Spending lazy afternoons sailing and canoeing in the bay.Photo Credit : Tim Clark
I learned to play tennis at Buffalo Bay, a little thumbnail of coarse brown sand on the Connecticut coast about 20 miles east of New Haven. Buffalo Bay was a great place to learn, because its roughly 20 acres contained three courts but only a dozen houses, and one could usually find an empty court for play or practice. You might have to wait for a while until others finished their matches, but it was such an enchanting spot that you didn’t mind—there was usually a cool breeze off Long Island Sound to blow away the mosquitoes and plenty of green grass and mature oak and maple trees for shade.
I was 20 years old when I came for the first time, drawn by May, a quiet girl from Minnesota I’d met in college. Buffalo Bay had been bought and developed around 1910 by her ancestors, shrewd Connecticut women who had noticed that wealthy families from all over the Northeast were looking for places to spend the summer on the shore. Some of their earliest tenants were from Buffalo, New York, and that’s how the place got its name.
May’s mother, Dr. Elizabeth Lowry, who owned several of the shingle-style houses on the property, maintained the matriarchal tradition. They were big buildings—a “cottage” could have a dozen bedrooms—but they were strictly for summers: no insulation, no central heat, perhaps a fireplace or two for chilly evenings. When Labor Day came, the tenants went home, and the owners covered the furniture with white sheets and turned off the water.
All the other houses on the bay were owned by May’s relatives, so when she and her brothers and sisters came east from Minneapolis in the summers, they found plenty of cousins with whom to play tennis or field hockey (the unofficial family sport), or to splash in the inoffensive waves that ran up the little arc of beach beneath a stone-and-concrete seawall that guarded the first row of houses.
In those days, Buffalo Bay was a paradise of grass, trees, sand, and water, bounded by the Nuns’ Beach on the east and a jumble of rocks with names like “Turtle” and “Lamb Chop” on the west. Three miles out in the sound was Faulkner’s Island, with its lighthouse ever sweeping the shore.
Cars that used the one-lane dirt road meandering through the lush lawns never drove very fast; the bushes were full of cottontail bunnies; egrets and cormorants stood like sentinels in the shallows. And if a kid suddenly needed a snack or a bathroom, he or she could go into any house and find family.
May helped me learn tennis, but mostly my teacher was her mother. Betty Lowry was a little woman and 41 years my senior, but she’d been playing tennis all her life, and she had high standards. There’s a family story that Katharine Hepburn’s brother, who lived just up the shore in Old Saybrook, was once sweet on Betty and played tennis with her. When I asked her why that romance had not blossomed, she answered tersely, “He had no backhand.”
Betty taught me all about the Buffalo Bay Bounce. The dirt courts that we played on, though faithfully rolled and swept after every match, inevitably lost their perfect flatness. There were hillocks near the end lines and shallow valleys in the service courts that deflected tennis balls in unpredictable directions. When that happened, etiquette limited a player’s reaction to a shrug and the ritual protest: “Buffalo Bay Bounce!”
You shrugged because it was chance, or God’s grace, that sent that shot caroming crazily away from your racket. On the next shot, you might benefit from the same divine intervention. The Buffalo Bay Bounce giveth, just as it taketh away.
In teaching me the rules of tennis, Betty also taught me the rules of a larger game—an ethos. Buffalo Bay had rules, too, unwritten and unspoken, but indisputable. There was no shame in recreation. Recreation was what Buffalo Bay was for: “re-creating” the Garden of Eden. And as in that garden, one could be ejected for breaking the rules.
Betty was endlessly patient, but she would not abide a tantrum. If I swore, or threw a racket, the lesson was over. If I ran around my backhand, backhands were all she would hit me—and she could hit them all day long. I played singles with her into her late 80s and never won a set. Once I ran up a 5–0 lead and relaxed just the tiniest bit. Final score: 8–6, Betty.
When you played, whatever you played, you played the right way. But you played hard. That was also one of the rules. A visiting friend once spent a few days there, and left muttering about the “Buffalo Bay Decathlon”—tennis, softball, field hockey, swimming, sailing, canoeing, fishing off the rocks, crabbing in the East River, hiking, biking, all done at full speed.
It could be exhausting. But Betty lived to be 100, and when she surrendered her driving license (at around 90), she took to riding her bike everywhere, despite being legally blind and mostly deaf. And with the birth of every new grandchild (15) or great-grandchild (17), she would chortle, “I win!”
