar with his feet up on the desk,” she said with a chuckle. “Our next school was in two rooms at the firehouse. When this,” the current school, “was finished, three of us graduated eighth grade: Ellis Tuttle, my cousin Wendell Tucker, and myself.” Doris went to school in East Hampton for a short time but it became difficult to sustain because of family life in Montauk. “I don’t have an education,” she said.

Though Doris loves to tell stories about the early days, principally for her progeny as a life lesson on values, this wiry woman lives very much in the present. This is underscored by a host of her activities. Some of them include moving her refrigerator and furniture to paint her home (her above-ground oil tank is in lipstick red), gardening, doing crossword puzzles, and crocheting wool baby blankets for families who may be unknown to her. She also bakes and runs her own personal soup kitchen “for older neighbors.” She is an avid birdwatcher and has a parakeet named Pierre and a canary that live upstairs.

Through her work over the years at local restaurants and hotels, Doris grew to know a Colombian family of several generations whom she calls her adoptive family. “They love me,” she said with pride, “and I love them. They all call me Mama.” One of the members, who is a house cleaner, lives with Doris. “On the weekends, the kids come, and we all play together, though I can’t play soccer or run with them like I did.”

“I can laugh,” said Doris, who frequently does so as she speaks.

When she speaks of excesses she sees in Montauk and the lack of affordable housing, her tone changes as her sense of outrage rises and she stands up to make her point. “They [the Latinos] are such good workers. How can they live with their families? It’s just not fair to be building another theater and a swimming pool when people have no place to live.”

Doris lives frugally, wasting little, yet clearly enjoying every moment of her life. “No use being crazy unless you use it,” she says about her abounding joy. It sounds like a great mantra!

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Vote, vote, vote! Library director Karen Rade spoke to us emphatically about the importance of active participation on the library budget vote and for the trustee elections this Saturday at the library from 2 to 8 p.m. We shared a table with her at the delightful dinner theater at the Community Church last week. If we want to support the incredible, rich offerings and services of the library, we must get out and vote.

We’ll segue from that to the library’s return presentation by the Naked Stage dramatic-reading troupe on Saturday. The 7:30 p.m. play reading will be Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Set in the Midwest at the end of WWII, the drama examines the ethics of a man who places his duty to his family above his responsibility to the military personnel whose lives depend on the integrity of his work as builder of warplanes.

At 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, the library offers a lecture entitled “Italy Today,” presented by Dr. Mario Mignone. It will be an examination of the forces that have transformed Italian society in recent years.

On April 25, 6:30 p.m, the Montauk Library will offer the whole family Walt Disney’s movie, “Enchanted.”

This very full weekend calendar must include the annual celebration of Earth Day by the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, centered at Kirk Park. There will be a much-needed litter pick-up between 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., with bags and gloves provided. Earth Day 2008 T-shirts will be given to the first 30 kids who return to the park with full bags. And a live raptor demonstration will be on tap by the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center from 11:30 to 12:30. Refreshments will be available, too. This is a family enterprise, so we urge all to come and help clean and green Montauk.

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