I won, too. We played doubles with her friends, all of them decades older than I and infinitely kind. My strokes were rarely worthy of praise, but they went out of their way to encourage me when I raced back or forward or from side to side to try to return a shot I had no business even trying for. If I reached one, I’d pop up a feeble return that one of them would swat away effortlessly, then pipe up, “Good get!”
It was a perfect metaphor. Neither of my working-class parents went to college, and while winning a scholarship to Harvard opened the door to social and professional advancement, in truth, I hit the lottery when I married May. Good get, indeed.
For many of the same reasons it was a wonderful place to vacation, Buffalo Bay was—and still is—a perfect place to get married. It was there, on my first visit, that I told May I loved her. She replied with a single word referring to bovine excrement.
She was right. As usual, I was getting way ahead of myself. She knew it was far too early for such declarations. It would be another two years before I asked her to marry me, and she said yes. We planned to do it at Buffalo Bay, but it was a cold, wet, dismal day, so we took our vows at Betty’s farmhouse a few miles inland.
We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in 1998 by hosting the wedding of our daughter, Liza, and her intended, Jonathan, at Buffalo Bay, where both of her brothers, Dan and Joel, would also be wed in years to come. This time, it was a lovely day in June, and we’d prudently rented a big tent with a dance floor for the party. Jonathan’s father, a minister, led the service. Dan and Joel were among the groomsmen, and the ceremony took place under a maple tree with a view of the sound. I recited “A Little Tooth,” by Thomas Lux, for my six-foot daughter:
Your baby grows a tooth, then two, and four, and five, then she wants some meat directly from the bone. It’s all over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet talker on his way to jail. And you, your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue nothing. You did, you loved, your feet are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.
It’s dusk, 20 years later. I’m not the lovesick swain of 1970 but the grandfather everyone calls “Grumpy.” We are sitting around the table in our own house in Buffalo Bay: me and May (“Grammy”); Liza and Jonathan and their three children; Dan and his wife, Holly, and their two little girls; Joel and his wife, Crichton; various cousins. We rue nothing.
I am asking them questions about Buffalo Bay and what it means to them. They know a different Buffalo Bay than I do. I have never been a kid here.
So I don’t know, as Joel does, the urgency of getting in another few minutes of play as the light fades every evening. Or the sense of innocence, as Crichton explains: Eden before the Fall. The colors in the late afternoons, Liza recalls, the way the light turns the summer-baked grass golden.
It’s not perfect. I ask them what they don’t like about Buffalo Bay, and they shout out a long list as if they once again were children: “Cold water! Jellyfish! Bugs! Poison ivy! Stepping on nails! Parents who call you to come in before you’re ready to go to bed! The Buffalo Bay Bounce!”
Then I ask them what they associate with the word dusk, and that’s harder. But Crichton nails it.
“What we’re doing right now,” she says. “Sitting around the table after dinner, telling stories, laughing. Grammy is clearing the table. Kids are going in and out, banging the screen door and letting in a million mosquitoes. Moms and dads are putting the babies to bed and shushing us when we get too loud. And Grumpy is doing the dishes and smiling.”
How long can this blessing last? The upkeep on these seaside houses puts enormous financial stress on their owners—we rent ours out 50 weeks each year just to pay the taxes.
Sea Cliff, the house from which Betty watched the Hurricane of 1938 claw away a sizable chunk of land, is out of the family now; one of the smaller family cottages was sold a few years ago, and the new owners have torn it down and replaced it with a much larger place. All week, during our last visit, we played and swam to the background noise of clanging, grinding, and crashing as another house in the front row was demolished to make way for something newer and grander.
There is heartbreaking conflict between cousins about the future ownership and use of three other family houses. When she gave these cottages to her children, Betty worried they might be poisoned gifts, too big to maintain, too small to share with growing multigenerational families.
When my youngest granddaughter is tall, what will have become of that little village of salt-weathered cottages overlooking Buffalo Bay? Will it be a gated fortress for millionaires only? Will rising seas drown Turtle Rock and Lamb Chop Rock, or even overtop the seawall, as they did briefly during Superstorm Sandy?
Or will it endure, endlessly changing but ever the same? The seas might not rise as high as we fear; the family might find a way to work it all out among themselves. Twenty years from now, we might be sitting around the dinner table in a pool of light and laughter as darkness falls.
It depends on us. It depends on how we play the Buffalo Bay Bounce, the undeserved, unpredictable, uncontrollable act of God or fate that gave us this green and lovely gift a hundred years ago, and can take it away, too.